Fault lines in foreign policyNepal’s western border issue is on the backburner and there has only been a coy response from political elite.
The foreign policy of a small landlocked country is determined by various factors that do not necessarily exist in big countries with their own specific environments. The physical location and other qualifications needed for a reckonable big power cannot be equated with the criteria of a country (Nepal) sandwiched between the two potential world powers, China and India. For all countries, geography determines, to a large extent, the bases of foreign policy. The location of the United States of America has many supporting factors for being confident and secure in international affairs, although other qualifications needed for a big superpower are no less significant. So the same degree of strategic autonomy is not possible for countries whose geographical conditions, level of economic development, internal political stability and leadership credentials are not favourable.
During the heyday of the non-aligned movement, member-states had the imperatives of taking independent policy decisions allowing them to be assertive when the circumstances favoured them. Nepal’s decision to develop relations with the People’s Republic of China, Israel and Pakistan in the 1950s and its manoeuvrability displayed in the early 1960s, particularly relating to the opening of the Himalayan frontiers, were taken as Nepal’s climax of foreign policy independence. Nevertheless, King Mahendra, who projected himself as a thoroughbred nationalist, had to reckon with all-encompassing Nepal-India relations that bound the two countries together from time immemorial. On the one hand, he was cultivating relations with China when India was dragged into a border conflict with the former; he didn’t ignore the implications of strained relations with India on the other. While pursuing such strategic autonomy, he reached an understanding in 1965 with India that enforced mutual security relations between the two countries. However, such reiteration of mutual security arrangements didn’t prevent Nepal from unilaterally asking India to withdraw its security personnel from Nepal’s northern borders. How policy autonomy was not exercised at the cost of India after the latter played a decisive role to carve out a new republic of Bangladesh in 1971 was prompted by the cognisance of emerging regional politics where India’s action could not be halted despite Chinese and US threats of punitive counter offensives against it.
Birth of Bangladesh
Nepal not only departed from its stand that favoured Pakistan on the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs (Pakistan), but demonstrated its resilience when it chose to abstain from voting at the UN Security Council resolution moved against the Indian action. Such a dramatic change was prompted by the emerging trends that were going to recognise India as a regional power with much enhanced autonomy of taking decisions. China’s efforts to abort the birth of Bangladesh and rise of India as a competing regional power failed, nor did the US, then an adversarial power that supported Pakistan, succeed in restraining India either diplomatically or militarily.
Today, international politics is not favourable to Nepal as its traditional leverage of dealing with its immediate neighbours is shrinking due to deteriorating internal conditions and surging triangular power competition between China, India and the US. On the China issue, India and the US seem to be pursuing common strategies as both are concerned about China’s assertive postures they perceive in the Asia-Pacific region. China and India have been engaged in border conflicts for a long time, and despite the Chinese assertion that the borders are stable, India does not subscribe to such a view and maintains that unless the countries settle the border problem, no permanent peaceful relations are possible. Two divergent views were made during the recent Goa meeting of the foreign ministers of China and India. China’s close strategic relationship with Pakistan and India’s growing hostility with Pakistan have made regional politics more complex. And countries like Nepal, which have been using the old playbook of foreign policy strategies, seem to be in the diplomatic wilderness. The almost abandoned Foreign Ministry and foreign ministers who are permanently novices have reduced dexterity. Such a plight is further increased by the myopia and lack of sensitivity of the leaders of political parties to institutionalise rule-based political development. Consequently, politics has been made the last refuge of scoundrels who, despite their past contributions to liberate the people from traditional authoritarianism, seldom show their seriousness in devising a common strategy to salvage the country and people from the crisis of governance. So it is meaningless for someone to talk about foreign policy when the whole political system has been crumbling under the weight of corrupt politics, clumsy administration, politicised education, faltering moral standards in every walk of life, and above all, lack of strong commitment to the core values of modern democracy.
The decisions taken for scoring short-term political benefits (electoral or others) cannot prepare the ground for a pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Nepal has exercised political autonomy on different occasions, the latest example being proclaiming the present constitution despite Indian pressure to postpone it for some time. Yet, when countries differ on core areas concerning their security and territorial interests, the scope for compromises may be difficult.
The issue of Nepal’s western border including Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura was handled with less strategic calculation for upcoming bilateral negotiations with India and more with emotive nationalism short of realism. Politicians of all hues and strengths scrambled to be identified as “nationalists” without considering the implications of parliamentary approval of the new map by two-thirds, a constitutional requirement for determining the border. Nepal and India have opposite views on the issue, as India does not recognise the new map that extends Nepal’s territory to Limpiyadhura. India called it a “cartographic assertion” of Nepal and hence unacceptable. Now the border issue is in limbo, along with a coy response from the Nepali political elite.
How the Nepali elite handle the foreign policy agenda has been glaringly demonstrated by their approach to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of the US and China, respectively. In the case of the former, politicians behaved quite strangely, displaying both cudgels and support. Their denunciation of the MCC soon turned into acceptance for getting it passed by Parliament. All major parties that had taken opposite stands earlier became its supporters, even risking Chinese pressure against it. On the BRI, despite the bilateral agreement, the parties seem to be lackadaisical about implementing the project for fear of falling into a debt trap.