Foreign policy: Aspirations and realitiesPoliticians raise the border encroachment issue rather than take the necessary steps to remedy the problem.
Balancing aspirations and realities is key tests of sound foreign policy. If aspirations override realities or the limitations of a country, then foreign policy strategies tend to give rise to jingoistic nationalism under which the power elite take refuge for survival and continuity in power. But realities are also contextual as time and environment need to be adjusted to the changing realities. It is more so for a small and landlocked country like Nepal whose manoeuvrability is low because of the geography which continues as a determining factor in foreign policy.
The issue areas under discussion today are basically related to the southern neighbour, India, because of natural proximity, civilisational commonalities and historical antecedents. Now the historical baggage seems to be overbearing on Nepal due to the changing geopolitical environment and political trajectory prompting both Nepal and its neighbours to set priorities of the three neighbours—Nepal, China and India. It seems that the new aspirations of Nepal have collided with the perceptions and interests of the traditional neighbour, India, but at the same time making China comfortable as such developments try to fulfil its objectives. India insists on the continuity of traditional relations as laid down by the 1950 Treaty, while Nepal wants to modify some aspects of traditional relations in order to meet the aspirations of today’s Nepal.
Nepal wants to appear as an independent country in both de jure and de facto senses. It has been said that the 1950 Treaty does not show such a status as Clause 2 and the letter accompanying the treaty require the two parties to forge a joint strategy to avoid any threat stemming from a third country (by implication China). Although the touted security provisions have been diluted over the years, India has neither consulted Nepal during its wars with China and Pakistan nor did Nepal want to be dragged into such strategies directed against another immediate neighbour.
Why India has not accepted this reality and aspiration of Nepal to appear theoretically neutral between the two neighbours is worth pondering. The defined parameters of India’s foreign policy come into conflict with Nepal’s for a country’s foreign policy, notwithstanding geographical limitations and other factors, needs to be renewed from time to time. India itself is thinking to revisit its traditional foreign policy objectives and principles in order to take a pragmatic course for realising its short- and long-term security and other interests. The latest developments that have taken place along the Sino-Indian borders, and asymmetrical relations with China, have prompted India to find alternative approaches to conducting foreign policy. The Indian minister of external affairs has indicated such recourse in order to be cognitive of the shifting power balance in world politics. Thus, even the traditional concept and dynamics of non-aligned foreign policy have to be redefined and adjusted according to time and context.
India needs to review dispassionately the new trends of India-Nepal relations, despite numerous unbroken links existing between the two countries. What fundamental difference may arise if India moves forward to revisit the strong dose of bilateralism laid down by the treaty? Given the wide-ranging, deep and close cultural, geographical and historical relations, besides being the closest natural neighbours, Indian initiatives to review and make some adjustments in certain areas of conflict would definitely change each other’s perceptions. Nepal too cannot be captive to its conventional strategies that have had often been activated for achieving political objectives.
Rulers in crisis or in strong pursuit of ambitions try to discover an enemy by taking resort to extreme forms of nationalism. But they are short-lived. Nepali rulers cannot go beyond certain points by way of cultivating relations with China at the cost of another neighbour. Nepal cannot also ignore the vital security interests of India; nor will it be able to project its independence by encouraging China to be its protector. Yet, developing trade, economic and other kinds of relations should not be construed by India as Nepal’s hostile policies. The opening of trade and transit routes or developing cultural relations with China should be considered as the ‘new normal’ of today’s international relations.
The existing open border between Nepal and India is another controversial area, although the open border and close people-to-people relations are the distinct features of bilateral ties. The open border can be managed more effectively by the two sides if the existing local mechanisms plus new ones to be devised are fully operationalised. Now the two sides have increased their vigilance capacity by putting the Seema Suraksha Bal and the Armed Police Force to regulating the border. Nowhere in the world, whatever tight mechanism is in place, can borders be fully controlled. In the given context, there should be no fascination for tightening the Indo-Nepal border because it is neither feasible nor practicable.
Dialogue only option
It seems that border problems recur due to the negligence of both sides. The established mechanism at the district level has not been activated; and when a problem arises, politics enters to complicate the situation giving rise to mutual recrimination. Politicians who thrive on such campaigns raise the border encroachment issue rather than take steps to remedy the problem. Moreover, in the context of the existing open border, problems arise occasionally which demand quick action to reduce them. In certain situations as that of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura, it may take a long time to find a reasonable solution to the issue due to the entrenched positions taken by both sides. But there is no other viable option but to sincerely hold dialogue from time to time.
Nepal has aspirations to be seen and treated as a genuinely independent nation. Its aspiration to become self-reliant and independent is not at the cost of good relations with India. Since the conventional method of playing off one neighbour against the other is both risky and irrational, the best way is to be candid in pursuing its immediate neighbours to be more accommodative in their relations with Nepal. And the reciprocity to be shown by them seems to be the only way to remove any kind of mistrust in triangular relations.
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