Rebuilding the golden windowAs global giants differ in their outlook of connectivity, countries like Nepal will play a role in bridging competing powers.
In the famous Golden Window of the Patan Durbar (Patan Palace) in Lalitpur, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is represented emanating all the Hindu divinities from his body. Above him, however, are forms of Vishnu (or Shiva and Parvati, depending on the interpreter) and, below the window, Garuda. The central figure expresses Buddhist superiority, but this representation is then encapsulated in a frame suggesting the opposite. For those who want to see their preferred views confirmed, the window works beautifully. For the more philosophical, it depicts a complex exercise by which your initial views are criticised and then raised to a higher level.
The complex cosmogony is also a reflection of political realities, showing the consummate skill with which the Malla kings tried to navigate a diverse religious landscape and appeal to different constituencies.
In some fundamental ways, history never changes. Today Nepal faces an equally diverse geopolitical landscape and its rulers have been forced to address the problem that so consumed the Malla kings: how to create a political iconography that somehow affirms opposite truths and pleases everyone?
Nepal is expected to be an important part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Not only is it located in China’s immediate neighbourhood, but it also plays a critical role in the development and stability of Tibet. In time, it may also help China build bridges with India to the south. As it becomes clearer that the economic corridor being build across the full length of Pakistan can only increase the tensions between the two Asian giants, countries such as Nepal and Myanmar grow in geopolitical importance.
Given its own development needs, Nepal may be expected to benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative. This is a country in desperate need of infrastructure—my recent road journey between Kathmandu and Pokhara left no doubts about that—but also of further integration into global industrial chains. As a function, in large measure, of its geographic challenges, Nepal has struggled to be included in Western-led industrial chains. There is no sustainable development without such integration. If China now offers Nepal a second chance, decision-makers in Kathmandu may well conclude it is a chance worth taking.
At this point, however, other considerations come into play. For all the advantages Nepal could gain from greater Chinese investment and trade, there is equally much to be lost. Its privileged relations with India would doubtless be strained. Many people in Delhi see Nepal as part of an Indian sphere of influence and would not take lightly the growth of Chinese presence and influence in the country. Authorities in Kathmandu will have to chart a course allowing both their neighbours to interpret the geopolitical situation on their own terms. In this complex game, they have much to learn from the artistry of the golden window in Lalitpur.
A further and unavoidable factor is, of course, the United States. News reports last week revealed that the government in Nepal is carefully studying how the United States plans to counter China’s Belt and Road. Will it develop a rival initiative, already provisionally dubbed the Indo-Pacific Strategy? And will countries be forced to choose between them?
Like many other countries in Asia and even Europe, Nepal would prefer not to choose. Its development needs would be better served by working with every interested party: China, India, America and, when possible, also the European Union and Japan. But can this be done in an era of increasing geopolitical competition?
Connectivity is the obvious answer, but we should keep in mind that connectivity is, in the end, less about transport and communications than about the way in which different political and civilisational models can be articulated in a single whole. This is, above all, an intellectual effort.
For a long time, the effort seemed successful. China was rising, but for Americans, it seemed that Chinese success was ultimately to be interpreted as an instance of American success. Conversely, American hegemonic power was interpreted by Beijing as providing China with a benign global environment for its own development.
That this particular framework under which to integrate the two models has now collapsed does not mean that every framework is bound to fail. What it means is that we must strive to develop a new way to reach the same result. The golden window must be rebuilt.
It may be intellectually and practically challenging. It may take time. There may be setbacks. But it can be done and countries such as Nepal are destined to play their role.
What do you think?
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