Jake Sullivan the National Security Advisor of the US on 4th Feb stressed the fact that the relationship between China and the US will define the twenty-first century. Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicted Beijing on human rights interruption in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and of various cybercrimes. China retorted by telling the US as an enormous human rights violator.
China and India’s battles seem temporarily settled, but the campaign is on and will continue as it is related with geopolitics to great power rivalry, it is geostrategic as it is economy, it is perceived as it is psychology and the theory of warfare, it is value-based as it is fighting for freedom, it is space for political influence for creativeness in global affairs.
Not pleasant, but a pitch for a face-off between the two largest economies and two political systems, while almost all South Asian nations including Nepal are cringed with various internal political and security dilemmas that is calling for possible global power’s intercession.
The long-awaited meeting of two fractions of United Marxist and Leninist (UML) leaders KP Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal concluded for a formal detachment of the most powerful political party after two decades. This is not the first time that the political parties formally take different paths due to the doubt of authoritarian headship.
The judgment of the Supreme Court for the reinstatement of the Parliament has raised three queries; the competition of the constituted forces and the constitutional forces is still prevalent and second, the argument of Nepal Communist Party Maoists (NCPM) raising arms against a democratic system of governance and legitimacy. Lastly the question of India’s policy with the signing of the 12-point agreement between the then seven-party alliance and the warring communist fraction the NCPM in 1996.
Dominant national security challenges to the state are the source of political feud 'the argument of the Maoist raising arms against the democratic system', the ‘state of national affairs totally politicalized, unchecked institutional corruption, lack of strategic thinking and national priorities, diplomatic stalemate, the politicization of institutions and bureaucracy as well as economic impact the nation will have to bear post-COVID-19.
Leaders political, military, or other, professionals alike must be accountable, strategic and visionary. A question arises: “Didn’t the political and military leadership during the peace process visualize that political alteration, regional dynamics and global shifts would find Nepal in a different strategic environment and in a disarray as the system changed but not the thoughts, attitudes nor the prominent political leaders?”
Unimaginative of strategic leaders then have put political power as one of the major national security challenges of Nepal today. Strategic leaders currently on the chair must visualize how Nepal will configure in the next half a century before their personal ambitions so that Nepal strives. The most important but less prioritized is National Security. An optimistic political environment has been missed but the silver lining resides.
Regional Geopolitical Milieu
During Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin III's visit to India PM Modi said “India and US are committed to our strategic partnership that is a force for global good”, while China pursues QUAD meeting as a NATO of the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR). Secretary Austin commended India’s leadership role in the Indo-Pacific and growing engagement with like-minded partners across the region to promote shared goals reaffirmed their commitment to promote a free and open regional order. Both sides exchanged perspectives on shared challenges confronting the region and committed to further strengthen their broad-ranging and robust defense cooperation. What does this signify to Nepal and the Himalayan region that witnessed the confrontation between China and India? When the global environment strides, Nepal is in search of a new PM with an argument over power politics.
South Asia is a market and a strategic alternative route to the Indian Ocean, India’s significance will rise and China-India border disputes are not designed for war but rather to stress and pressure India politically and diplomatically of allying with the US. The Himalayan arc was important but now with strategic importance. States like Nepal must think strategically and be more calculative of what will happen in the maritime domain that will directly reflect in the Himalayan arc. There are two options for Nepal either a strong security arrangement with an argument of financial sustenance or a political and diplomatic resolution.
The second round of the “Great Game” is compelling a proxy war serving as a battleground for cold war 2.0 with the withdrawal of the last remaining 2500 US troops and NATO from Afghanistan by 11 September, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack in New York. This stresses on the fact of the significance of the IPR and the continuation of US National Security Strategic policy from the Obama Administration in 2011 “Pivot or Rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific”. Afghanistan will be free of foreign forces with the government and the parties not likely to be capable of administering the probable political and security disorder leaving the immediate neighbors particularly China, Pakistan and Russia to be more involved in Afghanistan and their bordering state’s peace and stability. China has been implicated in training the Afghan Mountain brigade with the purpose to counter possible attack by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the adjoining Xinjiang province one of the sensitive provinces north of the Himalayas, that could interrupt China’s counter-terrorism efforts in the region. Afghanistan is also known as the passageway from Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent.
Myanmar is intimidating into cataclysm after the 1st Feb military coup known as Tatmadaw. The military sought to take full control of the country leading to unstoppable deaths and violence to almost 800 including children to date. The coup was launched against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi leading to the decade-long constitutional democracy dreading the influence of the military in politics. When the world is moving forward with a value-based argument against authoritarian communism rules; for democracies like the US, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) patience is the least bad option. Blinken tweeted “We are horrified by the bloodshed perpetrated by Burmese security forces, showing that the junta will sacrifice the lives of the people to serve the few. I send my deepest condolences to the victims’ families. The courageous people of Burma reject the military’s reign of terror.” Myanmar is a bridge to the Bay of Bengal with Bangladesh China India Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC). Decidedly disappointing and unconceivable in this century of livings with rights to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The world is gearing for a value-based system of governance but looks appalling in Myanmar.
On current Nepal’s political discourse
Nepal lies at the central part of the Himalayan arc almost central to the two possible problematical countries Afghanistan and Myanmar. Opposition is dwelling amongst our immediate neighbors China and India.
Political history set forth by political party’s profile was on the basis of ideology Left or Right except on major political-social changes. But PM Oli remaining in power has fully reevaluated Nepal’s political divisions, which are now pro or anti-Oli. The 2015 constitution has protected the weakness of the political leaders in power challenging the democratic credential like ‘NO’ to no-confidence motion for two years after the formation of the government. Another example can be the Nepali Congress (NC) joining hands with the ultra-left NCPM has been very costly for democratic NC. Ideology should play more significance than the past.
Upholding the verdict of the Supreme Court in a democracy by political parties is primary but has prompted political unpredictability that will continue until the root cause of instability is established.
The settlements signed between different warring factions by the Oli steered government connotes more political and restricts to oblige national security. This agreement signing ceremonies are continuing process to bring the armed group into democratic framework that commenced from 12-point between the seven-party alliance and the NCPM in 1996 to CK Raut with a 11-point agreement in March 2019 to the 3 point agreement with Biplav group, second, contentions between the constitution forces (UML, NC, Rashtriya Prajatantra Party and others who were part of the V.S. 2047/1990 constitution) and the constituted forces post peace process (NCPM, The Madhesi political force though most of them were part of the constitutional force) or short term political credibility, trustworthiness and reliability and third, all political parties are weak comparatively; attempting for space with lack of trust in people’s perception like the constitutional appointment, other political appointees and transfers are evaluated and perceived as politically protected, politically affiliated, financial links and personal relations but not from professionals and the people. Lastly, reasoning and justification of long-term stability with an absence of a strategic outlook.
In deduction; the dominance by Communist Parties in politics is very visible with (a) the likelihood of NCPM, Madhav Nepal led UML alliance which may not be ruled out. (b) political polarization and politicization of national institutions are viable and (c) democratic political party alliance may happen. Secondly, in diplomacy: the likelihood of the immediate neighbors, China and India’s political and economic interests will escalate and most likely invite added regional competitive environment for the long term amongst democratic and communist forces. Thirdly the population will feel contented with the political conclusion for an improved security environment but proceedings and occurrences will detour trust and finally, instability will lead to institutional corruption and a downturn in economic upswing post-COVID-19.
The world powers are focused on the IPR and when nations in the territory are opting to find a space with the query Non-Alignment, Multi-Alignment, Alignment, or other political and diplomatic resolutions. Moving together with India and partners for economic-security cooperation and coordination as part of the Act-East policy and enthusiastically contribute to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) when South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is compliant would be an opportunity for utilization of Nepal’s resources.
The global and regional security milieu is obscure than what our constitution envisages. Deficit of authentic and realistic strategic structures and premeditated fore thoughts is where complications lie. Nepal should not be the victim due to moving against the tide of change and space for transformation. One example is the National Security Policy which still lies in a few desks and in no time gather dust, which expresses that national security is still thought as in the late 20th century.
Nepal and Nepal’s national interests come foremost, national interests must guide policies and strategic decision making not pursuance of foreign governments and trends of national challenges. Non-visionary actions lead to unwarranted occurrences in the future therefore understanding the shift in the regional and international order of the 21st century as Nepal, South Asia and the IPR is altering.
Whoever gets their card right, it is politics for power missing the originality that democracy is for the people, by the people and to the people. Though the leaders are attempting to win for themselves, the country has lost many years and missed great opportunities. The only answer to this political contest is “election” though it will have to happen within two years as constitutionally mandated. The dubiety of who will conduct the election will prevail.
Nepal needs to find a suitable position diplomatically and politically for the population to acknowledge faith to politics and love for the nation as well as secure with the prospects of economic advancement. Nepal will be left behind with uncertainty as regional political dynamics are shifting and moving forward for free and open Indo-Pacific with democratic credentials. The political parties require further brainstorming for a strategic outlook of the latest defense development in the northern borders and framing Nepal's strategic security architecture and revisiting organizations, deployment and system of internal governance. The government’s approval to align the Nepali Army as per geographic features is favorable indications when a new geopolitical environment is in creation. Nepal Himalayas or Nepal's northern borders should have separate commands looking into the northeastern and northwestern sectors, covering the potential military maneuvering with the trends of strategic networks and means of transport systems impending in the future. Military posturing during the Nepal-Tibet war and the Nepal-China war can be looked into. Geography has not changed, but yes, the climate and technology have, making challenging geographical features more feasible. The Himalayas was and is militarily more significant today and in the long term. Standardizing capabilities, mobility efficiencies and defense intelligence are needed for a fighting and an agile force in an altering geopolitical environment.
With South Asia’s pre-eminence, the security bodies should focus their time, space and energy on impartial intelligence, collaboration, cooperation with South Asian security agencies via security diplomacy and be part to support the Regional Security Architecture of South Asia. The Nepali Army as the oldest and professional army of South Asia should take the lead.
The formation of a coalition government is most likely in the upcoming election. The next election should be an election for the people with national issues tabled, questions formed by all the stakeholders and answers by the people with participation from where ever in the world a Nepali may have settled. This opportunity should not be lost as the constitution was not owned or ratified by the people at large through two-third of the Constituent Assembly (CA) endorsed it. Pursuance by the 12-point agreement came without envisaging sustainable stability as well as not in proportionality with India’s national policy. The election must be taken as an opening or a sparkling light at the end of the tunnel with the question what is that “Big Game in South Asia?” As the big concern is political stability, social-cultural harmony, curtailing the scope for acts of terrorism, commination that space provides for illegal migration and assuring good governance accentuating on the national security challenges.
Basnyat is a Strategic Analyst and a Major General (retired) of the Nepali Army