In New Geopolitical Radar
Dev Raj Dahal
Nepal’s metaphor of “a yam between two stones” captures the sensitivity of its strategic geography wedged in the soft underbelly of both neighbours - India and China - , and its imperatives for security, stability and identity. It is well apportioned for a fine poise. But its leaders need to allay their vital security dilemma and fortify institutional vigour for security, social cohesion and economic progress. Nepal’s positive desire, based on the historical consciousness of its independence, can build trust in the virtue of cooperation among three neighbours, prevent the Finlandisation of self and enable to judge global issues based on the merit of morality and laws of international society that resonates civilised norm.
Nepal has, however, to navigate warily to what realists define the international society a condition of “anarchy.” The ruling Communist Party of Nepal and its government’s recent responses to Venezuelan crisis represent a dilemma between pragmatic statecraft and morality of the illiberal age in the execution of foreign policy. The fierce return of geopolitics now signifies the separate expressions of internal power struggle. The government’s stand appeared relatively principled as it opposed external intervention. The opposition Nepali Congress criticised sitting party’s pose on the USA, a pose not different from China and Russia. Nepali leaders should maintain caution and define the nation’s stake before passing any judgment in policy orientation and reconcile values with facts based on historical insight. Geopolitics transcends legalism and ethics as both misjudge human nature and nature of politics.
In the rapid geostrategic shift in Asia, China is stepping out of its concentric security to engage in security, infrastructure connectivity, trade, investment and competition in the polycentric order. It is defining the frame of global governance, defending globalisation, flattening geopolitical outreach and conceptualising non-Western edition of world politics. India, which until recently pursued liberal internationalism, has redefined its neighbourhood and global roles but satisfied with its own self-articulated strategic neutrality between China and the US.
Yet, India feels itchy with the West’s power projection in its vicinity, less fervent to align in China-containing scheme and upholds the Asian values. This has exposed Nepali leaders to new geopolitical radars, and hence feel the need to invent a new adaptive strategy. It is vital to play by normative rules of the game, not law of free competition which opens a state of nature. It needs to strap up high politics of national interests, not low politics of partisan interests which separates foreign policy from the public opinion. The rising Sino-Indian interdependence is not a mark of trilateralism, however. Nepal finds differing approaches: India and the West defend inclusive democracy in Nepal and, therefore, operate in non-state-centric way while China defends national sovereignty but has learned from the West the utility of NGOs. As a link country, Nepal needs to formulate policy beyond the celebration of vibrant bridge or transit state interested only in entrecote trade.
It has balanced its nonparticipation in Boao Forum for Asia and BIMSTEC military drill and stressed the claim of space in Sino-Indian Lipulekh accord. Nepal’s success depends on whetting collective wisdom of intersecting centripetal forces of the nation and seeking harmony in constitutional ends and means of foreign policy. This is vital for Nepali state to avert being a contesting site of multiple resistances of non-state, non-government and social movements under a variety of ploys.
Nepali leaders have opened many foreign policy fronts reviving the old diversification from Costa Rica to Davos, abjuring a cave mentality with only one side opening whose bitter effect it has faced during the national crisis. Former US Ambassadors to Nepal had suggested Nepali leaders to become patriotic informing that “the world is bigger than India and China.” But, capturing this bigger horizon entails institutional muscle to navigate in multiple directions and reap concrete benefits. It is more than balancing huge trade deficits. Trade balance can be pulled off through active industrial policy capitalising the gifts of topography and resources, human potential, culture, tourism, remittance and strategic geography vital to fulfil survival and surplus needs.
Excessive imports is caused by then ruling elites’ cut of agricultural subsidy, privatisation of its profit making industries and conversion of welfare into a subsidiary state where the peasant and workers had to subsidise the financial capital for global competition and profit. The selfish harmony of leaders with business and bureaucracy against the Nepali state not only repudiated democracy but also an unfair distribution of wealth to few elites. It robbed the state of its internal duty to citizens’ livelihood and outer to improve human rights image. The finale is: People’s War, huge migration of youth abroad for jobs, political and economic disorder and geopolitical penetration through soft power, aid, advice, incentives and legitimation of dependence.
Nepal’s foreign policy elites’ socialisation, political linkages and stake on the neo-liberal order, not rooted in the nation’s realpolitik, failed to spur political will and capacity for the possibility of an independent manoeuvre, despite the signing of BRI and transit treaties with India and China. The rise of China’s will and ability to project power globally has altered Nepal’s many of geopolitical determinants. It’s joining of many rival institutions of China and participation in security, finance, investment, knowledge, connectivity and problem solution offered mutually beneficial cooperation. The context of interdependence requires Nepali leaders to see the advantages of entering into any policy initiative and avoid the trap of reducing foreign policy to economic diplomacy, massive labour supply, or business profit, or serving as geopolitical proxy characteristics of a highly penetrated regime. Traditional nationalism based on ethics of sacrifice, valour, determination and ingenuity elevated national survival. The modern one based on crass materialism, lacking even the European version of constitutional patriotism, is less effective to hone the reasons of state for a stable political community and rule-based regime.
Any autonomous initiative of Nepali leaders needs contextual awareness in determining national politics of which foreign policy is an intrinsic part and develop consensus beyond rhetoric to engage in building preparedness for breaking the flaws of landlocked position and economic isolation through connectivity, market integration and perk up political economy of scale for security, aid, investment and trade policies. The value addition to any foreign policy initiative entails how it can derive benefits from the Sino-Indian and the West’s cooperation, competition and conflict. Nepal’s foreign policy is more than the extension of domestic politics. This means internal change in the regime does not allow it to become acrobatic abroad on the basis of ideological affinity. Ideological affinity of NC rule did not prevent India to impose blockade nor did the Western neutrality to it favour non-hegemonic lens.
Building national capabilities demands Nepali leaders to know linkage politics. Free trade and movement of goods requires consistency in other areas. Foreign policy wonks must have learned by heart the strategic reason for the deferment of Nepal’s trade bill in the US Senate some years ago and its revival now with the US interests to engage Nepal in its Indo-Pacific strategy of containing China. India’s economic blockades were linked to many non-trade grievances which inflicted regime weakness and political change in Nepal. In a competitive world diplomatic efficiency rests on the ability of state, market institutions and civil society and a synergy of their interests in shared areas with the neighbours and world powers.
Nepal’s membership in many international regimes- UN, WTO, SAARC, BBIN, BIMSTEC, etc. offers forums for dialogue on shouldering mutual obligations, benefits and problems resolution beyond the pursuit of national interests. These multilateral regimes demand new skill to manoeuvre. Leverage through acquired power is less viable for effective action as it vanishes with the power shift. Similarly, regime-oriented foreign policy risks domestic split like the Venezuelan crisis.
Learning from the nation’s history can offer insight for an apt policy choice while serving as vital links of India’s connectivity, the Chinese gateway for South Asia or Indo-Pacific Strategy of the US and play a non-zero-sum game as per positive signals from different radars. Technology has not cut Nepal’s geopolitical centrality where multiple forces compete for space, power, resource and influence. But, in the age of connectivity it needs to rear disorder-containing forces and assess who is helping the nation’s progress and who is fomenting disorder. Human rights issues of Nepal are still in global radar. Internal justice and reconciliation of conflict-victims is vital to prevent the international jurisdiction to step in. Their remedy can be durable if causes of rights abuses are abolished. Geopolitical trends must not overshadow Nepalis’ gains of national sovereignty, security and wellbeing. The wisdom of statesmanship rests on learning from the experience of many small states caught in the vital security interest of great powers and formulating strategy to bridge the chasm among tribalism, sub-nationalism and national identity.
Foreign policy operates under the reason of historical continuity. The vision set by P. N. Shah is still relevant as he maintained national sovereignty through intrinsic strength and carefully opened to relevant sides depending on the calculation of liberal self-interest. Nepal’s geopolitics of peace now can be solved by uprooting the root cause of poverty, balancing the hard and soft interests of rival powers in its society and increasing the state’s outreach in non-governed space. It needs to beef up rule-determined practices, control the anti-social activities of non-sovereigns indulged in the creation of otherness and build an interface between the state and citizens so that Nepali state’s writ, authority and legitimacy can endure.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)