Cacophony of concepts

  • Nepali leadership’s old foreign policy rhetoric ignores new relationships between China, India, and the US
- Lok Raj Baral
Cacophony of concepts

Oct 26, 2014-

Nepalis have limited knowledge about their immediate neighbours. China is a relatively distant neighbour insofar as its comparison with India is concerned. China is now being better understood through streams of official visitors, trade flows and tourists. Nepalis have also increased the level of interaction with China in recent years.

Some concepts that figure in Nepali discourse vis-a-vis the triangular relations between Nepal, China, and India need to be clarified. The concept “equidistant policy,” for example, often used by Nepali politicians and academics in order to explain Nepal’s relations with its immediate neighbours, is not valid.

Theoretically, it can be correct but from a practical point of view, it is a misnomer. It is just like discarding “special relationship” with India, though, in reality, Nepal and India have extensive, deep, and complex relationships that cannot be easily understood only on the grounds of principles of inter-state relations.

Yet, to maintain the identity of a nation-state, the Treaty of Westphalia, in 1648, remains the guiding principles. As an independent nation-state, Nepal adheres to the same principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, and non- interference in each other’s domestic affairs, as other states do, but other variables also determine relations among nations. The theoretical aspect of “equidistant policy” does not carry any sense in realpolitik nor does it help to understand the nuances and practices of bilateral relations. Open border with India transcends many facets of relations that can hardly be replicated elsewhere and hence it is incomparable with China, though China is our good northern neighbour.

Not a yam

Another term often used by both scholars and practitioners is Prithvi Narayan Shah’s description of Nepal as a “yam” (tarul) situated between two boulders. It means it is like a sandwich put in a claustrophobic situation. Now the position is changed due to physical, psychic, economic, and communicational connectivity.  

While delivering a key-note speech in a seminar held recently at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to the US, Lalit Man Singh, argued that increased engagement of China and India and also of other powers in Nepal invalidates the old concept of a “yam” between the two boulders. Elaborating Nepal’s relations with its two immediate neighbours, Singh justified Nepal’s independent actions in developing relations with China. In his view, India should not show “unwarranted concerns” about legitimate aspirations of Nepal, for India should be confident of history and geography, along with its developing cooperative relations with China. Singh also warned Nepal

against playing the “China card” as was done in the past, because the situation has changed significantly with both powers—China and India—trying to maintain power equilibrium by keeping border differences within limit and also by “controlled adversarial relations”.  

According to a study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as mentioned by Singh, by 2050 a new hierarchy of power is likely to emerge with China, the United States, and India as the first, second and third world powers. Nepal, by coming out of the old “yam” concept, needs to be more interactive and cooperative in its relations with its neighbours, in view of such emerging trends in international relations.

A bridge?

The idea of trilateral cooperation, offered by the Unified CPN (Maoist) leaders, Prachanda and Babu Ram Bhattarai, is either questioned or considered to be “premature” in the given context of relations between China and India. Despite the developing bilateral cooperation, the border dispute, the Tibetan refugee issue, and China’s strategic relationship with Pakistan continue to be irritants in China-India relations. So any move to be initiated by Nepal is likely to be seen with a level of distrust. However, change in such outlook is contingent upon developing trust and confidence through transparent policies Nepal follows, vis-à-vis its two neighbours.

Can Nepal be a “bridge” between the two big emerging economies? The answer to this question depends on both Nepal’s domestic political environment and how smartly it follows its foreign policy, with clarity of issues and problems and cooperative mindset. Since there has been a common desire for peace and prosperity, the idea of trilateral cooperation for Nepal’s development can be pursued.

The domestic context of foreign policy is also as significant as it is endurable for all of the aspects mentioned before. China’s domestic context is undergoing a change notwithstanding the existing coercive power of the state. Yet, guided by the Confucian view, harmony with differences seems to be the guiding factor for Chinese rulers. How long its controlled politics and state controlled economy with a certain degree of flexibility for liberalisation would be able to hold the present Chinese nature of politics needs to be seen. The existing reality suggests that the rise of a strong leader, Xi Jinping, with a vision and confidence, is likely to change the situation.

Similarly, the rise of Narendra Modi in India and his new diplomatic initiatives may help transform the regional atmosphere. Modi’s visit to Nepal and the Chinese President’s visit to India have indicated some positive trends in bilateral relations between China and India, Nepal and India, and Nepal and China, as the increased cordiality between China and India would also create its impact on Nepal’s relations with its neighbours.

In a better position

Certain areas of convergence such as combating terrorism of all forms, sharing in infrastructure development for greater connectivity to the region and beyond, playing a constructive role by China and India “in determining the contours of a new world order”, increase in trust and confidence among the three neighbours, development of “contiguous market” in order to help develop Nepal can contribute to the peace and prosperity of all three neighbours.

The cold war was basically confined to Europe with both the “superpowers” competing with each other to be world leaders. Its influence spread across the globe until the end of the cold war. However, the post-cold war situation dramatically changed with the US occupying the role of the sole superpower, while truncated Russia has turned into a lesser power.

The US is also on the decline as its worldwide presence does not necessarily change conflicts into peace. Sometimes, coercive power alone has its limitations to establish peace and order as is evident in the Middle East and parts of Africa and Europe. Yet, as of today, the US continues to play the role of a superpower, as its economy and strategic status, including its nuclear superiority, put it on top.

However, it must be admitted that as there is no possibility of a war breaking between China, the US, Russia, and India, some sort of a balance to maintain the existing cooperative and competitive relationships would continue. On certain grounds, the US is closer to China than India and on other counts India is emerging as a counterpoise to China, thus favouring the larger strategic interest of the US.

Nepal is placed now in a better position because of the emerging regional and international trends of cooperation and competition. But Nepal has to devise its own smart foreign policy to reap the harvest of the changed world political context.  To our chagrin, however, no political leaders have come up with any new initiative in foreign policy but they continue to harp on the same old concepts and rhetoric that have become redundant today.

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

Published: 27-10-2014 09:13

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