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.