Will the eagle face the dragon in Kathmandu?Kathmandu can boast of having more foreign policy analysts per square kilometre than anywhere else in South Asia.
On the way back home from an 'informal' summit meeting with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Chinese President Xi Jinping spent about 20 hours over the weekend in Kathmandu. Billed a state visit, he was given a ceremonial welcome befitting the head of state of the second most powerful country in the world.
In the very first section of the 14-point joint statement issued at the conclusion of the state visit, the host and the guest agreed to elevate the Nepal-China relationship to a 'strategic partnership'. Perhaps in the realisation of the military connotations of the adjective, the signatories qualified the term with an unambiguous explanation: it was for 'cooperation featuring ever-lasting friendship for development and prosperity'.
The international media focused its attention upon Indian anxieties. Long considered a backyard of New Delhi, Kathmandu had overnight become a 'strategic partner' of Beijing. The Indian media predicted 'a reduction in Indian influence' as a possible outcome of the visit. The self-fulfilling prophecy seems to be coming true, but that has more to do with erosion in the 'soft power' of Indians in the international arena than the allure of the Beijing Consensus, the attraction of Belt and Road Initiative and the acceptance of Xi Jinping Thought in Nepal.
In any relationship between asymmetrical countries, coercive diplomacy often turns out to be counterproductive. First, the USSR and then the USA have found in Afghanistan that when a relatively smaller country has nothing to lose except its self-respect, its militants fight ferociously to resist foreign interference in their domestic affairs.
Learning from the experiences of the Cold War, dominant countries have developed their distinctive models to gain friends and influence people in client states. Befitting a global power with the biggest economy, largest military and the most dominant culture in the world, the US exercises what has been termed 'smart power'. Defined as 'the ability to combine hard- and soft-power resources into effective strategies', smart power is a euphemism for the Big Stick policy of President Theodore Roosevelt that relied on a West African proverb which impels: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far'.
The Chinese began to run an empire long before the Europeans had formalised the concept of territorial sovereignty with the Peace of Westphalia. Mandarins of the Chinese Empire developed a system of tributary relationship with regimes in the neighbourhood with which they exercised cultural and political hegemony without appearing to be too obtrusive.
In 2017, journalist Juan Pablo Cardenal recognised the modified version of imperial strategy with a pointed name—'sharp power'. Authoritarian regimes, such as the one in Beijing, exercise economic heft, propaganda machinery and persuasive interlocutors to 'manipulate and co-opt culture, education systems, and media'. All the rest fall in place in due course of time.
The so-called 'soft power' is somewhat idealistic and appeals to regional powers aspiring to maintain their domination on the cheap. It's such a nebulous concept that only an academic could have come up with it. Political scientist Joseph Nye Jr of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University coined the expression in the 1980s to denote 'the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion'.
India began to harbour diplomatic ambitions far in excess of its relative strength on the global stage soon after its independence. It had to rely on 'soft power' for very practical reasons—centuries of colonialism and the violence of partition had sapped the energy of the once-proud Indian civilisation.
Jawaharlal Nehru articulated the model of self-determination for newly independent countries in forceful terms. The centrality of democracy in politics, the practicality of mixed economy for development with social justice and the expediency of non-alignment to maintain one's dignity in the comity of nations proved to hold an enduring appeal for decolonised countries of Asia and Africa. The efficacy of New Delhi's 'soft power', however, has begun to wane everywhere.
Under the demagogic populism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, democratic decay in India has accelerated to such an extent that some commentators have begun to fear its slide towards autocracy. Instead of being the watchdog, Indian media has become what it's critics call the 'Modia' that enjoys being the lapdog of the ruling regime.
Even though sometimes more honoured in breach than in observance, the policy of secularism had made India stand out as a beacon of political modernity for ethnic minorities everywhere. With the rise in the incidences of mob lynching, especially in the states of the 'cow belt', it's unlikely that New Delhi will be able to maintain its secularist pretentions any longer.
Despite occasional lapses, the Indian judiciary had managed to maintain its integrity through thick and thin. Even that seems to be changing for the worse with the rise of politically committed judges in the courts and the emergence of retired judges in partisan politics.
The institutional rot was stinky enough, but 'saffronisation' of education threatens to undermine the very foundational idea of India for the foreseeable future. Having lost the soft power—its only basis of exercising influence abroad—New Delhi seems to have realised that it has to synchronise its foreign policy with that of the US to maintain whatever role it still has in international affairs.
Of late, the US has been quite willing to address Indian insecurities. The Pacific Rim Strategy of the 1980s didn't envision any role for New Delhi. Even the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Initiative of the early-1990s excluded South Asia. President Barack Obama took India on board with his security-centric 'Pivot to Asia' proposition.
With an aggressive China breathing fire down its neck like a ferocious dragon, the US needs all the allies it can court to contain the challenger in its Asian lair. The Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad, are aimed more against China than at strengthening the relationship between member countries.
With the Bald Eagle flying strategically low and the Golden Dragon flexing its tactical muscles, South Asia is likely to be the ring of a new Cold War. Located bang in the middle of two of the most populous countries of the world, Kathmandu remained an important watch-post for Cold Warriors till the late-1980s.
Then US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, resident envoy in New Delhi and accredited also to Nepal, placed his bets on both sides by providing an 'election fund' to King Mahendra as well as BP Koirala to counter communists. Ambassador Carol Laise Bunker helped bankroll the Panchayat experiment in soft authoritarianism even as her partner in 'commuter marriage' ran the Vietnam War. The Bunker Boys that the power couple nurtured in Kathmandu in the 1960s and 1970s continue to influence strategic choices of Nepal to this date.
Largely due to its locational advantage, Kathmandu can boast of having more foreign policy analysts per square kilometre than anywhere else in South Asia. Possibility of another Cold War seems to excite the cluster no end. But China isn't another USSR and a coalition of the insecure countries ranged against the Middle Kingdom isn't the self-assured victor of World War II. When too many confused players trample in an arena, the grass just doesn't get crushed, it turns into hay. Neutrality is an impossibility, but disinterest is a practical option.