Time for Pax Sinica?The Chinese have shown that even Americans need their indirect consent to have their way.
The inevitable has finally materialised, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) pact that was signed and sealed in 2017 has finally received the obligatory ratification from Parliament. The United States grant of $500 million to fund energy and transport infrastructure can now go on stream. Operational challenges, however, appear to be built into the parliamentary declaration. In an explanatory note, Parliament has incorporated its understanding of the Compact and resolved to keep its implementation within the constitutional ambit. Such a unilateral assertion of reservations may be contestable. The US Embassy in Nepal has pointedly refused to take note of the so-called Byakhyatmak Ghoshana (Interpretive Declaration) in its official statement.
The pro-MCC lobby consisting primarily of the Nepali Congress Party and its supporters in the media, the intelligentsia and civil society are jubilant that the February 28 deadline for ratification hasn't been missed. The anti-MCC forces that included almost all hues of communists and their fellow travellers seem to be in low spirits.
Diplomatic manoeuvres for or against the Compact has also been out in the open for several months. After normal channels appeared to be floundering, the MCC headquarters sent its vice-president of Compact operations, Fatema Z Sumar, to canvass support for the pact. The organisation upped the ante even when such a high-level visit failed to produce the desired results. US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu made personal calls to Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, CPN-UML Chair KP Sharma Oli and Maoist Centre Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Public interpretation of personal calls is often speculative. But the supposed Lu "lecture" got so much flak that the US Embassy in Kathmandu had to publicly reject reports that it was threatening Nepal to accept its grants. The Chinese began their overt and covert campaigns to convince pro-Beijing politicos to look the gift horse in its mouth. The US propaganda machinery had to mobilise all its resources in Kathmandu to prepare the ground for ratifying the MCC pact. All that the Chinese had to do to delay and dull its effectiveness was take pot-shots at the proponents of the deal. In 75 years of US-Nepal relations, perhaps it was the first time that the donor had to make so much effort to make the recipient accept "a gift from the American people".
The victory in the battle of perception about US aid has been pyrrhic at best. The Chinese have shown that now even Americans need their indirect consent to have their way in a country that remained firmly in the Western camp during Cold War I (1948-88).
Cold War II perhaps began formally when China and Russia declared a "no limits" partnership on the opening day of the Winter Olympics. It was an announcement of the end of rapprochement reached between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in the early-1970s. Implicit in the joint statement was that President Xi Jinping shall retain control over an unequal relationship between the unchallenged leader of the second largest economy of the world and the presumptive proponent of neo-Russian Eurasianism President Vladimir Putin.
Russian roulette is potentially a fatal game and an act of bravado consisting of "spinning the cylinder of a revolver loaded with one cartridge, pointing the muzzle at one's head, and pulling the trigger". President Putin's adventurism in Ukraine may not cause his immediate downfall, but it will further erode the chances of Russia becoming an essential player on the global stage. The US didn't exactly cover itself in glory when it offered to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. President Zelensky spurned the proposition with a curt answer, "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride," and exposed the duplicity of the putative superpower.
The response of the European Union has been comparatively more robust in terms of crippling sanctions upon Russia. Still, it is yet to consider the Ukrainian request for an "immediate accession". It seems Europe will have to learn to stop looking towards the US for succour during every strategic crisis. The failure of the EU to emerge as a credible alternative to US hegemony has left the space open for China in the international arena. Even the Chinese haven't been able to play a proactive role in the Ukrainian imbroglio, but it wasn't expected of Beijing to get involved in an EU-Russia showdown. That President Xi has managed to retain his equanimity in a no-win conflict—support for rule-based international order in Kyiv but loyalty to the strategic partner in Moscow—has infuriated the Western media but kept Beijing out of the ensuing mess.
Among other things, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has displayed the efficacy of armed power and its vulnerabilities at the same time. While the argument that militaries fight with their weaponry is true, it's equally important to remember that families of soldiers on the frontline matter no less in a prolonged conflict. If the Russian rouble continues to tumble, run on the bank intensifies, and consumables begin to diminish at convenience stores, the nuclear stockpile will prove to be meaningless. While hard power is sturdy, sharp power is spikier.
The Chinese seem to be better prepared for the future with their diverse networks. The Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS) as a possible alternative to Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) and its little empires (WeChat, Weibo and others) that have kept techno-giants such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram outside the "Great Firewall of China" are enduring assets. While deftly managing the post-war institutional structure of the UN System for strategic advantage, the Chinese have succeeded in building a slew of international alliances to buttress their hegemony in the new world order. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) has proved to be a non-starter, but its potentials remain intact. Only Beijing has deep pockets to keep the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank rolling.
The transcontinental political, economic and security alliance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is an ambitious experiment, but the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is likely to reinforce the long-term goal of the Belt and Road Initiative of establishing a web with Chinese nodes in Asia, Africa and South America. The relative strength of the Beijing Consensus over the Washington Consensus lies in its adaptability to suit local conditions. It has been observed that such an approach holds great appeal in countries with weak constitutional organs, fragile civil societies and "state capture". Nepal fits the bill for Chinese hegemony perfectly.
The MCC saga has upset Beijing but has failed to rattle it enough to respond. An aphorism about functionality holds that the more complex a system, the greater the importance of small parts. War-torn Kyiv is a long way from conflict-prone Kathmandu, but the predicaments of marginal countries are somewhat similar. Whether it's Pax Americana (Latin for American Peace) or its Sino-Russian alternative, the fact of realpolitik is still the same: "The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must."