Triangular connectivityNepal should try to gain the trust of both India and China by resolving domestic issues
The word ‘connectivity’ has been widely used in recent South Asian official and non-official discourse as the economic underdevelopment of the countries in the region and their low capacity to engage in regional and global activities have prevented them from being well integrated. South Asian countries are physically integrated despite being separate political entities as nation states while divergent elite perceptions and actions have contributed to creating psychological and policy gaps between them.
During the British colonial period, South Asia was the most integrated region due to a coherent economy and more or less symmetrical strategic and other policy options. Yet, as Robert Kaplan has cited in his book The Revenge of Geography, geography continues to be counted in “strategic and tactical military sense, a political sense, and culturally defined territorial sense, and physical systems”. Although in those days the China factor was not as much a concern as it is today, the southern power always laid its eyes on the north. The triumphant Red revolution in China and its immediate impact on Tibet prompted the rulers of independent India to follow the same old British approach, albeit with some modifications, to continue India’s relations with Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim.
India’s connectivity with the Himalayan states was thus freshly manifested in the special treaties it signed with them with an eye on prospective Chinese foreign policy initiatives articulated in accord with the spirit of the revolution. India, for its part, was quick to reconcile itself to the new geopolitical reality by accepting the Chinese presence closer to its borders and of the Himalayan states. Thus, it promptly established formal diplomatic relations with China hoping that the new China would abide by the principles of peaceful coexistence and friendship. Although formal connectivity between Nepal and India had existed since the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, the follow-up measures taken by the two sides with the 1950 treaty came in a modified form. The recruitment of Nepalis into the British Indian Army and its present continuity has maintained the status quo.
The open border regime that fulfils both the recruitment agenda and the cross-border movement of people without any hindrance is also a testimony to the extensive relations between the two countries. It has been proved that even wars and their consequences can bring the two countries together as the British not only applauded the fighting quality and sincerity of the Nepalis but also opened new vistas of relationship by deciding to recruit them into the British Army. The independent Indian government inherited this mutual arrangement, despite oppositional overtones of some party leaders who styled themselves as radical unless they become systemic and beneficiaries of the government.
For Nepalis, Kolkata was the hub for elite connectivity as members of this class found it to be the centre of attraction for a variety of reasons—business, entertainment, health and education. Later, using the open border and employment opportunities made available for Nepalis in India, the connectivity transcended all forms of mutual relations. The importance of pilgrimage and other forms of interconnections either through the open border or through structural arrangements made by the two sides have reinforced connectivity. Indian radio and movies have made no less a contribution to reinforcing the connectivity.
Nepal-India relations occasionally suffer from some pinpricks due to miscalculations and divergent elite perceptions. Sometimes, the arrogance of big power and the failure of its neighbours to comprehend its aspirations and pre-eminent position plus other intervening factors or “India’s overbearing dealing with neighbours” as India’s former foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey has written, create adverse conditions for vitiating relations. Similarly, the failure of Nepali politicians to delink the domestic political context from external influence while trying to solve internal problems as speedily as possible has cast a dark shadow on bilateral relations.
The issue of Tarai-Madhes into which India was unnecessarily dragged is the making of our own political leaders of some major parties who failed to see emergent developments in a new light and perspective. The Tarai, which is now being over-sensitised, is also a fulcrum of Indo-Nepal relations both by being proximate to all forms of interdependent relations and for its importance as a virtual economic lifeline for the entire country. Here, the question of diversification of transit and road connectivity with China arises. Almost 98 percent of Nepal’s trade passes through India even though it has transit rights as a landlocked state. The opening of northern entry points, therefore, cannot make even a small contribution towards lessening Nepal’s dependence on India, nor can China become a substitute for India.
Moreover, China has its own regional and global calculations with a delicate balance with India. Symbolically, Chinese ports may be counted, but they are not likely to be economically viable. Some overzealous lobbies in Nepal might interpret it as yet another milestone in Nepal’s foreign policy, which is true to some extent, but it does not belittle the significance Kolkata (Haldia) port or any other port (Vishakhapatnam) in India. China’s cautious approach to prospects of burgeoning trilateral relations between Nepal, India and China has been hinted at by Chinese President Xi Jinping during Prime Minister Oli’s visit to China.
So China is anxious to make its Silk Road project a component of trilateral connectivity that, in its calculation, will become real only when India too accepts and helps remove mutual suspicion and distrust. The Chinese rail link project that envisages, if it materialises, connecting Rasuwagadhi with Kathmandu and Lumbini, and India’s budget allocation for doing a feasibility study of a Kathmandu-Kushinagar-Lumbini (Buddhist circuit) rail link can only be meaningful if such projects are taken as the new beginning of trilateral cooperation.
In order to make it an acceptable project, Nepal should try to gain the trust of both India and China. If Nepal allows its domestic situation to remain turbulent, the building of trust between Nepal and its two neighbours will not be possible. Nepal, instead, should devote itself to developmental work and the consolidation of the Constitution with appropriate amendments to ensure the ownership of all sections and regions as far as possible. Let the present political conflict be set at rest by resolving some contentious issues raised by the Madhesi parties and other stakeholders. Since foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics in the given context, the sooner it is resolved the better will be the prospects for
Baral is a professor and former ambassador of Nepal to India