The Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe visit has for another time put a match to the news channels and Kathmandu’s political and diplomatic apex of the consequences as well as the outcome of the visit when the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) power antagonism is at its pinnacle and the management of COVID-19 is worsening. Comparing and contradicting visits from China and India prevail. With a derailment of both political and diplomatic dialogue between Nepal and India over Nepal’s parliamentary endorsement of the Kalapani Region as part of Nepal; the Security Chief of RAW Goel and the General Naravane, Chief of the Army Staff of the Indian Army’s visit staged a significant role in opening up the diplomatic channel with India’s foreign secretary Harsha Vardhan Shringla’s two days visit this 26-27 Nov. for initiating political dialogue. It cannot be denied that the ruling NCP power struggle has resulted in political maneuvering by the Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi and the upcoming impromptu visit by the Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe on 29th Nov. The internal political discrepancy and dynamics have induced political stage management now from both the immediate neighbors questioning South Block’s long-established influence. World politics is shifting to the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR), with most flashpoints being in and around China. China’s political ambition in South Asia is making it further dependent on neighboring nations for strategic and transit needs. Defending the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal has been imperative for both China and India. In the continental, if you sub-regionalize the Himalayas Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim lie at the center. India has become the precedence for her rise, for China and the global players.
International and Regional dynamics
The global geopolitics is reshaping the region with mainly two broad philosophies one, democracy over communism and two, economy as a predominant instrument of national power. The new administration of the US’s strategic national security policy with regard to the IPR will be unremitting as Trump’s strategic policy is an extension of Obama’s “Strategic Rebalancing Policy in the Asia Pacific”. Trump managed the policy to achieve the strategic ends with a dissimilar premise. President elect Biden will not alter but is likely to use diverse modalities and adhere to multilateralism, globalization with preference to bilateralism. Policy towards Africa, Europe and the Middle East will modify. India will be the focal strategic ally in South Asia with QUAD nations in the IPR.
Policy as well as diplomatic behavior towards Nepal will continue to be constant, but will vastly depend on the government’s approach on what to benefit from the new leadership. It has to commence with the parliamentary approval of the projects under the Millennium Challenge Cooperation (MCC). The Oli led government is optimistic though the Central Committee (CC) of the NCP is divided. US defense assistance for the Nepali Army for capacity development and upgrading the UN training facilities has not stirred forward as preferred due to political magnitude. The US is the only global power and will remain for years to come and will have great influence in international diplomacy, where Nepal will have to make the most of.
China has been politically active in South Asia mainly with two concerns one is the geopolitical theory under the Himalayas for resource management with strategic connectivity and two, keep in check US and Allies assistance as well as influence aimed against China. Tibet is part of the sensitivities where Nepal covers 1414 km along the central section of the Himalayas.
IPR and South Asia is witnessing profusion political and diplomatic undertakings that will put up with geo-strategic and geo-economic consequences. The signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) after Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) between the US and India is assuring support to mutual trust and long-term military and strategic cooperation. The concluded troika of “Gateway Pact” is for unfathomable military cooperation between the two countries.
The third annual India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue further strengthened trust and friendship, shared commitment to democracy, converging strategic interests and robust engagement of their citizens. US-India elevated their relationship to a comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership that was inked during President Trump’s visit to India in Feb 2020.
The G7 summit was postponed by the Trump Administration and seconded by the UK and stressed by Germany and France with amendments of making it into D-10 or Democracy of ten nations all in the IPR (India, Australia and South Korea).
The 15 governments (10 Southeast Asians countries as well as South Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand and does not own South Asians countries) of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) though were negotiated in 2012 concluded with the signing in on the sidelines of a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The pact is taken as an extension of Chinese influence in the region. The deal excludes the US, which withdrew from a rival Asia-Pacific trade pact in 2017. Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) shortly after taking office.
The 15th virtual meeting of the G20 has virtual summit has concluded focusing on the impacts and collaboration needed in the post COVID-19 narrative.
The highly symbolic QUAD nations meeting in Tokyo ended with the Malabar joint military exercise in the Bay of Bengal with Australia rejoining the drills for the first time in 13 years aimed at collaborative approach towards regional security and stability to deter all who challenge a free and open Indian Ocean Region.
The fifth plenary session of the 19th CC of the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) top leadership projected of China remains in a major strategic development period citing decisive achievements the bright future with sweeping social and economic development goals for the next five to 15 years that aims to build the world’s most populous nations into a modern socialist power in the economic, technological and other fields by 2035.
President of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government in exile Lobsang Sangay, said to Voice of America that he visited the White House on 21 Nov and met newly appointed US special coordinator for Tibetan issue Robert Destro and with representatives from the office of the president and vice president along with key personnel working on Asia and China related issues. This is the first such meetings in 60 years and one that could draw the annoyance to Beijing.
China organized 4 countries Nepal, Afghanistan Bangladesh virtual meeting in July as health diplomacy and also whispered as QUAD nations of South Asia.
This visit is taking place by the state councilor and a close confidante of President Xi Jinping with the wrapping up of the 5th plenary of the 19th CC of the CPC national convention as well as taking place after two Indian security chiefs, Chief of RAW and Indian Army Chief’s visit. The ‘ends’ is different political desires with distinctive ways and means. The visit is politically aimed with possibilities in defense, strategic connectivity and political affiliation. The few probability are one, assist in the building the capability of Nepal Army two, furthering infrastructure development of the Belt and Road Initiative for long-term strategic interest and gains when the ruling party is tenuous three, stress on communist party-party connection with association between the NCP and the CPC with XI doctrine at the forefront and finally, articulate political interests with the unity of the NCP.
QUAD gives the impression of being for prosperity and stability of IPR and the world. US during the Cold War opposed wherever the Soviet sought to make inroads and interventions acted. Now in Cold War 2.0 intervention on China and values based dimensions are also inroads and look most likely. Would there be a military alliance to pressure and bring in China like North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe?
With quite a few myriad perilous security challenges, from great power competition unfolding between China and the US, South Asia is a sub-region that accommodates almost 25% of the world’s population, possess a varied arrangements of cultures, and has remarkable unrealized economic potential, geographic posture and resources appealing to interest outside the region.
Nation states in South Asia including Nepal need to visualize and comprehend the global and regional geopolitical environment and geostrategic placement, geopolitical realities and the question of ideology vs. realism. The end result of the Maoist people's war and the twelve point agreement without an ‘exist strategy’ is still arguable.
Nepal in the Contest
With global politics shifting and ascertaining times Nepal is entering in a “New Geopolitical Environment in an Aged Old Relationship” with the immediate neighbors China, India and the only global power and the third neighbor the US. China-India though agreeing to some sort of partial disengagement and de-escalations formula in the borders from Ladakh to Arunanchal is piled with political trust deficit and with the rise of militarization in the arc of the Himalayas. The US is one of the first few countries that recognized Nepal in 1947 and established diplomatic ties in 1948 is in line of argument with China.
Nepal-Sino and Nepal-Indo relationship is revolving around the US strategic policies, while the nature of threats is altering with the shift in the balance of power, so the world is witnessing a crisis of trust, problems in multilateralism, cybercriminals, corruption, poverty, terrorism, gender violence and trafficking and environmental degradation leading to disasters.
The political episode currently in Nepal has two angles and a long practice of the past, one, Palace existed to blame of the political, diplomatic and governance mess. Two, internal political party rifts now of the NCP with the tempt to stay in hang on to power adds to the practice where both China and India’s politician and diplomats visit fits in.
Visits of the Defense Minister Fenghe and Foreign Secretary Shringla amidst COVID-19 and NCP internal power struggle express both the immediate neighbors dependency on Nepal more than before. Diplomatic occurrence takes place or happens with an intent, indications hint on possibilities. Nepal and particularly the government and the opposition have to look at the happenings in the Himalayas with possibilities of long term strategic impacts. Nepal’s strategic challenge is misinterpreting the shift in geopolitics and strategic theories being articulated in the region and her internal perplexed political dynamics disorientating stability and prosperity.
Nationalism is service to Nepal interests, protecting independence, sovereignty and integrity of Nepal. Patriotism is love and loyalty to Nepal. Playing China against India or visa versa or anti China or anti India is not nationalism. It is merely politics of convenience and conspiracy which Nepal cannot afford as it will be both a strategic and diplomatic setback.
The internal vibrant of NCP and political instability has surpassed with important differences of opinion still on offer. The domestic political compulsions from within the communist party have only acquired temporary settlement. Optimism has twisted to be a ‘planning fallacy’. Political instability is occurring with mismanaging governance including COVID-19 in the three tier administrative system, leading to dis-satisfaction amongst the party cadres, citizens and international friends alike. This is where; security diplomacy and political visits come in that signifies that Nepal-Sino and Nepal-Indo Security relationship is of precedence. The biggest “Battlegrounds” is here at home where policies are driven to remain in power, capture power or sustain power.
The sources of vulnerability is the one, risk of regional polarization two, challenge of executing the 2015 constitution leading to political instability three, diplomatic discontent four, economy constraint particularly the impact to the economy post COVID-19 and finally social collision leading to security mayhem.
The sources of instability are primarily intra party differences leading to political instability ill governance, corruption, social collision, strategic thoughts, diplomatic inaccuracy, handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic contraction to systemic inequity, environmental degradation, political priorities and misinterpreting great power rivalry.
Four pillars in governance necessitate looking into for vibrant economy, foreign policy affair, and security affairs and strategic planning to facilitate regional connectivity from the Himalayas to the ocean. While the government is busy managing the COVID-19 crisis, which has turned to be in disarray, an independent body needs to be formed to look into the impacts and find collective strategic answers to address the challenges to repress instability.
India is debating and questioning the viability of Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) which played significant during the Cold War. Democracy vs. totalitarian communism is underway. For Nepal, multi-alignment for stability and prosperity, and non-alignment must still be the movement on unwanted conflicts but the fundamental is how would NAM shape and how would First Neighborhood Policy unfold?
Border disputes with immediate neighbors is surfacing: Nepal’s sovereignty must be well set and outlined from well protected borders as one, geography has changed two, geopolitical situation is different three, great power rivalry is shifting in our part of the world four, geopolitical compulsion is visible and lastly weak governance with corruption observed.
Indo-Sino dilemmas in the Himalayas are evidences to protect Nepal’s sovereign along the borders more than before. Border issues with both the immediate neighbors are an incident linked with geostrategic issues for long-term interests of great powers. Nepal must be very cautious with vital grounds that is military viable and would assist heavy armaments maneuvering that has viability for Indo-Sino confront.
Understanding the interests and politics of the immediate neighbors as well as Nepal’s political dynamics and economic constraints that could corner Nepal’s means and ways to evolve her own interests should be well premeditated. The Himalayan region signifies both our immediate neighbors China and India’s security threat. With Rivalry, Cooperation, Competing & Confrontation (R3C) viability to border encroachment is most likely.
The root of Nepal’s geopolitical predicament lies in the lack of strategic management. Strategically it is bad management in all fields including border, accountability, corruption and structural deficiency. Politically assuring the people of Nepal of the potent and belief of the military capabilities and assuring both neighbor that Nepal can defend its territory. Diplomatically, to enthrust trust with both immediate neighbors of the denial of activities that offends the values and principles of their existence, Nepal territory cannot be used by any foreign defense forces and Nepal adheres to the principals of nonalignment and coexistence. Militarily, assure both the neighbors of Nepalese Armies capabilities and the ability with defensive potentials to defend her territorial integrity and sovereignty
Forming an executive "national security body" to draw up plans, policies post COVID-19 is a necessity for the future prospects and approach. Holistic plans of action, reviewing and revisiting the state of border management and coordinated approach is a remedy for obtaining the national intent of "Happy Nepali and Prosperous Nepal”.
Nepal and Nepal’s nation interests comes first, national interests must guide the policy and decisions not pursuance of foreign Governments. There has been a strategic coordination blunder between Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Home Affairs like the BIMSTEC joint military exercise last minute political decision; and these incidents lead to unwarranted strategic implications. Nepal should think strategically, plan operationally and act tactically.
Generally speaking there are 3 types of individuals, organizations, governments and countries. Those, who make things happen, Those, who watch things happen and Those, who wonder what happened. PM Oli meeting with the Chief of RAW, India should be perceived as a means to regenerate the strong Nepal-India bilateral ties. As Head of Government Oli’s engagement for serving Nepal’s national interests is vital, when political talks is under seize, diplomacy was not moving forward. One of the fundamental of Nepal-India relationship is Nepal-India security relationship.
National security and regional security comes as a priority in these changing times and circumstances. The global concern is changing, IPR is the priority and South Asia is shifting while Nepal is going through multiple crises and the interlink challenges of sustainable development have not been clear. Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, the world's common policy framework and Nepal is equally accountable. In pursuit of these goals and Nepal's sustainable development agendas, Nepal will need to seek support from international financial institutions, the US and regional advanced economies like China and India.
Basnyat is a strategic analyst and a Maj. Gen. (retd) of the Nepali Army