Kathmandu's strategic choice
Nepal is frantically getting wooed by two opposing suitors, the historical partner in India and the proverbial ‘option’, China. Landlocked and geographically surrounded by these traditional foes, the dynamics within Kathmandu oscillates from flirting with one over the other, depending on the cost-benefit analysis that determines the topical preference. The recent flurry of restlessness owes its genealogical discomfiture to the view in Kathmandu that got cemented last year, in the wake of the protests over Nepal’s new Constitution – Delhi was perceived to be playing a role of an interfering spoiler, favouring the minority Madhesis. This led to mutual finger-pointing and accusations of ‘big brother’ attitude that was sought to be angrily addressed by counter-courting India’s nemesis, China. Except, topography and cultural context ensured the pragmatic sway in favour of India, vis-à-vis China, irrespective of the political shenanigans and strategic posturing, to the contrary.
Since then, the freeze in the Indo-Nepalese equation has thawed with leadership visits to assuage the initial logjam that had resulted in the crippling disruption of cross-border supplies that are critical for the Nepalese economy and polity. The Indian intransigence of supposedly playing hardball during the crisis has inevitably left an indelible imprint within the mainstream in Kathmandu, and a frustrating sense of the need to correct the over-dependence on India has moved the popular imagination. Except, the much-bandied projects of connectivity between the Chinese mainland and Nepal are in the realm of strategic drawing boards and are fundamentally prohibitive regarding investments required to overcome the geographical hurdles and engineering complexities. This humbling realisation in Kathmandu and the subsequent softness from Delhi has ensured the restart of the transactional Indo-Nepalese relationship, albeit, after leaving a bitter aftertaste and a sense of despondency that needs to be corrected, urgently.
A parallel narrative is taking place in Mongolia where akin to the trade blockade on the Indo-Nepal border last year, China has recently closed a key border crossing on the Chinese-Mongolian border – this is ostensibly in retaliation to the provocation by Mongolia of hosting Dalai Lama in its capital, Ulan Bator. Seemingly, in a repeat of what China did to India during the Indo-Nepalese stand-off, this time India has reportedly asked Mongolia to avail of a US$ 1 Billion Indian helpline to stave off an immediate economic crisis in Mongolia. Murmurs abound of the strategic one-upmanship by India against China in Mongolia, eerily like the scavenging role that China nearly tried and succeeded in veering Kathmandu away from India, is doing the rounds. However, the Chinese have preferred to downplay the Indian gesture to Mongolia, smug in the comfort of the fact that over 90 per cent of Mongolian import and export is conducted with China itself (again, reminiscent of the over-indexed Indo-Nepalese trade).
For China, its famed infrastructural behemoths and hyper-projects like CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), One-Belt-One-Road, and String of Pearls, entail substantial investments from Beijing to fund the same. In such a overcommitted scenario, yet another mega-infrastructural initiative to connect the Chinese mainland to Kathmandu via all-weather roads or by rail (to connect landlocked Nepal with the Chinese ports for import-export) are realistically not feasible, economically – the ‘size of prize’ from the Chinese perspective, simply does not add up in the immediate future, given the relatively smaller size of the Nepalese market for China to peddle their wares. The foremost Chinese priority is to ensure the access to the Arabian Sea ports (hence the urgency with CPEC and the Gwadar port) and to ensure the security and safety of its sea-faring routes in the vulnerable and restive South China Seas (especially in the narrow Malacca Straits) – given the enormity of these tasks and commitments on hand, the Nepalese investments will need to be put into the back-burner.
Even for Nepal itself, the convenient and historical stance of equidistance (the earlier monarchies had defined Nepal as a zone of peace), between China and India will be tested in an increasingly black and white world, with the strategic convergence and emergence of a clear Indo-US axis on one hand, and the alternative Chinese-Pakistani axis, on the other. Fundamentally, Nepal will have to determine the bloc that it chooses to throw its weight behind—the recent isolation and international opprobrium of Pakistan in the regional framework (SAARC summit and during the Heart of Asia meet) will not go unnoticed in Kathmandu as it seeks to define its future course. Even the expected ideological tilt of the incumbent Prime Minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ (also the Chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal, Maoist-Centre) towards China was allayed when he chose to visit India, as the first port of calling, after assuming Prime Ministership in August 2016. A marked period of retrain and acknowledgement of mutual concerns have been reinitiated. The inherent contradiction of a leftist government in Kathmandu dealing with an avowedly, rightist government in Delhi, is thankfully getting tempered with much-needed maturity, respect and cooperation.
India, too, has a task on its hand of correcting the recent perceptions of hegemonic instincts, belligerence, and unwarranted interference in the sovereign affairs of Nepal. There is an undisputed and profound Indo-Nepalese ‘connect’ that is civilisational, emotional, and cultural as opposed to the Chinese ‘connect’, that is more on the rebound and tactical. The free-border and the inter-linkages of the Indian Military, owing to the outstanding service rendered by the Nepalese Gorkha soldiers in the Indian Army (providentially, both the current Chief of the Indian Army and the Vice Chief of the Army, both belong to the Gorkha Regiments).
The Chinese are expectedly wary of the renewed Indian moves in Nepal and have threatened ‘endless trouble’ if India were to perceive the Chinese largesse towards Nepal as an anti-Indian move. Over a dozen trucks carrying basic materials like clothes, electronics, appliances and building materials worth $2.8 million are making their difficult way towards Kathmandu. With its obvious strategic desire to rope-in Nepal within its strategic fold and an accompanying inability to offer an infrastructural solution, to walk the talk, the Chinese have opted for a more ostensibly pacifist and covert ‘cooperative’ stance that would encourage Nepal to persist with its ‘neutrality’ (read, equally friendly with China, as with India) stand with its famed ‘cheque-book diplomacy’ (last year, China pipped India to emerge as the largest donor of Official Development Assistance) – this also enables Nepal to play the China card with India, as and when the heat from Delhi gets to Nepal. Clearly, there is a conflicting and competing flow of strategic winds in the region, and so far, Nepal has managed to utilise the conflict to its advantage. However, going forward, it will have to make a definitive choice of preferred direction. India too has a lot to answer and make remedial amends towards Nepal to ensure that the ultimate choice made by Nepal is not one out of coercion, bluster, or necessity.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.
Views expressed are strictly personal.)