The ground shakes when a big tree fallsThe US willingly ceding its diplomatic space in Nepal to the Chinese sounds improbable.
Even as news outlets were readying themselves to call the US presidential election for former vice president Joe Biden, the present incumbent of that high office tweeted from his fantasy land: 'I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT! [sic]'
Perhaps too embarrassed by the outrageous assertion to call it an outright lie, Twitter put a simple disclaimer: 'Official sources may not have called the race when this was tweeted.' Freedom from Trumpism can be expected to make the US re-engage with the rest of the world in a rational manner.
To be sure, America’s withdrawal from the global stage wasn't so sudden. The job of carrying the burden of a unipolar world after 1990 was getting to be tiresome. The domestic economy was hollowing out as production moved out to countries with lower factor cost and relatively easier operation under the benign watch of authoritarian governments. The 2008 financial crisis exposed increasing vulnerabilities of the preeminent superpower as the US was shown to be the biggest debtor of the Chinese credit.
The US occupation of Afghanistan had begun to sap the energy of its defence establishment. The invasion, occupation and continued warfare in Iraq had proven to be debilitating. Looking back, President Barack Obama's much-maligned 'leading from behind' foreign policy was the necessity of a time when the US wanted to distribute some of its global responsibilities to its trusted allies.
The economies of Japan and South Korea were expected to share some of the cost of protecting common interests in Asia. India and Indonesia were encouraged to mature from being mere recipients of diplomatic favours and emerge as contributing partners of the strategic manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean. Australia was roped in to tie an alliance that would later come to be termed an 'Asian NATO'.
Once the SEAL Team 6 succeeded in snuffing out Osama bin Laden from his hideout in Pakistan, the US began to reduce its commitments in South Asia. By the time President Trump entrenched himself in the White House, the US has almost abdicated its role as the global leader.
Power abhors a vacuum and the Chinese quickly stepped in to appropriate the diplomatic space that the sole hegemon had vacated with its confusing signals in the region. The US saw India being encircled with what was called 'the ring of pearls' but expected New Delhi to fend for itself. It's Nepal policy remained almost unarticulated, enabling diplomats in Kathmandu to play favourites with political suitors and intellectual entrepreneurs of contrasting hues.
In the early-1950s, Washington synchronised its Nepal policy with those of the South Block in New Delhi for very practical reasons. Nepal was, and remains so to a large extent, virtually India-locked. Intentions of the communist regime in China weren't very clear. By the end of the decade, however, Kathmandu began to get special US attention as an appropriate watch post to keep an eye on the immense trans-Himalayan landmass.
Unhappy with Prime Minister BP Koirala's increasingly direct access to the US, New Delhi probably began to decouple its approach towards the regime in Kathmandu from those of Washington in the early-1960s. The Sino-Indian Border Conflict of 1962 did bring a convergence of interests between the two biggest democracies of the world for a while, but the bond wasn't strong enough to withstand the pressures of US commitments to CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation) of which Pakistan was an alliance partner.
The US practically bankrolled King Mahendra's authoritarian adventures in the name of Panchayat politics and remained the chief patron of his experiments in institutionalising guided democracy. Indians waited, and watched their influence wither away.
In 1971, India signed the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation with the Soviet Union to counter the influence of the US-Pakistan alliance in the region. Fearful of Soviet influence expanding in Asia, the US changed course and started courting China through ping-pong diplomacy.
Kathmandu in the 1970s was a playground where the Americans, the Chinese, the Indians and the Soviets competed to recruit the local elite through various friendship associations to expand their network of informants. Before long, the competition was reduced to three, as the Soviets decided to gradually withdraw from what it considered to be India's backyard.
When it came to choosing a springboard for his secret trip to Beijing, Henry Kissinger preferred Islamabad over Kathmandu. Despite the constant repetition of its fealty, defenders of the Shah regime had failed to win the full confidence of the US establishment.
King Birendra's proposal that Nepal be declared a Zone of Peace was clearly aimed at undermining the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950, which would have benefitted the Americans as well as the Chinese and strengthened the anti-Soviet alliance in South Asia. That was something that even the Janata Party government (1977-1979) in New Delhi wasn't willing to concede.
The fall of the Soviet Union in early-1990s brought New Delhi and Washington together once again, forcing the Chinese to chart an independent course. Due to its earlier deals with palace officials, Beijing already had friends in high places. Political contacts developed early in the 1960s were renewed. Nepal Communist Party's adherence to Xi Jinping Thought is rooted in the history of party to party relations formed with the Chinese way back in the 1950s.
By the early noughties, the three outside players in the power games of Kathmandu—China, the US and India—were acting almost independent of each other. The three-legged instability ended with the intensification of armed Maoist conflict and the Narayanhiti Massacre. It emboldened the newly-enthroned monarch to try playing one power against the other, which ended up antagonising everyone in the process.
The 12-Point Understanding reached between seven political parties and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in November 2005 ended king Gyanendra's attempt of re-establishing the supremacy of monarchy. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed a year later offered a roadmap for the future of the country.
Just as in the Shah Restoration of 1951 and the reinstatement of parliamentary democracy in 1990, New Delhi had played a decisive role in the resolution of the armed conflict and the overthrow of the royal-military rule in 2006. In a hurry to foist Hindutva politics upon Nepal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to humour the old elite in Kathmandu and threw away the gains within a year of assuming office. Under his jingoistic watch, India has now become the sick man of South Asia with little or no influence beyond its borders.
Since the Trump administration had no coherent policy towards Nepal, whatever the Biden-Harris duo does from the White House will be a change, whether for the better or for the worse remains to be seen. However, it's extremely unlikely that Washington will fully trust New Delhi.
The US willingly ceding its diplomatic space to the Chinese sounds even more improbable. The allure of the Beijing Consensus notwithstanding, institutions of the Washington Consensus continue to exercise immense leverage in the political economy of Nepal. Little wonder, Supremo KP Oli appears jubilant despite political threats from his party colleagues.
Strange as it may seem, regressive forces in Nepal are celebrating the triumph of liberalism over Trumpism in the USA with more gusto than conscientious liberals. That said, do light a lamp this Deepawali to keep the flame of democratic hopes alive.
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