Parallel military diplomacyNepal should seek to retain the status quo with India and promote technical cooperation with China.
Successive presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao sought profound changes in China’s military owing to international, regional and domestic developments. Moving beyond the conventional military structure and guerrilla positioning to win land battles, the leadership impelled deterrence to prepare the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for regional wars. Nevertheless, this required a dramatic development of naval and air forces, expansion of conventional missile forces and indoctrination of the PLA. However, the limited authority of the Chinese Communist Party over the PLA prevented the desired outcome.
Eventually, all of this transformed after the National Congress in 2012. Under China’s new political leadership, the military witnessed unprecedented reform. One of the stimulators was China’s preferment from middle power to a major power in the international rankings. Certainly, Deng Xiaoping’s economic policies are worthy of acknowledgement, for only an economically competitive state can meet its military and political demands. Against this background, President Xi Jinping heralded stringent military amendments to build a "world class military" equipped with the knowledge of modern warfare technologies.
Building on these capabilities, the PLA has expanded its defence budget, which stood at $229.6 billion in 2022. China’s mobilisation of this budget depends on its national security interest. What is important is the spread of this budget in promoting military diplomacy. In recent years, China’s global influence and its complex bilateral relationship with the United States has contributed to setting the parameters for its military diplomacy. Beijing has actively reached out to countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa to advance its foreign policy objectives through military diplomacy. Opportunistic in nature, some countries in these regions have made the most from this engagement. Notably, in South Asia, countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, through these collaborative efforts, have sourced modern defence equipment and secured technology transfers and financial support for research and development. While Nepal, critical to Beijing’s security, has failed to seize this opportunity.
Hybrid security equation
Nepal’s military diplomacy with China since Operation Chusi Gandruk has not regained momentum. During the initial phase of military diplomacy, Nepal secured limited transfer of arms and ammunition, and conducted joint training capable of only resisting internal threats. At present, the focus has drifted from deterring traditional threats to non-traditional threats. Yet, an analysis of China’s military aid/grants to Nepal paints a grim picture. A substantial share of this aid focuses on building the disaster management capacity of Nepal’s security institutions, followed by support for peacekeeping operations and infrastructural development. Even though Nepal’s military doctrine underlines multiple dimensions of traditional and non-traditional threats, the nature of military aid from China is scant.
In an era of hybrid threat instigated by technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, unmanned autonomous systems, 3/4D Printing, biotechnology, quantum computing and advanced robotics, can the nature of aid and assistance from the world’s third largest military power to Nepal be quintessential? In addition to the minuscule financial assistance directed towards building a resilient security force, its delayed release makes the recipient country vulnerable. The inability of Nepal to galvanise these issues only exhibits immature negotiation skills. Given its poor internal capabilities, it is inconceivable for Nepal to fend off any technological threat to its national security without striking a skilful bargain with external actors.
Changing warfare techniques demand non-conventional expertise to reinforce an active security preparedness strategy. Regardless of such demands, confining military diplomacy to established practices can undermine the morale of Nepal’s security institutions and challenge its existence. At a time when the “struggle for power” is overtaking the liberal world order, the possibility of protracted warfare has revived. The Russia-Ukraine war is the most technologically advanced conflict the world has seen that reflects the necessity of artificial intelligence and automation to win a modern war. Though Nepal’s economic status, human expertise and goodwill prevent rampant military build-up through weapons transfers, it can determine an alternative to strengthen its deterrence capabilities.
Indeed, this possibility depends on the prowess of Nepal’s security apparatus to exploit the military diplomacy that China employs to buttress its strategic interests in the region. In this context, a keen analysis of the diplomatic practice between Southeast Asian countries and the Pentagon can help restructure Nepal’s military diplomacy with China. A few countries in the region have manipulated the strained ties between the US and China to build competent armed forces by warming up with Washington. Although the triad dynamics between the US, India and China positions Nepal in a favourable spot, it displays ineptitude in materialising the situation. Therefore, in the face of growing threats of a sophisticated nature, it’s high time for Nepal to rethink its military diplomacy with the North and beyond, which has the potential to supply the technical know-how necessary for developing a technically competent military force.
Sand guards in the room
Although Nepal’s foreign policy adheres to the basic principle of peace and doesn’t indulge in offensive acts, it doesn’t restrict institutional reform to compete with the existing security complexities. Yet, the factors that thwart Nepal from upgrading its military are too abstruse. Among multiple reasonings, contemporary Sino-India and Sino-US relationships afflicted by cynicism and hostility substantially modules Nepal’s military diplomacy. It is an unpalatable political reality, but India’s security interest does take broader preference in governing Nepal’s foreign and security policy. On several occasions, New Delhi has ensured that Kathmandu would not compromise New Delhi’s security in its rendezvous with Beijing. Likewise, China’s security emanates from the possible instability in its western frontier via foreign intelligence in Nepal. Interestingly, Nepal’s spatial position forces the regional powers to reckon with Nepal to safeguard their national security interest despite its conspicuous security capability. However, Nepal’s inability to manoeuvre the situation only allows the external actors to capitalise on their national security interests while conducting military diplomacy with Nepal.
But, in an era where “national interest” has subjugated the economic and security policy of many countries, the discord between the national security authorities, diverged views on national security interest, insatiable political ambitions, weak intelligence capabilities and representation question Nepal’s potential to garner its national security interest.
Looking at the institutional arrangement, the Ministry of Defence, which is responsible for formulating, delegating and coordinating Nepal’s security policy and strategy to the concerned security entities, has become the most disoriented and lethargic institution in the country. The National Security Council is nothing but a political gambit. Moreover, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, devoid of skilful lobbyists, is unable to practice nation-favoured diplomacy. Likewise, the executing bodies duped with political infiltration are gaining attention for internal factionalism and conflicting roles. Such events promote disintegration within the security apparatus, encouraging each to pursue entity interests over the national security interest. The existing fragmentation, thus, exhibits incongruency and conflicting opinions while practising military diplomacy with multiple stakeholders, particularly China.
Under this circumstance, Nepal’s hedging capacity will only allow limited engagement with China in terms of security maximisation, given the India factor. A possible diplomatic arrangement with China could be moving away from the established practices that assist in deterring traditional threats. Thereby, Nepal can adopt a parallel military diplomacy that allows it to retain the status quo with India and promote technical cooperation with China that dissuades the offensive parameter of security cooperation.