Three’s a crowdNepal’s dream of becoming a bridge between China and India may remain elusive
A fresh look into Nepal’s relations with both of her powerful neighbours, India and China, indicates that they will never be like they were before September 20, 2015, the date Nepal promulgated a new constitution. Some optimists, at least in theory, still hope to mould these relations into a Sino-Nepal-India triangle. But emerging regional and global geopolitical trends, including the dominance of Deng-brand communists in domestic politics, suggest that Nepal-India and Nepal-China relations are more prone to be dichotomous than trilaterally symbiotic.
Ironically, the entropy in possible Sino-Nepal-India relations was triggered by the five-month-long harsh economic blockade imposed against Nepal by India to express its displeasure at the new constitution. It had multifaceted ramifications. The blockade angered even the apolitical Nepali populace due to the hardship they had to suffer. It provided an ultra-nationalistic political plank (read anti-Indianism) to politicians like Prime Minister KP Oli who probably would been removed from power long ago had there not been a blockade. India’s four subsequent diplomatic blunders pushed Nepal’s left-and-reactionary coalition government to reach out to China for support. This, in turn, created space for Beijing to meddle in Nepali politics too.
First, India failed to welcome Nepal’s new constitution. Second, it unfairly imposed an economic blockade to oust the Oli government. Third, it treated the Madhesi cause as being more dominant than overarching national issues in bilateral relations. And fourth, after inviting Prime Minister KP Oli for an official visit last February, New Delhi utterly humiliated him by refusing to even issue a joint communiqué on the visit. On the contrary, Beijing not only welcomed Oli exactly a month later but also signed all the agreements that he put forward, although many of them are barely of symbolic or propaganda value. China appears resolute to see that these agreements are implemented.
With this, India’s presumptive yet perennial allegation that Nepal often played the ‘China card’ ultimately proved self-fulfilling, albeit with the script a bit altered. This time Nepal did not play the card, rather China opted to be a ‘factor’ in Nepali politics. For the first time in 60 years of diplomatic history, China chose to bet on making or breaking Nepal’s political power equations. It threw its full weight behind the Oli-led ruling coalition to save it from falling apart. Beijing not only thwarted Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s prime ministerial ambitions but also admonished both leaders about the ‘promises’ they had made to ensure political stability until the recent agreements saw progress in implementation. This surefootedness was unprecedented.
Together, China embarked on the project of ‘expansive Sino-Nepal engagement’. During the past nine months, it has hosted some 40 official delegations of varying statures from Nepal and organised half that number of visits by its officials to Kathmandu. Interestingly, barring a couple, all the Nepali delegations represented communist outfits or left-leaning academia and ‘China-friendly’ media. The Chinese authorities are also reported to be keen to connect Nepal, in whatever symbolic way possible, to their ambitious one belt, one road (OBOR) project, despite the fact that Nepal is nowhere near to any of the proposed routes.
21st century cold war
Still, despite Beijing’s willingness to increase engagement, why cannot Nepal’s relations with India revert to normal? The answer is not as simple as the official ‘already returned to normalcy’ platitude. The space for rational thinking has drastically shrunk in Kathmandu’s elite power corridors. Anyone who argues in favour of the indispensability of reviving Nepal-India relations, given our multifaceted and multilayered nature of interactions, may now instantly be dubbed as an Indian agent. To make things worse, New Delhi does not seem to accept the fact that the blockade was a sheer diplomatic misadventure. Fragmented and mostly divergent perceptions about Nepal among India’s political, diplomatic and intelligence pillars are resulting in ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ policies, like the blockade. There is hardly any willingness among Indian decision-makers to check the facts and listen to alternative arguments from the Nepali perspective. Nepal too has failed miserably to create back channels and debate forums in New Delhi so as to communicate facts at the decision-making and public levels. Indian self-righteousness still rules the roost.
Nepal’s interests can be best served only if these two giant neighbours rise above the intent of keeping it under their respective spheres of influence and limit themselves to supporting the cause of economic prosperity. But global geopolitics is pulling these two countries increasingly apart on a competitive rather than a cooperative course. The epicentre of a 21st century Cold War could very likely be at our own doorstep. This is because one bloc led by the US and seconded by India and another bloc led by China have already begun to compete in more than one sphere. The recent formation of two anti-China strategic alliances—US-Japan-India-Australia quadrilateral and
India-Vietnam-Singapore triangle—are designed to encircle China in the aftermath of the South China Sea maritime dispute. China, too, has been looking for avenues to counter Indian advancement in international forums like its bid for permanent membership in the UN Security Council or the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
To add to Nepal’s worries, the chances of cooperation between these two seem to have further dwindled after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington, DC in the first week of June. The US diplomatic establishment invented two sets of fresh eulogies to impress him. First, it was claimed that consolidated bilateral relations created a ‘principled security network’, putatively, to deal with the ‘axis of evil’. The underlying imperative for the ‘security network’ was to jointly counter the lately perceived ‘insecurity’ in the South China Sea. Second, the coinage of the name ‘Modi Doctrine’ by American, not Indian, diplomats to recognise Modi’s foreign policy of ‘co-opting strategic partners’ with ‘democratic’ dispensations implicitly derides the Chinese one-party communist polity.
These realities pose some imminent risks to Nepal with regard to maintaining balanced yet fruitful relations with both her neighbours. Signals are aplenty that Nepal’s politics may be split vertically along pro-Chinese and pro-Indian camps in the not-too-distant future. In the event of India failing to acknowledge, above everything, that the blockade was a blunder and review its series of failures in Nepal policy, the anti-Indian hyper-nationalism is likely squeeze the democratic space, fostering a left-leaning dictatorship in domestic politics. The dream of becoming a vibrant bridge between two prosperous nations may remain ever elusive.
Wagle, a former editor of the economic weekly Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst