Murari Sharma: Nepal’s Interest in the India-China-US Triangle

The interest of India, China and Western countries collide in Nepal. India and China, regional powers eager to deepen and expand their hegemony, are treading on each other’s toes: China in South Asia and India in South East Asia in collaboration with the United States to cordon off Beijing.  This configuration poses great threats  as well as offers great opportunities for Nepal.

Nepal, India, and China have been intertwined for ages. Brikuti, a Nepali princess, and Nepali and Indian scholars spread the light of Buddhism in Tibet and beyond, and Nepali businessmen traded in Tibet. Chinese scholars visited South Asia cataloged its history and wisdom.  

Nepal fought two wars with China and two with India. We lost one war and won another with China. In the second war, the Chinese forces reached to Betrawati, deep inside in Nepal. Similarly, we defeated British India in one war and sustained heavy losses in the other, losing almost one-third of our territories under the Treaty of Sugauli.

After China became communist, the United States joined in the Nepal-India-China mix by training and arming the Khampas against Beijing.   

While Nepal stayed in the Indian sphere of influence after with King Rana Bahadur Shah, China sought diluting Indian impact since it became communist, especially after it absorbed Tibet.  Its spectacular economic development, which helped it build a formidable military, has made China more ambitious over the last couple of decades and encouraged it to reach out to South Asia, Africa, and South America. 

Though India has also logged an impressive growth over the last two decades and building its military capability, China is far ahead thanks partly Pakistan.  Actually, it was the case during the Indo-Chinese war of 1962 already. China has nurtured Pakistan as a continued thorn in India’s side, and expanded its presence in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar, and Nepal. 

India has been trying to maintain its grip on its old sphere of influence, South Asia, and seeking to reach out to South East Asia, China’s backyard, with US support.  The United States wants to preserve its global hegemony, for which it much cut the emerging powers to their size. 

Yet, it would be wrong to read too much in this tense triangle. Despite all this contest, India, China, and the United States are huge trading partners, and their economic interaction has been growing. In this situation, Nepal should not perceive itself as a pawn in this broader geopolitical game to promote the players’ interests.

Neither should allow others to perceive and use Nepal as a pawn in this game.  Therefore, Nepal must be careful in what it says, and more importantly, what it does to preserve its de facto sovereignty and independence. 

In other words, Nepal must maintain the best of relations with its geographical neighbors, China and India, and our sky neighbors, mainly the United States and Europe. We must desist from being the pawn of one or another for instant gratification. We must dilute Indian hegemony in Nepal while not allowing China to increase its.

Neither should we allow Western countries to destroy Nepal indirectly, mainly by promoting identity politics and conflicts fueled by it.

Meanwhile, we must use their friendship and economic support to strengthen Nepal’s sovereignty and independence and promote Nepal’s economic and social development. If the Cold War is any guide, Nepal will be freer and safer if it did not align itself too much with any of our neighbors and it became prosperous.

For its progress, Nepal should attract more investment from inside and outside and try to be part of the global supply chain. For such investment to increase, there should be financial and economic incentives, policy stability, and strong institutions that give confidence to investors. To mitigate our geographical disadvantage, we ought to focus more on light weight and high-value products and industries. 

Our immediate neighbors and sky neighbors have been investing in Nepal to bring into their ambit. They have all deploying words and extending support to give the impression that they have Nepal’s interest at heart. However, no matter how much and how hard they promise, their first and foremost interest would be to promote their own national interest. 

We must bear in mind that our national interest would be peripheral and subservient at best and antithetical at worst to our immediate and sky neighbors. Therefore, we must increase connectivity with all three neighbors, resisting the temptation of being favorite of one or the other. We must not allow them to dictate our policies geared to promoting the safety, security, and development of Nepal and prosperity of the Nepali people.

At the same time, we should respect their genuine interest Nepal. For instance, we must not allow any of our neighbors to build a military presence in Nepal or let our territories be used against them. It should be a two-way street. History tells us how covert and overt anti-Nepal activities have been allowed and supported by our immediate and sky neighbors. 

In international relations, countries have no permanent friends or permanent enemies, as Lord Palmerston has said; they only have permanent interest.  The worst form of enmity results in wars, which only happen between immediate neighbors. Our leaders will be wise to keep that in mind when they deal with our near and far neighbors.

In other words, in the extant tension among our immediate and sky neighbors, there are great opportunities if we keep our national interest front and center and pursue them. However, if we align with one or the other for instant gratification, our safety, sovereignty and independence will be jeopardized.


Murari Sharma: Black-and-white world

Are you worried about your future? About the future of your children? We live in a grey world, but when you have leaders that tend to see things only in black and white, you have to worry.  I am talking about the reactions to what Prime Minister KP Oli and President Donald Trump, both sorts of cult personalities, do. 

Cult personalities command blind loyalty from their supporters and aversion from others. Some sections of Nepal praise Mr. Oli to the sky and others view him as someone on the steroid, of course, to treat his illness. Likewise, Mr. Trump is a hero for arch-conservatives, while for others, he is a crazy moron. 

Take Mr. Oli’s recent India visit, for example. Mr. Oli’s party colleagues and supporters have characterized the visit as a grand success. The Nepali Congress Party has said it was a lost opportunity and his detractors have faulted him for leaving out many important issues from the conversation. What is the truth? 

Hegemons often extract advantage from their smaller counterparts during high-level visits or official negotiations. India and China, the regional hegemons, do the same. Who does it overtly and widely, who does it covertly and narrowly, depends on their political systems, level of transparency required by them, and on the scope of engagement with other nations.  

If the leader of a small country comes home from a trip to bigger countries without unduly compromising his national interest, that is a success. If he comes with substantial assistance as well, that is a remarkable success, assuming that the assistance will materialize.

We do not know what transpired between Mr. Oli and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in the one-on-one talks. If Mr. Oli has not made any undue compromise in those talks, then the visit should be deemed as a success, because he did not give in anything publicly and secured promises of support for his pet projects, rail, and waterways. It is a different question how quickly India implements its commitment.

Those areas were not probably the most urgent needs for Nepal, but when the next election arrives in five years, we will ask Mr. Oli what promises he had made in the last election were fulfilled. Besides, it is a matter of approach to development.

For good reasons, some believe in balanced development; others in unbalanced growth, in which two or three key sectors lead the way to take off. The Soviet Union, which focused on power, roads, and railways, was the best example. So it becomes a question of an ideological bend of commentators.

It leads me to the second subject: Mr. Trump.

As we have witnessed, Mr. Trump is constantly in the news. Whatever he says or does polarizes the United States. For instance, his immigration pronouncements and policies. His arch-conservative base blindly supports his racist, anti-immigration comments and policies as if they are coming from God. His opponents see him and his words as racist.

Similarly, Americans are divided over the Special Counsel investigation into Mr. Trump’s collusion with Russia during the presidential campaign. Mr. Trump and his close supporters view the investigation as a witch hunt. To safeguard the integrity of American democracy, his opponents find the investigation legitimate and essential. Even most Republican leaders want the investigation to proceed to its logical conclusion. 

Mr. Trump’s tariff on import of steel and aluminum and on Chinese goods has received a similarly divided reaction. His core supporters believe he is right, but his opponents worry about the potential trade war that will hurt America, China and the rest of the world. China has already announced its own tariff on American products. 

Ditto about Mr. Trump’s treat to tear the six-country nuclear deal with Iran.

In any democratic political system, differences across the political divide are common. But cult leaders evoke a more visceral reaction from their supporters as well as opponents because of their provocative words and deeds.  Unfortunately,  they often end up harming themselves, like committing suicide or pushing others to do it to make their point or to escape a concocted apocalypse.

That is what worries me. Both Mr. Oli and Trump have become sort of cult leaders due to his unmeasured words in Mr. Oli’s case and his unmeasured words and whimsical deeds in Mr. Trump’s case. They are prone to interpreting national interest  — protecting sovereignty and independence and promoting the prosperity and welfare of citizens — as they see fit and act accordingly.

Obviously, that could prove dangerous if there are no people around them to check their impulses by reminding them that the world is more grey than black and white.

Murari Sharma: Stand for the Country

Bal Krishna Sama has said one’s patriotism does not die even if his country is miserable and a wife’s devotion does not die even if the husband is sinful. There is absolutely no reason why Nepal should feel inferiority complex and conduct its foreign relations with dignity. As Prime Minister KP Oli prepares to visit India from this April 6-8, he will, I hope, make us proud, as he has done twice before on different foreign policy issues.

First, he called the Indian economic blockade of 2015/16 by its name and asked the Indian government to lift it while other senior leaders kept loud silence while the Nepali people suffered. The Nepali Congress did not. Again, Mr. Oli stood up to the European Union when it sought to foment ethnic strife through its election observation report, undermining the hard-won Constitution of Nepal. This time, the Nepali Congress did it too.

Does this mean Mr. Oli has made a paradigm shift? The biggest test of it will be his India trip in a few days. Like all other countries, Indian will try to maximize its national interest during this visit. We will see whether Mr. Oli can take the right stand to advance our national interest.

We did not have enough of him the last time he was prime minister for a year. But before that, when he was deputy prime minister and minister maker in his party, he was known as a close friend of India. He has been far from consistent in standing for national interest.

For example, Mr. Oli first opposed the Mahakali Treaty and then supported it. Though he called the Indian economic blockade of 2015/16 what it was, he has never expressed his concern when China has closed the Nepal-Tibet transit points repeatedly. Evidently, he had been part of Nepali political culture.

Broadly, it means if you belong to a communist party, anything China does is good and acceptable. If you are part of a non-communist party, anything India or the West does is good and tolerable. More specifically, foreign intervention is welcome if it benefits you or your party and unwelcome if it benefits your opponents.

The spokesperson of the Indian External Affairs Ministry had once briefed Nepali journalists that Nepali leaders often visited New Delhi with personal agendas rather than national.

Such personal favors include support to gain or retain power, scholarships for their children or relatives, free medical treatment facilities for their family and friends, observation tours for them, projects in their constituencies, new vehicles for them, etc.

It is a chronic disease in Nepal, and it has only become severer with the passage of time. Started with King Rana Bahadur Shah,  the disease deepened with the rise of Jang Bahadur Rana, widened after 1990, and reached its utmost depth and openness after 2006.

Some examples. Indian counselor Mehta’s advice to unleash a storm for One Madhesh, One Pradesh and the Indian blockade of 2015/16 to support it. The EU’s recent comment on the Nepali Constitution to foment ethnic tension. The previous British ambassador Spark’s comment on freedom for conversion. China’s objection to Nepali NGOs working with the Taiwanese NGOs.

Has Mr. Oli steered Nepal’s foreign policy ship into a new direction with his stand against the Indian economic blockade and the recent EU’s suggestion?  Will he maintain his new position as a matter of policy? Until we have a stack evidence, we have no way to know.

As it appears from outside, Mr. Oli has the political strength to do it. His government enjoys nearly the three-fourths majority in the federal government and the coalition of the UML, Mr. Oli’s party, and the Maoists lead six of the seven state governments.

However, Mr. Oli might not be as strong and confident as he appears from outside. Inside his party, he faces entrenched opposition from the factions led by other senior leaders. The Madheshi parties have supported him to entice Mr. Oli to amend the Constitution, as they want.

More importantly, the Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal is a wild card. Mercurial and unreliable, he might abandon Mr. Oli and the UML-Maoist integration process mid-course and fall back into his default character. His recent demand that both parties must have 50-50 officeholders in the merged party is a clear pointer.

Considering his party’s strength, his demand lacks the sense of proportion and justice. They have taken cabinet positions on 70-30 ratio, and it seems right given their electoral performance and number of seats in the federal and state legislatures. However, Mr. Dahal made that demand anyway.

The Nepali Congress Party has thrown its support to Mr. Dahal for prime minister if he broke from the UML-Maoist integration. Most external powers do not want the merger either; they have been sending feelers to Mr. Dahal. At a critical juncture, Mr. Oli’s strength might prove the Potemkin’s village.

Therefore, let us appreciate Mr. Oli for his stand against external intervention and urge him to maintain it the future. Let us hope Mr. Dahal will not be a foreign pawn.  Let us expect the Nepali Congress not to knock on foreign doors to destabilize the Oli government.

And finally, let us hope the Oli government does not flout the fundamental norms of democracy and freedom. If he did it, we might have to ask the international community for their moral support to put a spanner into his plan. Because power corrupts, it is entirely possible.

Consequently, the world has produced a surfeit of Ferdinand Marcos, Robert Mugabe, Pervez Musharraf, Zia-ul-Haq, Zia-ur-Rehman, Suharto, Than Shwe, and so on. Who had thought President Xi Jinping of China would change the Chinese Constitution to open the door to keep him in power for life. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, George Washington, and Nelson Mandela have been rare.

Every progress starts with the first step. Let us hope Prime Minister Oli will continue following the spirit of Bal Krishna Sama’s poem and put Nepal and its people front and center, not succumb to the diseased political culture.