The yam between two loose bouldersNepal may profess non-alignment in its foreign policy, but the signals it’s sending out are contrary to them.
In 1954, Mao Zedong quoted the ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan to Jawaharlal Nehru in one of their first meetings in Beijing: 'A great sorrow it is to bid adieu/A great joy it is to make friends anew'. This was a heady time; both countries had shaken off the shackles of imperialism, and they saw themselves as leading postcolonial Asian and African countries into a new century. The two had recently signed an agreement on Tibet, and things looked rosy.
Of course, just five years later, Mao would be convinced Nehru wanted to carry on the mantle of British imperialism in Asia by interfering in Tibet. The McMahon Line, delineated by a colonial administrator as the boundary between British India and Tibet in 1914, became the primary area of contention, while in the west, the two countries sparred over control of the Aksai Chin thatcf China deemed vital to its control over Tibet. By 1962, war had come, and any dreams of a unified Asian dawn, with two of its largest nations taking the continent forward together, had been shattered.
The violent face-off in Ladakh this month is another one of those ‘inflection points’ in the history of India-China relations. For nearly four decades, starting from Deng Xiaoping’s rapprochement towards Rajiv Gandhi and culminating in the deep bonhomie between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, the differences between their perceptions of the border had not led to disputes, as the Chinese like to say. The two nations became more economically integrated, and despite erratic border face-offs, each side tried hard to defuse the issue by creating more mechanisms that would not allow such stand-offs to escalate to violence.
Unfortunately, this can no longer be said. The deaths of military personnel in the Galwan Valley are a tragedy; but equally, as a former Indian ambassador to China has said, 'for some minor tactical gain on the ground…[China has] strategically lost India'. On the Chinese side, Beijing has blamed India for incursions, but little is known about why it led to a loss of lives that had been prevented in previous stand-offs.
As calls for revising Delhi’s approach to Beijing get stronger, there’s equally a call for a relook at India’s strategic autonomy. A recent paper has dwelt in detail about the US-India strategic relationship, which 'has not blossomed into the quasi-alliance that many in Washington had hoped for', since India had been reluctant to posit itself too strongly against China through the Indo-Pacific alliance and the Quad military grouping, while Russia remains a key strategic partner and a friend it trusts, as seen during this week’s meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China.
However, Beijing’s military assertion along the Line of Actual Control against India’s rising infrastructural capabilities, which seems to have been one of the primary causes behind the recent face-off, will now be of greater concern to Delhi. Even as it devises economic countermeasures against China, there will be a time period, as the paper suggests, during which 'Washington is unlikely and unable to intervene on India’s behalf in a potential crisis'. India may now seek to reduce this period, if not align itself with the US. Already there is a subtle shift in the way Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar called for ‘respecting international law’ and ‘recognising legitimate interests of partners’ at the foreign ministers’ meeting. A former Indian foreign secretary has also called for building India’s maritime strength in 'collaboration with like-minded countries who share our concerns' as India seeks to address the growing military imbalance with China. And reports suggest western diplomats have already begun reaching out to India against China. What is certain is that the nature of India’s engagement with China will change from hereon.
Then there is Nepal—with its insistence on non-alignment, and yet signalling a mismatch between its spoken word and ground realities by holding a virtual meeting between the ruling party and the Chinese Communist Party this past week. The MCC courts controversy for its associations with the Indo-Pacific security doctrine, but new anxieties have begun to emerge from the north post-Ladakh.
Chinese commentators have begun to acknowledge the Belt and Road Initiative may also have a military component, with a recent op-ed in the Chinese state tabloid Global Times invoking Pakistan’s and Nepal’s border disputes with India and saying 'both of them are key partners under the China-proposed [BRI], if India escalates border tensions, it could face military pressure from two or even three fronts, which is far beyond India's military capability and this might lead to a disastrous defeat for India'. Whether it’s a one-off extrapolation by a ‘wolf-warrior’ isn’t known, but the statement is worth mulling over.
There is little indication (and also inclination, if one might add, after the constitutional amendment) India will agree to hold talks with Nepal over Kalapani any time soon. Similarly, despite the US Embassy’s clarifications and willingness to discuss the MCC, there have been no approaches from the Nepali side, despite much back-and-forth within the ruling party. But what do we make of Nepal’s professed non-alignment when Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, chairman of the ruling party, announces at the virtual cross-border conference with the CCP that Nepal will not accept any foreign assistance with a security component?
It is widely known that partisan interests are driving Nepal’s foreign policy at the moment. Kathmandu may not have realised it, but the international geopolitical situation is changing swiftly, and with the Ladakh episode, there is an urgency that was unrealised so far. Nepal can no longer afford to send out incoherent and inchoate messages, nor can it resort to protest politics to drive its policies. It must be aware of its strategic limitations, and to what extent can it afford to punch above its weight. The foreign policy establishment may want to examine the global state of affairs before the country finds itself in a position it cannot extricate itself from. Non-alignment works best if the optics accompany it; not if actions differ from words.