Nepal’s Geopolitical Mileage
Dev Raj Dahal
Nepali leaders and citizens have struggled hard for this nation’s survival and adaptation in the neighbourhood and world politics. This built the nation’s capacity for independence resilient. Nepal’s rank as a small state is relative to its mega neighbours - India and China. By global positioning, it is middle sized. Its stability as one of oldest nations of the world gives Nepalis a sense of pride and identity. National identity comprises durability and succession. It combines all local narratives into a national one and transforms the parochial forces into centripetal ones without assimilating them into a melting pot. But, undue disparity within the nation can breed social fractures which can easily be exploited by internal spoilers and external predators. Cultivation of national interests in a situation of free flow of ideas, goods and people that characterise globalisation helps retain social cohesion, economic progress, political stability. Nepal’s new geopolitics needs to back inter-subjective frame, not just geographic determination of politics or winners-take-all market, for a purpose in the national state enough to fill citizens’ lives.
Nepali state is nurtured by both hard power of institutions and soft power of culture, language and identity. They have stitched Nepalis the world over. National authority, defined by the Westphalian state system, has now been contested by a number of state and non-state actors, institutions, forces, processes and human rights values. Those rooted in other societies often favour international jurisdiction to step in if national politics goes awry. The tax base of Nepal is scant to shore up state-centric order and shared idea of justice. Its knowledge, power, resource and legitimacy rest on the support of global community. The incongruity of Nepali state and its population settlement and surge of many regional and global issues require multi-level cooperation.
Technological innovation and road, rail and air connectivity of both neighbours have reduced the distance, cut the old geopolitical barriers and altered the earlier idea of border. This has exalted Nepal from colonially given buffer status into a more dynamic macro milieu reshaping its leaders’ perception about opportunity from the startling outreach of neighbours’ power as global game changers. Their neighbourhood priority hooked Nepal from the periphery to geopolitical focus.
The strategic geography of Nepal makes it vital for neighbours’ security. It has larger border with India which provides opportunity for huge interaction but also makes it vulnerable to the incursion of illegal elements. Its proximity with the Gangetic belt, the heartland of India, open border, Gorkha recruitment in the Indian Army and shared communities add Nepal’s geo-strategic value for its security and stability. The espousal of democracy and modernity for long implied Westernising ambition of Nepali leaders to contain the communism. The realism has rescued geopolitics from ideological grip. As a result, certain clauses of Peace and Friendship Treaty, exchange of letters and Arms Assistance Agreement that brought Nepal under the shadow of common Anglo-Indian security is set to unwind now. The shared worldview of the Indian and the Western powers on regime compatibility and security construct made Nepal sensitive to assert its sovereignty.
The Eminent Persons’ Group has, therefore, identified many debatable issues to settle and reset better ties. Apart from civilisational links, Nepal-India ties are shaped by security cooperation, roads, railroads, sea transit, power plants, air fields, economic development and human enterprises. Now, the growing Sino-Indian cooperation on border security, trade, investment and international relations has opened new geopolitical option for Nepal to ease the handicap of landlockedness. India is improving its image in Nepal, executing development promises and cultivating shared bond.
Likewise, Nepal’s proximity to Tibet, an underbelly of China, where major powers are converged for its separatism makes Nepal no less strategically vital to its security. Nepal can be a conduit for spurring Sino-Indian collaboration if its leaders can build trust with each than they are with each other and resolve their security dilemma. Fierce contest for security suffocates cooperation. But the perception of power gap between India and China entailed Nepali leaders to gravitate toward the latter’s incentives and initiatives on OBOR, Boao Forum for Asia, AIBB, SCO, foreign investment in strategic sectors, Trans-Himalayas Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Networks, adjust policy on regional and international institutions and promote trade and transit diversification. These are blinking in the global eye.
Both neighbours have shared interest to neutralise the soft power of Atlantic nations. They are providing succour to Nepal through their own NGOs without engaging in grassroots activism. China has suggested India to engage in partnership with Nepal avowing the validity of trilateralism. New geopolitics is based on partnership and burden sharing, not hegemonic or dominating. But, Nepali leaders must be aware of the outcome of choice they make in the context of the exhaustion of its institutional strength, fractiousness of leaders and highly remittance, aid, trade and foreign investment-dependent economy.
Diversification of dependence on external world turns Nepal’s choice interdependent which means external resources from the global powers and institutions are needed to sustain internal life. Nepal is attractive spot for global community to host useful activities increasing its acceptability. Banding with the LDCs, mountainous, landlocked and small states has amplified its leverage beyond vicinity. But its leaders’ view is that the geopolitical weight of neighbours is more important than the shifting global alliances, rise of neo-nationalism, crisis in multilateralism, climate change, etc.
It is setting a new milieu for Nepal to veer to Easternisation policy, resorting to a modified realpolitik, not aspirational idealism, viewed by the West a source of dwindling civic space. Prithvi Narayan Shah, like Otto Von Bismarck of Germany, believed in robust welfare state to make citizens happier and loyal. Nepal defined its integrated security, economic, political and cultural policies to shield itself through active defense and ensure citizens’ livelihood for their loyalty. His insights are still relevant today.
Nepal’s affable social bonds are now inflicted by a clash of partisan interests. Internal political consensus is vital to the art of foreign policy efficacy. The nation’s ethical image can grow if institutions of enlightenment become public and leaders draw citizens’ loyalty to the nation, build state’s interface with them to gear up progress and allow both to advance national interests. Neither Nepalisation nor Sanskritisation has dissolved local cultures. Nepali state is the home of minorities in every facet except religion, language and culture which acted as unifying bonds. This is why it took minority as an issue of social justice, not security to be settled by muscular force. Nor minorities demand the right to secede though parochial political parties have reared many centrifugal liberation fronts and identity-based bodies to inflate their patronage despite their huge costs for nation building. Nepal’s cultural pluralism in the past served as unifying factor while politics hit the nation’s fault lines. The identity of Nepalis to native land brings the union of its geography, history and culture. Like France, Nepal fostered civic nationalism, based on shared citizenship, not multiculturalism with differentiated people, which cancels out civic identity and stokes race-oriented politics unravelling the spatial congruence of the state, economy and citizenship.
Rising nationalism marked Nepal’s shift from buffer to sovereignty. It can free its leaders from the snooze and rethink the utility of employing old concepts - semi-colony, sphere of influence, special relationship, equidistance, balancing or non-alignment. In the context of asymmetry of power between Nepal and its neighbours, self-neutralisation limits its freedom which is vital to apply judgment on international affairs. Nepal can attain middle path between certain shared aims and some differences with the neighbours and global regimes if Nepali leaders do not often invite alien forces for regime change to catapult oneself to power and esteem micro-management of nation’s affairs. They need reflection on the nation’s history of sacrifices of its heroes and builders for self-rule and gain aplomb, skill, ability and prudence to clip geopolitical issues stirring its vital interests.
Leaders need to rise up from their partisan frame which has converted Nepalis into a polarised mass to be easily maneuverer by external powers. How Nepali leaders view varied geographic spaces, population and their transactions is vital for policy while national angle can set a rational course. It needs to creatively use conference diplomacy, economic statecraft and adaptive foreign policy behaviour in a multi-speed world.
Nepali leaders need both guts and wisdom to absolve this nation from the Hobbesian Trap and punch geopolitical determinism, a concept which erodes the national freedom of manoeuvre and defies national interest-oriented policy. The harmony of whole gamut of foreign policy issues with any power cuts the liberty to defy, differ and create choice of development partners and make it inapt for national self-determination which has been historically prized by Nepalis.
National freedom ensures right course of action in regional and global politics. The ethical freedom rests on freedom to do good for the nation and uphold: responsibility, intrinsic power and political will to settle vital issues - Lipu Lekh, Susta, immigration, flood and cross-border crime control, removal of export barriers, management of trade deficits, proper utilisation of foreign aid on national priority areas, foreign investment in productive sectors, labour management, utilization of hydropower, balancing ties and fostering international cooperation for win-win game. Enlightened self-interest helps reduce many dependencies such as ideological dependence blunts national conscience, aid dependence weakens the integrity of policy, power dependence restricts legitimacy and blanket import of soft power reduces the source of national identity. New geopolitics can ignite a fresh hope for Nepal worthy to realise its power of place and potential.