Improved Sino-India Ties, Indo-Pacific & Nepal
Ritu Raj Subedi
In the third week of last December, Nepal suddenly appeared in the United States’ foreign policy radar, with US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo urging Nepal for its ‘central role in a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific’. Last week, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono also reportedly discussed the Indo-Pacific issues during his parley with his Nepali counterpart, Pradeep Gyawali. This is a very interesting development, indicating the growing geopolitical importance of Nepal sandwiched between Asia’s two giants - India and China. The Indo-Pacific Strategy is seen as US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy instrument to contain China’s rise in the region and beyond. Trump wants to coalesce four ‘democracies’ – India, Japan, Australia and the US – the Quad – to scuttle the increasing influence of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that the communist China has been pushing for the last five years with a view to connect Asia, Africa and Europe through massive investment in the railways, roads and ports but the US slams the BRI as ‘debt-trap diplomacy of China’. At the same time, Trump is coaxing Russian president Vladimir Putin in an obvious move to split the past super power, Russia, from the emerging superpower, China. But the chemistry between Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping is so strong that Trump finds it difficult to drive a wedge between them.
Nonetheless, this great powers’ game hardly belies an emerging truth – growing bonhomie between India and China, and India’s apparent disdain to be a junior partner to the US in the region. It is also reluctant to be a proactive player in the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy. On January 5, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said China-India pragmatic cooperation had entered the fast lane of development, stressing that a “healthy and stable” China-India relationship is crucial for world peace and development. In mid-June 2017, India and China were on the verge of another military skirmish over border standoff at Doklam near Bhutan-China border. But in the third week of last December, the hostile neighbours conducted a joint military drill ‘Hand-in-Hand 2018’ in Chengdu to leave behind their bitter feelings generated by the Doklam impasse. Indian PM Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi met four times since their last April’s Wuhan informal summit that proved to be a ‘decisive moment in bilateral relations’. Echoing the improved Sino-India ties, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs Gen. V K Singh noted that bilateral ties between the two Asian countries “are a factor of stability” at a time of global uncertainty.
In a similar manner, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Chinese “dragon” and Indian “elephant” should dance in a “duet” and avoid a “duel” while his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj underlined the need for both nations to collaborate in leading the region to an “Asian Century,” according to Chinese media. The two nations have also started a “China-India Plus” model of cooperation to undertake joint projects in other countries.
India has stayed away from the BRI, citing that China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the BRI’s flagship project, is undermining its sovereignty as it passes through the disputed territory of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. However, it is an active participant of China-led scores of initiatives such as Boao Forum, Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and Shanghai Cooperation. India is also determined to secure Chinese backing to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It seems Modi is for economic collaboration between the two nations, brushing aside the political and territorial disputes. For this, he has also instructed the concerned authorities to control free Tibet activities in India.
The deepening Sino-India ties need to be juxtaposed to India’s gradual distance with the US. As China began to emerge as the economic power at the turn of the last century, the US started to chalk out global strategy to keep China at bay, and forged partnership with India to this end. It offered a lot of concessions to India so that it would come out of Russia’s fold and act as countervailing to its ideological foe, China. In 2005, the US and India inked a civil nuclear deal, with the latter becoming the former’s strategic ally in Asia. This is a reason why the US is accused of seeing small South Asian nations, including Nepal through the Indian lens. One glaring example is its aerie silence over the 2015 Indian blockade on Nepal.
In yet another strategic partnership, the US agreed to let India set up a Rapid Reaction Cell (RRC) inside the Pentagon to facilitate defence deals and share intelligence information in 2015. The US even changed the US Pacific command to Indo-Pacific Command, allowing greater role to India to police the region on behalf of Uncle Sam. However, India that considers itself regional hegemon and future superpower refused to toe the line of Washington. It continued to ink hefty arm deals with Russia, import oil from Iran and strengthen relations with China to much chagrin of the US. It is perhaps the incompatibility of interest between India and the US that impelled the latter to force RRC out of Pentagon building by cutting down its human resources. This may also be a factor that the US urged Nepal to be an active player of Indo-Pacific Strategy.
The US’s request to Nepal to play the central role in Indo-Pacific and inordinate delay in the picking of BRI projects in Nepal should be viewed against this backdrop. Gyawali’s US trip occurred hard on heels of the Asia Pacific summit that Nepal government supported with logistic and security arrangements. It triggered a sea of controversy, with its ripples also being felt in New Delhi and Beijing. Its organiser, the World Peace Federation, was founded by late Sun Myung Moon known for his anti-communism activism during the Cold War. Paradoxically, the ‘huge success of Summit’ earned brownie point for Nepal’s communist government in the US for Moon held sway on a broad section of US conservative politics.
However, Nepal demonstrated diplomatic wisdom by politely refusing to participate in the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy. Foreign Minister Gyawali has already clarified that Nepal would not join any strategic alliance that pitted one country against another. “The US thinks that Nepal can play a crucial role in the Indo-Pacific region in its capacity of SAARC chair and a member state of BIMSTEC,” said Gyawali. Placed in a sensitive location, Nepal can’t afford to be a player of Indo-Pacific strategy. Nepal is a signatory to the BRI and seeks to fulfil overdue developmental aspirations through ambitious Chinese development initiative. The fact is that even Modi is not interested to promote the Indo-Pacific at the cost of its relations with China.
At the same time, Nepal can’t limit its foreign relations only to its two big neighbours. Nepal must capitalise on its increasing geopolitical value and US renewed interest in it for all-round economic development. Gyawali’s recent visit to the US ended 17 years of gap in the high-level visits between the two nations. US State Department termed Gyawali-Pompeo meeting as ‘historic’ stating that ‘enduring strength of the US-Nepal partnership and the close people-to-people ties form the foundation of the relationship.’ Nepal must better utilise Nepal’s $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact to be invested in increasing the availability of electricity and lowering transportation costs, thereby reducing poverty and attaining economic growth. The US has provided access to 77 Nepali products in the American market and Nepali side urged it to waive taxes and customs duty for garments manufactured in Nepal. It is a matter of happiness that the US is funding to boost infrastructure development in Nepal. It has been rather spending aid on building soft power that does not help much to grow the real economy of the recipient nation.
On the other hand, in view of growing friendship between India and China, Nepal should cautiously watch on how an ‘elephant’ and ‘dragon’ dance in a ‘duet’. There is a need for applying a prudent approach as an old saying goes: ‘When two elephants fight or play, it is the grass that suffers most.’