Equidistance is fantasyDuring the Nepal Investment Summit held last March, Chinese partnerships assured investments totalling $8.3 billion, way greater than the Indian pledge of $317 million.
During the Nepal Investment Summit held last March, Chinese partnerships assured investments totalling $8.3 billion, way greater than the Indian pledge of $317 million. India and China are trying to influence Kathmandu in their unique ways. Constant diplomatic pressure by either side will only encourage Kathmandu to align with one or the other Asian giant. The likelihood of Nepal’s siding wholly with one country remains a great security threat that either giant is not ready to risk.
Nepal’s landlocked position has placed it in a very difficult position. Physical constrictions imposed by topography have not only limited its access to the outer world but also created a complex structure of dependency in which Kathmandu exists as a ‘client state’ to its donors. Being a geographical bridge, Nepal plays the role of a critical security ground for both China and India. Nowadays, Nepal seems to be pursuing a policy of equiproximity towards both its neighbours, but geography as well as culture puts New Delhi closer to Nepal than Beijing.
This Himalayan country crammed between its northern and southern neighbours has been sharing very good relations with New Delhi since the beginning of the 1950s after signing the Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Lately, some political circumstances have pushed Nepal into realising that India has been, to some extent, interfering in domestic matters. This has caused Nepal to increasingly nurture relations with Beijing. The Nepal government was constantly duty-bound to balance the south against the north in order to preserve its sovereign identity. The equidistance approach became the primary groundwork of its foreign policy with its giant neighbours. Despite sharing geographical and socio-cultural relations with India, the post-2008 geo-economic and political conversion in the region has encouraged Nepal to turn to China as well.
With regard to the southern neighbour, the relations are many steps ahead because of linguistic similarity, ancient social and religious affinity and geographical proximity. These are things that newly emerging trade and economic links with China cannot compete with. In particular, the people-to-people ties between Nepal and India are much stronger than those with China.
Let’s compare China-Mongolia and Nepal-India relations. Both sets of countries share similar cultures, lifestyles and people-to-people relations, yet circumstances sometimes trigger sour relations between them. In 2015, New Delhi imposed an economic blockade against its small neighbour after Nepal promulgated a new constitution without addressing Madhesi issues as demanded by India. Likewise, Mongolia suffered an economic blockade by China in 2016 for welcoming the Dalai Lama.
During the Indian blockade of Nepal, China provided oil and reopened closed trade routes with Nepal. Similarly, during the Chinese blockade, India promised $1 billion in financial assistance to Mongolia. Such third party involvement results in anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal and anti-China sentiments in Mongolia. However, it would be great if each set accepts the reality that India cannot replace Beijing in Mongolia and China cannot substitute New Delhi in Nepal because of their shared socio-economic relations, cultural ties and physical closeness.
Maintaining a diplomatic balance has been the historical strategy of Nepal in which every administration excelled, whether royal, democratic or communist. To extract benefits from India, Nepal slants toward Beijing at times, which is a shrewd way to reap favours. While such ultra-smart moves have frequently worked in the past, they are likely to face new challenges as the balance of power witnesses a gradual shift.
Diplomatic relations should be balanced according to context, and ‘balanced’ doesn’t mean absolutely ‘equal’. Many of our leaders, swayed by romantic thoughts, ignorantly use words like ‘equidistance’ or ‘equiproximity’ while interpreting trilateral relations with India and China. But the question is this: Can any country maintain equidistance in foreign relations? Does China have equidistance with India and Pakistan, or has the US been able to maintain equidistance with Canada and Mexico? Thus, our leadership must accept that neither can Nepal maintain equal relations with India and China, nor can Beijing replace the multi-sectoral proximity with New Delhi. The recent prime ministerial visit to India marks the commencement of a reframing of India-Nepal relations. To further open new bilateral avenues, both countries will have to correct past blunders. Moreover, Kathmandu needs to avoid playing the ‘equidistance game’.
Poudyal is a freelance writer and child health researcher at Kathmandu based NGO, Global Initiative For Vivid Empowerment (GIVE)