A reward of geographyThis is the most opportune moment for transforming relations with both India and China
In his first policy speech after being a member of the current Cabinet of Ministers at the Nepal Council of World Affairs, Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat outlined the foreign policy priorities of the new coalition government. Strengthening relations with the two immediate neighbours on the basis of trust was his top priority. Of course, the visits by deputy prime ministers as special envoys to India and China reflected this policy of the Nepali Congress-Maoist coalition and the desire of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal to highlight that good relations with both the countries are the primary goals of our foreign policy.
In his speech, Mahat asserted that protection and promotion of national interests are the permanent features of any government’s foreign policy. But he emphasised that sometimes the process and approach of governments can harm rather than promote national interests. For a country like Nepal, situated between two large and powerful neighbours, realising this universal truth of geo-politics is vital. Mahat made it clear that the present government’s approach and process in the pursuit of Nepal’s national interests while conducting foreign relations will be different from what has been followed by successive governments. In this context, he clarified that the government will try to strengthen relations with India and China on the basis of “trust, not emotion”.
Mahat also highlighted the forthcoming high level visits starting with PM Dahal’s visit to New Delhi and the visits of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and Chinese President Xi Jinping to Nepal. The visit of Mukherjee, a respected statesman experienced in Nepal affairs, will be a landmark in further cementing Nepal-India ties.
Still if the high level visits are to bear fruits, the government needs proper homework, planning and preparation. In his fascinating book The 21st Century Ambassador, Kishan S Rana quotes a well-known Canadian diplomat on how diplomacy has changed in this globalised era and new skills are needed to deal with multiple stakeholders. Handling the media, for example, is an extremely important part of effective diplomacy.
Of course, as Mahat highlighted in his speech, a few visits cannot be expected to achieve all objectives. They, however, create the necessary environment and begin to lay the foundation for building a relationship of trust and confidence based on an understanding of each others’ long-term necessities and aspirations. To this end, homework must have been done by the various institutions and individuals involved. Reports of some political consultations did come out in the media.
As far as Nepal-India relations are concerned, the areas that need transformation are already outlined. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal in 2014, he wanted (and hopefully still does) to transform India’s relations with Nepal. With one speech in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, he addressed with simplicity almost all the issues bedevilling Nepal-India relations. Nepalis, too, were convinced that there is a leader in India who genuinely understands their aspirations for a having a relationship best characterised by “if one side gets hurt, the other feels the pain”.
But since then, relations between the two countries have deteriorated rather than improved. This can mainly be attributed to Nepal’s political lords and their foreign policy barons who were unable to comprehend, let alone respond promptly to, Modi’s mega-message. The Indian media goof and the reaction of some Nepali politicians
and media to generous Indian response after the devastating earthquake started turning the clock back. Amidst muddled messages of high level visits, promulgation of the constitution last year and subsequent Madhesi agitation were the last straw that broke the camel’s back. While Modi was busy in his global “agenda for India”, actors thriving on adversity on both sides used the punitive supplies to hamper the relations, which reached a new low. Even intellectuals and diplomats missed the point of how the “roti-beti” relations were turning into a “dhoti-topi” confrontation. Amidst confusion, the progressive-nationalist coalition in Nepal tried to change the “unalterable bonds of time and space”, thereby ensuring its own exit.
A vibrant bridge
While politics is internal, geo-politics deals with external actors and factors. Proximity adds vitality, but complexities of inter-state relations demand high priority and sensitive handling. Leaving political rhetoric, institutional rigidities and partisan-personal interests aside, the recent past must have taught both sides important lessons on mutual interests. So this is the most opportune moment for transforming relations on the basis of each other’s political, economic and security needs.
The strength of our relations with both our neighbours is reflected in what a scholar-diplomat wrote long ago: “our foreign policy will break down at the point where either India or China looses faith in us and concludes her vital national interest and sensitivities do not receive proper recognition in the conduct of our relations”. A small nation between two large and powerful neighbours is geo-politically characterised as “the revenge of geography”. Nepal is fortunate to be situated between the world’s two great civilisations, huge countries and now prosperous economies. This makes translating “the revenge of geography” into “a reward of geography” a real possibility.
But changing a land-locked geography to a land-linked bridge is only possible with political vision and diplomatic expertise.
Robert Jervis, a professor of international affairs, suggests how “misperceptions can create havoc in foreign policy”. Henry Kissinger goes further, saying that in foreign policy it is often difficult to separate personalities and policies. Do enthusiasts supporting the land-link rhetoric realise that for Nepal to become a vibrant bridge, users on both sides must be confident that the bridge will not collapse and be ready to use it and pay the toll. The quality of the bridge and trust on the part of the owner are vital.
High level visits provide an opportunity to transform our relations with India and China, not as a reaction, resentment, comparison and complaint, but based on an understanding of long-term needs and aspirations. Beyond diplomatic niceties and expressions of genuine goodwill amongst close neighbours, high level exchanges begin to invariably deal with vital national interests, politics, economics, security, people, goods, roads, railways and so on. Now the question is: are we internally prepared to handle the traffic waiting to pass through the great crossroads of time and space, history and geography?
Simkhada, former Nepali Permanent Representative to the UN, is currently a visiting faculty at the department of International Relations and Diplomacy, Tribhuvan University and can be reached at email@example.com