Amid shifting geopolitics, how should Nepal navigate its foreign policy?

As the great powers are focusing on South Asia in general and Nepal in particular, Nepal’s geopolitics has also changed significantly in recent times especially in the post-2015 period.

Hari Prakash Chand

  • Read Time 7 min.

The engagement of Great Powers in Nepal has massively changed Nepali geopolitics. Its critical impact reflects on Nepal’s foreign policy as well. Nepal has undergone many geopolitical turbulences in the last 70 years, faced many crises but has not been able to change its foreign policy drastically. Even at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, Nepal prides itself on the global values ​​of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2020, Nepal drafted a foreign policy document but it is silent about the geopolitical dimension and the great power play in Nepal. 

Geopolitics explained 

Geopolitics is one of the most dominant determinants of Nepal’s foreign policy. It is the analysis of the geographic influences on power relationships and includes the contemporary rationalization of power politics. It combines history (political process) and geographical territory of countries in the world. Furthermore, geopolitics is also the analysis of the interaction between geographical settings and perspectives and political processes. Researchers have found that the geographical settings and political processes are dynamic and so is geopolitics.

The Theory of Heartland proposed and advanced by Halford John Mackinder in 1904 is focused on geopolitics. The Heartland lay at the centre of the world island, stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic.  Mackinder said in 1919: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island, and who rules the World-Island commands the world.”

The Heartland’s size and central position made it the key to controlling the World-Island. The heartland comprises three physical and three non-physical characteristics. The physical characteristics are: a) It relates with the ‘grassland zone’ of the Heartland, b) It includes the lowland plain on the face of the globe, and c) Some great plain navigable rivers are also part of the heartland. Likewise, the non-physical characteristics are: a) geographical significance, b) territorial significance, and c) strategic significance.

Findings of the research show if geopolitics is dynamic, foreign policy cannot be static. If it remains unchanged, a geopolitical crisis emerges and foreign policy becomes functionless.

When geopolitics changes, power centers also change accordingly and thus geopolitics shifts from one place to another. For example, the discourse of Asian Century is the result of geopolitical shifts.

Geopolitics has a dual relationship with mainstreaming theories of International Relations like Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism. The geopolitics of the great powers always dominates the geopolitics of the weak and small powers. In other words, the geopolitics of the small power is completely affected by the geopolitics of the great and superpowers. But global epidemics and economic crises also change global geopolitics. When geopolitics changes, foreign policy should also be revisited. If the foreign policy remains the same even in the changed geopolitics, political crisis evolves and a vacuum is created.

Nepal has faced several shifts in geopolitics but it has not significantly and comprehensively revisited its foreign policy.

South Asia is becoming a new heartland in the 21st century due to the rise of China and the encirclement policy of the US. Nepal is in the central part of this 21st-century new heartland due to the intense rivalry between China’s BRI and US’ MCC projects. The USA, China, and India are the key players in this new heartland.

Can we conduct our foreign relations with the same set of old rules while the geopolitics of the world and the region has already fundamentally shifted?

South Asian geography carries the three physical and non-characteristics of Mackinder’s heartland. As the great powers are focusing on the region in general and Nepal in particular, Nepal’s geopolitics has also changed significantly in recent times especially in the post-2015 period.

Nepal signed the BRI agreement on 12 May 2017 and MCC Compact on 14 September 2017. BRI projects are pending despite having no legal obstacles. Ironically, the MCC project is under implementation even in the context of claims and counterclaims and controversies related to the clauses of the Compact.

These two issues, along with the massive engagement of the concerned global actors, have had serious implications on Nepal’s foreign policy. This is the reason Nepal has not been able to take any decision on the MCC projects nor move forward with the BRI projects.

Nepal’s foreign policy shortcomings

Nepal’s constitution has recognized five major pillars of Nepal’s foreign policy—the United Nations Charter of 1945, non-alignment adopted in 1955, Panchsheel (five principles of peaceful coexistence developed in 1954), international law dating back to 15th and 16th centuries and norms of world peace that emerged in 1943. In fact, these five pillars are the global norms.

Can we conduct our foreign relations with the same set of these old rules while the geopolitics of the world and the region has already fundamentally shifted? Perhaps we cannot.

Nepal drafted a new foreign policy in 2020. This is the first official comprehensive document of Nepal’s foreign policy comprising nine different priority areas of bilateral relations, multilateral supports, rules-based world order, regional support, economic diplomacy, protection of the rights of natural and legal persons, public diplomacy, track-two diplomacy, institutional setup etc. The document has top-twenty policies in it. It is a progressive document but it is insufficient because it has failed to examine geopolitics and its massive implications on foreign policy. Also, it is silent on current global, regional, and national geopolitical complexities raised due to global projects like MCC, BRI and IPS and the document has no vision as to how to deal with the superpowers. Besides, it has not specifically predicted any possible threats posed in Nepal due to bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral geopolitical rivalries.

Thus Nepal’s foreign policy still seems incomplete, even irrelevant at times, for the changing geopolitical situation.

Managing relations

China, the US, European Union and India are major geopolitical actors in Nepal. The interests of the US and EU in Nepal are almost similar. From this perspective, we can put major geopolitical actors in Nepal into four broad categories: India, China, Western powers, and developing nations including the LDCs.

Nepal has to be able to manage the political crisis that is created due to their high engagement in Nepal. Nepal also needs to engage with other countries in the Middle East and Gulf, the major destinations of Nepali workers, international organizations and Nepali diaspora as well.

So how should Nepal manage its foreign policy?

First, Nepal has to formulate the foreign policy depending on four primary pillars. The first pillar is Nepal’s India policy. India is the most dominant geopolitical actor in Nepal. Nepal has been facing political crises and challenges due to India’s unnecessary intervention in Nepal’s internal affairs. India has political interests, security interests, interests in natural resources, trade, and cultural influence. To balance those interests, Nepal should develop its India policy based on these three dimensions—Nepal’s strategic policy to India, Nepal’s economic policy to India and Nepal’s cultural policy to India.

The main issue at the moment is related with border regulation, diplomatic negotiations to bring back Nepali territories of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani, Lipulekh and Susta, revisiting the 1950 treaty of peace and friendship, public security and security of natural resources.

Nepal needs to be able to withstand and reject political and diplomatic pressures from India. Trade balance, protectionism and issues of symmetrical dependence are other areas under the second dimension of Nepal’s proposed India policy. In addition, cooperation in different cultures and civilizations, religious cooperation for maintaining religious peace and security, and diplomatic momentum to safeguard the origin of Buddhist religion and Nepal’s own religious culture are equally important. 

The second pillar of Nepal’s foreign policy based on primary national interest can be shaped through Nepal’s China policy. Nepal and Tibet are both the conditional factors for Chinese territorial integrity and Nepal’s national sovereignty. China’s interests are basically security interests, economic interests, and promotion of Chinese influence. The security interest of China in Nepal has the Tibet factor in it, apart from border regulation, and neutralizing Western engagement in Nepal. Likewise, Nepal’s security concern under BRI is an emerging security issue under the security interest of Nepal with China especially due to the rivalry between the US and China, thereby between the BRI and the MCC. Any issues related to security for both sides have to be dealt with through mutual understanding.

Nepal has to conceptualize its strategic policy to China which is vital for achieving mutual interests.

Similarly, China’s interest in the large market of northern states of India, implementation of BRI, development ties between China and Nepal in infrastructural development, and establishment of industries in Nepal for exporting goods to northern Indian states are some core economic interests of China in Nepal. From the Nepali side, more transit facilities from Chinese seaports (China has now agreed to provide transit facilities from four Chinese seaports named Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang, and Zhanjiang, and three Chinese dry ports named Lanzhou, Lhasa, and Shigatse), supports for connectivity and infrastructural development, the establishment of joint agro-research and production centers, exports of Nepali production to China and bringing the trade in balance are some points of economic interests of Nepal with China. 

Based on those mutual trade and economic interests, the second dimension of Nepal’s China policy should be formulated as Nepal’s economic policy for China. In addition, cultural influence to Nepal and beyond, cultural exchanges between the two countries, and establishment and influence through the Confucius institutes are some major interests of China in Nepal. Similarly, Nepal also wants to promote Nepali culture and civilization in China. 

Third, Nepal needs to have a separate policy to deal with the West. Western powers have three types of interests in South Asia—strategic and political interest, market interest, and cultural and civilizational interests. Encircling China is their core strategic interest in Nepal though they never express it openly.  They also look to intervene in the Sino-Indian market in Asia, making Nepal their station.

Nepal, on its part, has the obligation to address the security interests of its immediate neighbors—China and India. Nepal has to safeguard its economic interests from Western attempts to disrupt the Sino-Indian market. This is the core interest of Nepal under economic interests with the Western powers. Moreover, preserving Nepali indigenous religious culture from Westerners’ cultural influences and dominance are Nepal’s core interests related to culture and civilization.

In this context, Nepal’s West policy should be based on Nepal’s security policy, economic policy and cultural policy to the West.

Finally, Nepal also needs to have a policy for the rest of the world. This policy should include 152 developing countries, 46 least developed countries (LDCs), and other great powers not included in the first, second and third pillars of Nepal’s foreign policy.

These countries simply do not have much political and security interests in Nepal. They have interests in economic development and prosperity. Nepal should gear up economic as well as South-South Cooperation with those countries under this pillar of her foreign policy. This policy should cover South Asian countries (except India), the destination countries of Nepali workers, international organizations from South Asia, Asia, and around the world including Nepali diaspora. 

If Nepal, which is at the center of the emerging ‘new heartland’, formulates its foreign policy based on above-mentioned considerations, it can be a role model for other developing countries around the world and least developed countries as well. This kind of foreign policy will have the capacity to prevent the negative impact of global geopolitical shifts on Nepal’s geopolitics and its consequences on Nepal’s foreign policy.  

Hari Prakash Chand, associated with Kathmandu School of Law (KSL), is pursuing a PhD degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Tribhuvan University.