Nepal And Indo-Pacific Strategy
Dr. Narad Bharadwaj
Nepal found itself trapped in a diplomatic conundrum when Robert J. Palladino, the Deputy Spokesperson of the US State Department announced at the end of Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradip Gyawali’s Washington visit that Nepal has a central role to play in US-led alliance called Indo-Pacific Strategy.
The Nepali Government was quick to decline to be part of any alliance that could go against the fundamental guiding principles of Nepal’s foreign policy. Since it was floated at the sensitive time of the visit of Nepali foreign minister to White House, it naturally elicited a flurry of comments from Nepal’s foreign policy watchers at home and abroad. The concept of Indo-Pacific Strategy is a new talking point of American foreign policy designed to regain credibility among allies which was adversely affected following its unexpected withdrawal from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
It may also be a strategic imperative for it in the context of regional power shift charaterised by the rise of China as a military and economic superpower of the region. What importance does it have for Nepal? How could a superpower country like the US thought it fit to attach a role, that too a major role, for this country which is struggling to muster domestic and international resources to support its infrastructure building. To think of Nepal’s role in USA’s global strategy is not only inconceivable but also disconcerting.
As reported by official Nepali media, this issue was first brought to Nepal’s cognizance by Michael R. Pompoe, the US Secretary of State, during his meeting with Nepal’s foreign minister at the White House on 18 December. The proposal of the US secretary of State was against Nepal’s non-aligned foreign policy and the acceptance of the proposal by Nepal would project it as an ally of US setting off a chain of many unforeseen political and diplomatic implications.
It is beyond doubt that Nepal has been playing an active role in the peace, development and prosperity of Asia Pacific region through regional and sub-regional organisations like South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) without being part of any strategic alliances. Foreign Minister Pradip Gyawali had discussed the possibility of regional cooperation during the meeting with his American counterpart making it clear that Nepal could neither afford nor would it be principled for it to join multi-lateral alliances or strategies which could be interpreted as collaboration with one power alliance against another.
Howsoever, soft terminology it may have been couched in, the Indo-Pacific Strategy has been conceived as a countervailing move against Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of which Nepal is a signatory. Nepal’s participation in BRI, however, is a bilateral collaboration with China with the expectation of facilitating infrastructure development of this country struggling to break free from the clutches of poverty and backwardness. BRI is not a strategic alliance nor is there any likelihood of it emerging as an alliance. Unlike the BRI, Indo-Pacific Strategy has an unmistakable connotation of power alliance which seeks to establish its complementarity with the four nations ‘Quad’ consisting of the USA, Japan, Australia and India.
The proposal of US to Nepal for playing a central role in the Indo-Pacific Strategy presents a difficult choice for Nepal. It has come with a package of economic development but at the same time it also brings with it uncomfortable propositions that might pit Nepal against the interest and expectations of its neighbour China which appears set to win friends through economic cooperation without any visible strategic implications.
The serious undertone of this proposal can be judged by the concern raised by the US government on the issue of the business activities of North Korean nationals in Nepal in the context of enforcement of global economic embargo against that country. This shows that there is not only economic issue involved in the Indo-Pacific Strategy but also advice of caution for Nepal to be more discrete.
As a developing nation, Nepal can accept any proposal or project that may be helpful in unleashing its economic potentials. But when they come with political strings attached, we can be assured that there is always something more in these proposals than meets the eyes. Nepal has been on the verge of utilising $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funds for expanding electrification and lowering transport cost in its bid to reduce poverty and attain economic growth. If this assistance is conditional to Nepal’s playing active role in Indo-Pacific Strategy it may prove to be a difficult choice for Nepal.
With growing international power rivalry, Nepal’s geo-political centrality has been suddenly brought to international focus. It shows that there is a likelihood of Nepal coming under more international pressures to maintain a stand on this issue exacerbating its geo-political vulnerability. In this connection, the visit of Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kano to Nepal should also not be considered free of political implications. In his meeting with Nepal’s Foreign Minister, Kano is said to have urged Nepal to participate in the Indo-Pacific Strategy in line with what the US had advised it to do.
The proposal is being orchestrated in such a way as if Nepal can afford to take sides in great power rivalry. Nepal has been sincere in its relation with its neighbours, friendly countries and powers. At the same time, it has deported with dignity in times of national and international crises. Sometimes, countries fall into trouble because of indiscrete decisions of their leaders while at others they fall victim to circumstances. Nepal has come under pressure from power countries at various phases of history. But our predecessors were able to protect the sovereignty, independence and dignity of the nation through a skillful management of both internal and external contradictions.
Now a distinctly new and complex political scenario is unfolding before us. The Nepali nation now faces a great challenge of attaining economic growth by mobilising internal and external resources at the same time by neutralising divergent interests of international powers. For this a high level of diplomatic and political foresight is needed. The international situation is becoming ever more fluid and volatile. In the rapidly changing paradigms of international politics, Nepal finds itself in geopolitical space where contending superpowers want to use it to gain strategic advantage both in terms of expanding political clout or achieving economic domination. The onus lies on the present government to negotiate a path of survival.
(Dr. Bharadwaj is a freelance writer and holds PhD degree in ethno-history. He writes on history, foreign relations, and contemporary national and international politics)