Dahal’s darn diplomacyNepal should address its neighbours’ genuine concerns but also counter exaggerated ones
Prime Minister Puspa Kamal Dahal has claimed that Nepal’s relations with both its neighbours improved significantly after ‘successful’ visits by his two special envoys. As soon as Dahal took office as prime minister, he sent Deputy Prime Ministers Bimalendra Nidhi and Krishna Bahadur Mahara to India and China respectively in mid-August. However, beyond his often repeated ‘balanced diplomacy’ platitude, virtually nothing seems to have changed on the ground.
So far, China has a dispassionate understanding of how Nepal should deal with its two neighbours. To borrow a statement from Prof Dai Yonghong, Deputy Director at Centre for Nepal Studies in Sichuan University, ‘India is Nepal’s relative and China is her good friend.’ This should be enough to suggest that China is not looking for any balancing act from Nepal vis-a-vis India. Understandably, the southern neighbour too is probably unhappy to see Nepal putting China on a par with India given that Nepal-India relations are “special” in every sense of the term, extending well beyond official diktats and definitions.
Except for a few assurances of high level visits—particularly Dahal’s visit to New Delhi in September and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kathmandu en route to India in October—both envoys hardly achieved anything new or substantive. Instead, they tried to sell some false promises.
India and China have clearly defined and converging priorities about what to expect from Nepal. They are: security, stability and strategic control, almost in that order. In June, when KP Oli, allegedly China’s favourite, was the prime minister, Chinese authorities abruptly closed the Korala border point on the 13th day of a cross-border trade fair that was to last for 25 days. On August 24th, a similar closure took place on the 12th day (out of 15), citing low volume of cross-border trade. The true reasons, however, were Chinese security concerns. Whenever Chinese authorities have noticed the movement of some monks, suspected to be Dalai Lama’s supporters, they have resorted to similar actions. There may be many other excuses, but this is the main reason why China has been reluctant to open the Kodari border point after last year’s Gorkha earthquake.
India has constant, and not unfounded, complaints about Nepal being a transit route to ‘miscreants’ and counterfeit currency dealers. It also has a bigger concern about China entering into the domain of Indian influence via Nepal. The Chinese worries are not smaller either, regarding the emergence of various anti-China alliances in both the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions, specifically in the context of Chinese
assertiveness in the South China Sea. Against this backdrop, the apprehension of either neighbour about Nepal’s closeness to the other is likely to augment. The success of Nepal’s foreign policy, therefore, lies in our ability to assure both our neighbours that their genuine security concerns will be addressed so as to prevent them from becoming a permanent reason for strains in relations. Equally important is Nepal’s ability to counter made-up or exaggerated concerns employed as bargaining tools to advance their other vested interests. The visits of Dahal’s special envoys do not seem to have touched upon these issues.
Nepal’s political stability is arguably a priority of both the neighbours. Their interpretations, however, are starkly different. The sarcastic smile of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when Mahara mentioned the Nepal government’s preference for political stability, was not only widely covered in media, but it also showed the former’s suspicion about the sincerity of Nepal’s political class to work for such stability. For China, stability in Nepal means cessation of political meddling in the name of democracy and increased assertiveness of the state authority so that the state’s commitments become credible.
For India, however, greater authority of the Nepal government is secondary to the needs of addressing concerns, like those of Madhesis, and amending the constitution largely according to its own prescription to ensure lasting peace, mainly in the southern plains. This is exactly where the Dahal government has made false promises to India. It is evident from the existing parliamentary arithmetic that the ruling alliance does not have the required two-thirds votes to amend the constitution to accommodate Madhesi demands by changing provincial demarcation. The opposition CPN-UML is unyielding in this matter. But Dahal, on the one hand, has promised to accomplish the impossible and on the other hand, has planned to moot the amendment motion right before his visit to India, just to demonstrate that he is committed. This is pure chicanery.
It is high time that Nepal frankly conveyed its own priorities and limitations in dealing with its neighbours. First, Nepal must convincingly convey that she is aware and capable of addressing genuine security concerns of both the neighbours. Second, given the geo-economic realities, Nepal must not be forced to perform a balancing act between the two neighbours. For all practical reasons, its relations will remain India-inclined, at least for the foreseeable future. Third, it must be conveyed clearly to India that constitutional amendment must not be a precondition for furthering the entire gamut of bilateral relations. It is not only because the task of amendment is going to be an uphill struggle due to highly polarised politics but also because the demand for delineation is in itself a highly volatile and contestable issue. And fourth, Nepal must have the guts to propose a review of India’s policy to reorient it to view Nepal more holistically, rather than through the narrow lenses of Madhes politics.
The quest for strategic control by both India and China is a new reality that Nepal has to live with. The latest study report, “Australia, India and the United States: The challenge of forging new alignments in the Indo-Pacific”, released in August 2016 by The United States Study Centre in Sydney University, sums it all: ‘It is becoming increasingly clear that there are too many divergences of strategic interest to make a ‘swing’ by India towards China realistic and, indeed, nor has China shown interest in courting India as a strategic partner.’
In the light of these emerging realities, mere utterance of the old principles of Panchsheel or ‘balanced diplomacy’ will not be enough to address Nepal’s foreign policy needs. To begin with, Nepal can formally make a push for both neighbours to spare it in their strategies of geo-economic and geo-political control.
Wagle, a former editor of the economic weekly Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst