In recent years, multiple issues of US-China relations have come to the forefront of international debate. These issues include peace and security, democracy, human rights, development, trade and environment. Some strategic thinkers describe the gamut of issues in terms of ‘rivalry’ and others describe them as an increasing ‘enmity’ between the two countries. Yet others see it as a ‘coming war on China’. These are all dangerously powerful narratives, which impact the security perception and politics of the Southeast and South Asia as well as the larger world order; for instance, when viewed from the ‘rivalry’ point, one could presume some grounds for diplomatic maneuverability of the Asian states, striving for a balanced approach to peaceful coexistence. On the contrary, the ‘enmity’ perspective leaves no choice for Asian states but to choose one or the other side (the US or China) in a harmful armed conflict or conventional war, with a constant threat of nuclear war in the region. Therefore, it is vital to contextualize the description of the issues at stakes and to define alternative perspectives to deal with the change and uncertainty in international relations.
“War is the economy of the US” Harvard Zinn has sarcastically said. However, wedging yet another war is not humanly sensible from the world economic perspective, especially when viewed from the Covid-19 pandemic scenario. It may be that the US is inclined to exploit China-India border conflict for its advantage. At the same time, a war on the behest of the US will not benefit Indian interests. Even if India sees it that way, the Russian position will be a determining factor in this scenario. Russia may side with India or remain neutral. An offensive war by China will not be beneficial for its national interest either. What Zinn has said is that war is a failure of human senses. Who knows which leader will lose human senses and trigger the button of war machines.
Whether call it rivalry or enmity, US-China changing power and positioning certainly destabilizes the South and Southeast Asian states. The immediate impacts can be seen in terms of arms race and arms trade (India recently approved the purchase of 21 Russian MiG-29 and 12 Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter aircraft): a threat to regional peace and security; harm to economic cooperation and sustainable development more than ever. Therefore, it is necessary to address the questions: How should we contextualize the ongoing debate on US-China relations and its impact on Asian countries? What should be the focus of discussion? And, which perspectives are useful to adopt?
US-China rivalry and impact on the Southeast and South Asia demands a quadruplicity perspective, i.e. examining US-China relations on the one side, and Russia-India on the other.
The focus of this writing is to examine the domestic components of the four states mentioned earlier, and also to suggest a humanistic approach to international relations. Domestic components include basic characteristics of democracy, equitable level of development and social justice among various sections of the population.
Why the humanistic approach to int’l relations?
Because geopolitics is often overshadowed by strategic thinking and experts trained in explaining which country is capable of killing how many people of other countries and who owns how many weapons of mass destruction and so on.
From this kind of strategic thinking, we learn that China’s current military capability is 4 times more than India. The Chinese economy is 5 times larger than India. The US remains the world’s military superpower. Russia still competes with the US in terms of nuclear power capacity. Despite the emerging US-India strategic alliance, the Indian military still prefers the Russian military.
Some of these experts talk about innovative diplomacy and the use of soft power in dealing with inter-state conflict, or of winning the heart and mind of the people; however, they rarely give emphasis on such innovative diplomacy and soft power. More often than not, there is talk about strategy, tactics and roadmaps but without describing the wider landscape, without prioritizing human value where killing is seen as collateral damage, and where peace and justice are zero-sum games for most of them. On the whole, these experts lack the humanistic perspective.
Domestic components of foreign policies
First, let us note the key US-China issues being discussed at this moment in addition to the security and military issues already mentioned. Subsequently, we shall look at the domestic components of each of the four states. Finally, I will conclude with the case of Nepal’s foreign policy issues in response to this changing world.
Current issues of US-China relations, in addition to military and strategic issues, can be seen from the claim and counterclaim by the two countries: for instance, the US blames China for currency manipulations, but no effect shown so far. The US tariff or trade war with China, the trans-pacific partnership has not been passed, which is beneficial for China. Strategically the US intends to use Taiwan issues against China. US-China relations have a long history and it should be noted that the US preferred China against the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. China is the largest investor in the world in research and development. Out of the world’s 1,500 richest, 1,000 are Chinese. China is technologically advancing at a rapid pace.
Domestic components of the US, in addition to being the world’s military superpower, need reexamination. Since Watergate and the Vietnam War, the US democratic image is more damaged.
Issue of democracy in crisis. The covid-19 economic situation is a concern as elsewhere.
Domestic components of China besides military power parity between the US and China need careful consideration: and China is an unstoppable economic power. The country lacks democratic credentials, facing also western pressure, including from India. There are internal political conflicts, eg. Taiwan and Tibet.
Domestic components of India besides military catching up with China: Religion has cast shadows on its democratic credentials. The latest tension is about the China-India border, including the Nepal-India border. The internal political conflicts exist in India, eg. Kashmir and Maoist problems in some parts of the country.
Russia assured India to support India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Domestic components of Russia besides competing with US military power need to be understood: Russia is reasserting past Soviet prestige. Internal democracy problems exist in Russia, but influences world affairs, eg. In Syria. Moscow has ‘high stakes’ at a global level and interests in resolving tensions between China and India. Foreign ministers of Russia, India and China (RIC) are in contact and continue RIC dialogue to resolve border tensions. Soviet-China split in the 1960s was about nuclear power-sharing rather than ideological differences. Despite increasing amicable China-Russia relations in recent decades, Russia may not want China to be more powerful than itself.
Nepal in changing and uncertain world politics
The changing US-China relations will certainly make impact Nepal’s relations with India, including the broader issues with India. Kathmandu has become a home for international spying (Thomas Bell, Kathmandu). The world’s major powers are present in Kathmandu for their geopolitical interests. Indian and Chinese ambassadors are openly engaged in the internal politics of Nepal.
Nepal’s foreign policy lenses thus need focus on US-China relations on the one side, and Russia-India on the other. In other words, instead of looking at Nepal from abroad, it is necessary to see the outside world from the viewpoint of Nepal. Looking from Nepal, European diplomacy towards Nepal continues to serve as a “carrot” to the “stick” of the US diplomacy.
Similarly from Nepal’s perspective, military offense against Nepal either by India or China will not serve their interests, Nepal being the defense area for both. Therefore, from a strategic perspective, it will be sensible for Nepal to propose with both China and India for the demilitarization of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Lympiadhura. Demilitarization of the area will be useful for the security interest of India, China and regional peace and security. Those who will oppose the idea of demilitarized, peaceful coexistence will be pure warmongers.
For that the government of Nepal needs to do its homework, learning the intention of other powers, selecting preferences and using options available with cost-benefit-analysis. The country should continue the policy of non-alignment, inter-dependence and peaceful co-existence. Above all, Nepal needs to bring a democratic house in order and ensure social justice to its people.
In conclusion, it should be realized that domestically weak, undemocratic and socially unjust state never succeeds abroad in playing international power games. Most powerful empires in the past have fallen because of internal weakness than from outside causes.