Maintaining a delicate balance between the immediate and extended neighborhood is the best way for Nepal to realize its national interest objectives.
Nepal sits hemmed in between the Chinese administered Tibet and India’s Gangetic plains. Historically colonial Britain looked at Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan as buffer states between Russia and the Indian dominion and later between China and British India. China’s occupation of Tibet in the early 50s radically altered the security scenario for India along its Himalayan frontier. Now India had a long border with China which asserted territorial claims over vast tracts of Indian territory. China’s repeated episodes of aggressive behaviour towards India beginning in the late 50s, through the border war in 1962 and the intermittent tensions along the India-China border in recent years have given India enough reason to be watchful of the Chinese engagement with Nepal, with whom it shares a 1850 km long open border.
A discussion about Nepal’s geopolitical trajectory becomes all the more important in the wake of China’s renewed aggression against India and along the Nepal-China border. Just as China’s aggression in Ladakh stands unresolved, its alleged encroachment in Nepal’s Humla district stands unaddressed. Despite Oli government’s refusal to acknowledge the encroachment, reports and protests erupted in Kathmandu demanding an end to China’s encroachment in Nepal. In the past few months the Oli government’s closeness to China has come under constant scrutiny by opposition leaders in Nepal.
At present, China’s attempt to leverage its position in the Himalayan kingdom is clearly evident. Its adoption of a strong soft power strategy is first step towards that. It will help China in propagating its newly created “harmonious worldview” and “good neighbor policy” to neutralize the “China threat” theory that is a result of its aggressive posture. China is strategically cultivating its soft power in Nepal, through language and literature and further boosting cultural activities. Soft power shapes the preference of others through the use of attraction, which in turn legitimizes and enables hard power. China’s strategized soft power penetration in the long run would help the CPC in manipulating public opinion and furthering its ideological agenda.
Nepal is a key country in China’s BRI strategy. China’s promise of transforming Nepal from a landlocked to a land linked nation is debatable. Nepal has so far followed a cautious approach in dealing with BRI projects. International actors have cautioned Nepal of BRI induced debt traps that have affected countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Maldives. Countries where China has invested through BRI, like Djibouti, Zambia, Laos, Tonga, Kyrgyzstan, Republic of Congo have become entangled in debt traps. As of now, China’s BRI projects in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar have been stalled. A section of expert opinion has rejected the notion of China’s BRI’s debt trap diplomacy, and they have ignored the element of a lack of transparency in the decision making process. So far the mammoth BRI project which undoubtedly promises a political breakthrough for China offers little employment generation and limited impact for participating countries. In the wake of China-US trade war, the BRI opens opportunities for China to exploit the economic potentials in Asia and Europe and guarantees maximum economic and strategic gains to China and a very little by way of gains for recipient nations.
Nepal is India’s strategic neighbour. India expects it to maintain a delicate geopolitical balance, given the potential vulnerabilities of geography. India’s unique bond of bilateral ties with Nepal is unparalleled in Asia. Strong historical, cultural, linguistic and ethnic links have sustained their bilateral relations even in low ebbs. India’s geographical proximity has been the most important factor in expanding the magnitude of their bilateral ties over time. Nepal has an open border with India. An estimated 7-8 million Nepali nationals work in India. They can even own properties here.A large number of Nepali politicians have studied in Indian universities.
High level delegation exchanges are very common between both countries. Quite strangely a recent editorial in The Global Times irresponsibly referred to Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane’s recent visit to Nepal as a “PR ploy”. India and Nepal share strong defense relations and have been awarding the honorary rank of General to each other’s army chief in recognition of mutual harmonious relations between the two countries since 1950. India has been assisting the Nepal army in modernization efforts, providing training and supplying military equipments. Both countries conduct joint military exercise SURYA KIRAN alternatively in India and Nepal.
India and Nepal’s bilateral economic ties are also significant. India is Nepal’s largest export market and also the top investor of foreign capital stock. Sectors like hydropower, tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, education, mineral and energy have already exhibited a strong synergy in bilateral economic ties. India has been providing transit facility to Nepal to access sea ports for trading. India has even supported Nepal in the area of infrastructure, health, education, rural development and water resources. India’s economic assistance earmarked under ‘Aid to Nepal’ in 2019-20 stood at 1200 crores. During the devastating earthquake in 2015, India’s relief assistance to Nepal amounted to US $ 67 million, apart from the post earthquake reconstruction package of US$ 1 billion.
Reports suggest Nepal is formulating a new foreign policy document in tandem with the “fast changing geopolitical environment”. It is an opportune time for Nepal to diversify and expand its engagement beyond its immediate strategic neighborhood. Along with India, the foreign policies of countries like Japan and United States complement Nepal’s conception of its national interest embodying the goals of independence, dignity, economic wellbeing and prosperity.
Japan’s emphasis on “quality” investment to meet Asia’s infrastructure gap takes into account factors like debt sustainability, environmental and social impact, safety and reliability of the construction and local employment. Meanwhile given the US role in helping Nepal during Maoist insurgency, it is evident that US recognizes security and geopolitics of the Himalayan kingdom seriously. Education is already an important sector of the US-Nepal relations. The US remains the preferred choice for Nepali students.
The vitality of Nepal’s geopolitics must intersect with the changing security environment. Maintaining a delicate balance between the immediate and extended neighborhood is the best way for Nepal to realize its national interest objectives.