Ruptures and rivalries

  • Can Nepal’s leaders be objective and pragmatic in giving a new direction to the country’s international relations?
- Lok Raj Baral
Ruptures and rivalries

Sep 16, 2014-

National interest is the sum total of citizens’ interest. It reflects the aspirations of citizens who are emotionally attached to a well-defined territory and take independent actions for the common good. The protection of territory, its independence and sovereignty is the principle duty of any government. The protection of national interest encompasses the overall development of people, which converges with common interests. So, the people who run the government—elected representatives in democracy or the narrowly placed elites in other regimes—have to be sensitive about citizens, who constitute a nation-state.

The protection of national interest, if  used in the context of inter-state relations in the wider framework of international relations, depends on both principles and strategies to be followed by the rulers. And such strategies are not constant. Instead, they have to be flexible with the changes taking place in the neighbourhood and the international arena. Sometimes threats can be proximate; sometimes they are distant depending upon the context and situation. Instant threats need an instant response. Psychological threat is attributed to socially inherited fear and suspicion which may not always be real. In Nepal-India relations, for example, perceptions and suspicions of each other seem to create psychological threats, since small incidents and individual actions produce irritants in bilateral relations.

Open-border opportunities

Safeguarding national interest, as stated above, requires well-set objectives and strategies. For a country like Nepal, situated between two big and powerful neighbours, whose varying interests are of regional and international dimensions, reliance on quiet but smart diplomacy becomes imperative. Open-border policies and issues of national identity have a symbiotic relationship, which requires careful handling and understanding to give it continuity amidst new changes.

It is interesting to observe that Nepal-India open border has been able to withstand such challenges for a long time. Now the open border, which is being streamlined on the basis of a critical faculty developed by the peoples of both countries, carries enormous opportunities as well as challenges. Addressing them requires new strategies and awareness of threats that emanate from a variety of sources—such as from the misuse of border for the free flow of arms and movement of terrorists, criminals and smugglers. The new initiatives taken by the two sides a few weeks ago, following Modi’s visit to Nepal, may be able to remove multifaceted problems and threats.

The open border provides opportunities for work to the citizens of both countries, for the convergence of mutual security interests, reciprocity in actions that safeguard them, and for wider people-to-people contacts encompassing all aspects of socioeconomic relations existing from time immemorial. Now, ecological problems which affect each other severely have become yet another area of common concern. The recent floods, landslides and deforestation, to mention a few, pose common crises that need to be tackled only with the spirit of mutual cooperation and empathy.

Symbolic interest

Nepal’s interests are of both symbolic and substantive nature. Symbolically, the country should have a feeling that it meets all the requirements of a sovereign, independent nation whose territorial boundary is well-defined and protected, which can be treated at par with other sovereign nations of the world, and whose diplomatic protocol is well maintained in spirit in its relations with other states, big and small. To achieve these objectives, identity is sought by adhering to internationally settled principles.

Gone are the days of playing the China or India card that were allegedly stated to have been used in the past, as both nations are engaged now in enhancing their own respective images as world powers. Above all, ambition and even awareness of limitations drive nations to be realistic. So in the midst of cooperation and competition, China and India are not likely to be provoked into large inter-state conflicts. It does not mean that they will keep quiet if the situation within their vicinity is perceived as threats to their vital interests.

The border with the northern neighbour, China, is not as problematic as with Nepal’s southern neighbour because of the features of the Himalayan geography. What Nepal needs is only to assure China that Nepal would never be an arena for anti-Chinese activities. China’s main concern is Tibet which, in Chinese view, might be used by outside forces to create turmoil in the country. So far, no untoward activity has been noticed as of now since Nepal has tried to appreciate Chinese concerns as much as possible. A transparent and cooperative policy is likely to get a positive response from Nepal’s neighbours.

Substantive development

To achieve substance in inter-state relations, quiet diplomacy buttressed by well-calculated actions based on cooperative spirit would be essential. The demonstrative foreign policy bereft of realism might give rise to distrust in Nepal’s neighbours. Endowed with natural resources, Nepal’s substantive development is now the major national interest for which the two neighbours’ assistance and goodwill is essential. Development of water resources, tourism and agriculture, besides other infrastructures, might enhance national interest. Similarly, human resource development with sound education and health policies and their implementation is the most significant aspect of nation building. But, without political order and effective governance, no inclusive development is possible.  

Feeding the anxiety and fear in Nepal’s immediate neighbours is its unsettled internal problems and their impacts on the neighbouring states. Politics in Nepal is still fragile and uncertain, with major forces taking divergent approaches to various political issues. Since the ‘primacy of politics’ is accepted as the ultimate means of resolving the question of stability and progress, the political parties should not waste time in giving a new constitution and a new elected government. If possible, the major forces can agree on some common agendas, such as development, education, foreign policy and the consolidation of a republican order within a certain timeframe. It might be a good move for the country’s march to order, development and peace.

Many people still consider Saarc as a route to peace and prosperity in the region. But, after the initial euphoria, there has been a crisis in which the South Asian cooperation agenda continues to stagnate. As South Asia is characterised by ‘ruptures and rivalries’ within the member countries and between its own principal neighbours, Saarc’s future is uncertain. To develop any regional association, common approaches to certain core areas are essential. The ineffectiveness of the Saarc, and of the United Nations, therefore should drive Nepal to be more prudent and mature in preserving its vital national interests by designing its own options. Henry Kissinger says, foreign policy is not “a story with a beginning and an end” but a “process of managing and tempering ever-recurring challenges”. Can Nepali leaders be objective as well as pragmatic in giving a new direction to the country’s foreign policy?

Baral is the author of a number of books, most recently ‘Nepal-Nation-State in the Wilderness: Managing State, Democracy and Geopolitics’


Published: 17-09-2014 12:23

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