Now is the timeDevelopment, peace and stability should be the foundation for trilateral relations
Goodwill foreign policy can be conceptualised as one that aims at achieving national interests through cooperative endeavours and mutual understanding. It is, therefore, a positive term that keeps a country away from classical strategies and tactics that have been in vogue since the times of Chanakya and Machiavelli. Succeeding experts in international politics and diplomacy used whatever means possible for furthering national interests. The old might is right theory seemed to create a hierarchy of nation-states institutionally through the United Nations, as well as through the day-to-day practices in bilateral and international relations. Thus, as Hans J Morgenthau said in his classic Politics Among Nations, international politics is nothing but a struggle for power.
In such a hierarchical system, smaller countries are either required to fall in line with hegemonic powers (regional and international) or adopt their own sound foreign policies and strategies that guarantee national security and fulfil other objectives. Even rival powers mend their fences through such quiet diplomacy. Recent examples of successful quiet diplomacy were shown by China and India, and North Korea and South Korea together with the US.
Diplomacy is key
The days of the primacy of quiet diplomacy and cooperative relations have thus arrived, and military power alone is not relevant, if not obsolete, in inter-state relations. The manoeuvrability demonstrated in the past may not necessarily be applicable to unpredictable relational patterns in both bilateral, regional and international contexts. China and India, Nepal’s immediate neighbours with whom its current foreign policy is more or less confined, seem to put their rival powers status to a low key in order to reduce areas of conflict such as border disputes and other points of discord. Differences between them are being adroitly managed so as to avoid possible flashpoints for conflicts.
The latest developments suggest that both neighbours have come to an understanding that areas of cooperation should be strengthened for mutual benefit while potential areas of conflict should either be relegated to the background or, if possible, avoided altogether. Following a policy of walking a tightrope between and among the major world powers, India seems to be in dire need to deescalate conflicts with other small and big powers. India’s good neighbourly policy, which has been activated in recent months, has tried to impress on its neighbours that its hard policy options often employed in the past may not be relevant in the present context.
The Chinese foreign minister’s view on trilateral cooperation as expressed during the Nepali foreign minister’s visit to Beijing recently is an indication that China is in no mood to stoke more controversies with India, that too in the context of Nepal, whose geo-political situation always makes it conscious of its limitations. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s informal
visit to China and the meetings he held with Chinese President Xi Jinping has effectively buried the hatchet on the Doklam border issue that had almost reached a flashpoint for conflict recently, demonstrating that the two countries are looking to nurture a more cooperative relation in the future.
India’s move to reset relations with Nepal can also be taken as a pointer that India wants to develop a new understanding, which in a way departs from the traditional relational patterns, both structural and functional, in order to meet the exigencies of the present time and context. In the wake of such developments, India needs to accept Nepal’s desire to be close to China for development, peace and stability, and also for strengthening trilateral relations between the three countries. India’s old mindset that Nepal should in no case be close to China cannot be validated in the changing context of greater connectivity and developmental cooperation.
The way forward
In order to address India’s sensitivity, Nepal, on its part, should also not play one neighbour off against the other, as rulers and politicians did in the past. Nepal’s domestic politics and the practice of using what Gunnar Myrdal wrote in a different context in the 1960s, resentful nationalism, or today’s much touted anti-Indianism, has contributed to straining bilateral relations. Politicians in Nepal were/are prone to such brinkmanship as these postures that were adopted from time to time have paid dividends in the short run. India too is responsible for giving rise to problems in bilateral relations as its strong-headed policymakers and security experts didn’t appreciate Nepal’s aspirations to manage its own affairs independent of outside influence.
Although the fundamentals of India-Nepal relations are not likely to change despite upcoming agendas of greater closeness between China and Nepal, increased connectivity and openings have their own usefulness and cannot always be linked to mutual security and the wide ranging relations that exist between India and Nepal. For, in a substantive sense, Nepal-India relations would remain the same, but they need to be renewed and reviewed to match the time and situation. Nonetheless, old dominance and dependency syndromes that are manifest in small power, big power relations have to be sympathetically looked into by the concerned powers realising the limitations of small countries. Small countries like Nepal should also upgrade the level of development and other capabilities to catch up with the changes taking place across the immediate neighbourhood.
India’s traditional dominance has shrunk in recent years, not because geo-politics has changed drastically, but because of a new context and time. In the past, the southern neighbour was perceived as indulging in micro-management deliberately or due to the attempts of Nepali politicians to curry favour from Indian functionaries. So, Nepali politicians were also responsible for entertaining what I call ‘invited intervention’ when they needed external help during the political struggle for democracy or while seeking a mediatory role for the management of domestic politics. However, realistically speaking, the domestic context of Nepal’s foreign policy cannot be easily ruled out in view of greater historical, political, cultural, economic and other links with India. Thus, any realistic approach to bilateral relations would have to take ‘linkage politics’ as an important aspect of India-Nepal relations. But it is up to Nepali politicians in general to formulate certain guiding principles reflecting the commonalities, constraints and self-confidence without being hyper-nationalistic.
Commitments to development, peace and stability, to which both neighbours of Nepal are committed, should be the solid foundation for promoting trilateral relations. This is the right time to maximise benefits with goodwill besides maximising greater cooperative relations between the two neighbours. Recent Indian willingness to put bilateral relations on track should also prepare a positive environment for trilateral cooperation.