The Nepal factor in the Indo-Pacific strategyNepal should not rush to side with either of its neighbours carrying hegemonic ambitions in the region.
Gaurav Raja Dahal
The term "Indo-Pacific" primarily denotes all the countries of the Asian region. Although not maritime and without any archipelago, Nepal, located at the epicentre of Sino-Indian rivalry, has significant geopolitical implications here. As such, Nepal has its priorities and interests from the shifts in ongoing global power dynamics. Like other small states, it also has expectations from these conflicting superpowers and newly formed multilateral partnerships and arrangements.
This struggle for global power is also bound to end, be it with a unipolar, bipolar, or even multipolar global order. Despite the outcome, like any other rational state, Nepal also desires to stand on the victor's side and reap the benefits of the victory. But to achieve this, Nepal must form its own set of strategies and policies to cope with this changing power dynamics. And this can be only accomplished by a careful analysis of the ongoing vortex in the region.
Reliance on the US's commitment
The recent withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan has shown that Nepal, as a small power, cannot rely solely on US aid commitments. Especially in the region, where America's influence as a global hegemon is weathering because of China's rising influence coupled with its development assistance. The world witnessed Afghanistan—a member of SAARC—which also shares many features of Nepal, being abandoned at the hands of the Taliban. Since then, much has been written condemning the Biden administration's move as insensitive and against the general sentiments of small states. Furthermore, this event drove a wedge amongst the small powers and the international community, anticipating that once the US can find mutual grounds with China or has achieved its cynical objective or even failed to do so, it may withdraw from its commitment in the region and leave behind countries like Nepal on their own at China's disposal as was evident in Afghanistan.
Similarly, in mid-April, when the pandemic wreaked havoc on India, instead of stretching out its hand to help to sway India, the Biden administration shrank back its pandemic diplomacy to wartime protectionism, imposing an embargo on the export of raw materials for manufacturing the vaccine. As the US blamed domestic political constraints for the imbroglio, it exposed its inability to play the role of a global leader in dealing with the crisis. On the contrary, India's perceived adversaries—China and Pakistan—offered to help the distressed neighbour.
As far as current US policies are concerned, there is broad consensus and anticipation among more minor powers that India, which still considers itself the hegemon of the South Asian region, lacks military and economic capabilities to counter China. As such, India, with its proximity with China, puts it at risk of being exposed and of being left alone as the fall guy when things worsen between its other security partners and China during this strategic competition.
Sino-Nepal relationship build-up
Through the contemporary exchange of agreements, whether BRI projects or frequent visits of high-ranking officials, these two countries have built a solid relationship based on cooperation. This foundation was further solidified by the ham-handed diplomatic stance of India in 2015 as it denied the freedom of transit and imposed a blockade over land-locked Nepal for promulgating its constitution against India's liking. This five-month-long economic blockade was imposed even as Nepal was recovering from the devastating earthquake. This caused distrust in its southern neighbour and saw the surge of anti-Indian sentiment among the Nepali public. This also forced Nepali leadership to look further north for other possibilities to escape from the presiding asymmetrical interdependence with India. Since then, there has been a gradual shift in Nepal's diplomatic stance and strategies favouring its Chinese counterparts. Apart from this, India as a regional hegemon has also not been able to mend its constrained relationships with its other smaller neighbours.
Like other like-minded smaller states, Nepal is also in no place to choose sides yet. Like them, Nepal is also doubtful of the commitment made by the QUAD members to it and in the region, especially from the recent events of Afghanistan and the surge of the global pandemic. Nepal has been gravitating towards Beijing, effectively intriguing and charming smaller powers with its BRI projects, vaccine diplomacy, and similar public health projects. Beijing's assurances of mutual prosperity have been somewhat comforting to these small states in the region compared to the US and its allies. This is also evident from the refusal of the implementation of MCC by Nepal and the 2019 Colombo port set back where Sri Lanka unilaterally pulled itself out from the East Container Terminal (ECT) agreement which India and Japan were supposed to build jointly.
What's in it for Nepal?
China has been showing interest in achieving shared economic prosperity and offering its assistance to its smaller neighbours through several BRI infrastructure projects. On the contrary, the so-called Indo-pacific strategy with the QUAD framework in the region is struggling to find common ground and mutual interest to align strategy and interests among member countries. Over time, the region has been dumped with a plethora of similar inadequate networks of alliances and frameworks to deter a resurgent China. The recent one was the trilateral security partnership or AUKUS pact between the US, the UK, and Australia, which was also condemned by their close security partner, France. These strategies and partnerships are desperate attempts to move forward to more ambitious security arrangements to deter China and its influence over smaller powers.
In this scenario, with the decreasing US influence, Australia's heavy reliance on the Chinese economy, Japan's pacifist security policy, and India's compliance to UNCLOS-related rules and regulations followed by its insufficient structural power compared to its rival China, the QUAD framework and Indo-Pacific strategy as a whole are yet to prove itself to be a custodian of the international law in the domain. At present, much remains unknown of its future trajectories. Nepal is in no rush to side with either of its two neighbours carrying similar ambitions of hegemonic control in the region. Nepal should have contingencies that interpret the Indo-Pacific strategy differently from these superpowers, i.e. suitable to its stature. Its implication to Nepal is to downplay its role and instead form sophisticated policies, neither agitating nor wooing either side but instead reaping the benefits from these multilateral frameworks to advance its marred public health and summon technologies to face common challenges like the climate change crisis. Nepal should articulate its expectation of their assistance on innovations and technologies, especially in education, energy, and infrastructure development, without compromising its agency.