Nepal’s ‘great’ leap backward

World order is changing fast. Nations are framing strategies to deal with the unknown that is emerging. In Nepal, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is busy defending his corrupt Finance Minister.

Bikash Sangraula

  • Read Time 7 min.

In February, just days after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war Nepal’s parliament ratified MCC, the economic arm of America’s Indo Pacific Strategy aimed at weakening Russia’s all-weather ally China.

In June, documents dating as early as 2015 dug up and leaked by enterprising Nepali journalists proved beyond doubt that Nepal’s political leaderships of all hues, and, sadly, the only trusted institution left in the nation—Nepal Army—worked in concert for at least seven years to put Nepal under the security umbrella of the State Partnership Program, trading national security for personal rewards.

MCC was signed in 2017, just two years after Nepal sought a spot under the increasingly holey, and, as evident in Ukraine, ineffective umbrage of the United States, which has, for 75 years now, worked extra time to project itself as the global police promoting and protecting human rights, democracy, and many other fine-sounding ideas delivered with not just mixed, but contrary results, to nations like Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and now in Ukraine, to mention a few. Ironically, all those countries were left worse off than they were before American intervention.

Nepal’s location, between two of the world’s most populous nations that have prospered despite their diametrically opposite political systems, was not instructive enough to the country’s leadership and top commentators whose priority in the past 30 months of a global pandemic has been focused more on salvaging their rapidly dwindling personal fortunes and clout, instead of warding off the perils increasingly apparent on Nepal’s future as a sovereign nation.

Losing the enviable status of being among a handful of nations that does not celebrate Independence Day because we were never colonized seems game now to those used to receiving and living off on Western financial inducements.

In fact, whether Nepal’s long-held policy of Panchasheel and non-alignment remains intact is already quite debatable.

The deliberate promotion of commentators, with little love for this nation, leaves little doubt that Nepali media, badgered by the economic fallout of the pandemic, has now become a willing accomplice in propaganda that benefits nations other than our own.

The MCC hype      

Opinions in Nepal on the ratification of the MCC grant—touted as the largest ever and therefore a quick-fix savior for Nepal’s economy hurt by 2015 quakes, an Indian blockade shouldered quite unsuccessfully by some Madhesi parties, and then the pandemic—have ranged from self-congratulatory ones persuaded by the benighted belief that the 75-years-old global order led by America and her allies remains intact, to cautionary ones that have come from geopolitically informed but widely ignored sections of the Kathmandu intelligentsia.

Prachanda Deuba

Suggestions, by those holding the former opinion, that injection of the grant money would immediately rescue Nepal’s tanking economy, have proven wrong.    

On the other hand, economic shocks of the war north of the Black Sea, now being felt in all continents, increasingly indicate that the timing of the grant’s ratification was inauspicious and also quite unfortunate for Nepal, for it put Nepal on the side of a global power that is making efforts to salvage its failing global dominance.

Notably, MCC’s ratification came after US official Fatema Z Sumar gave Nepal, a $34 billion economy, the deadline of “no later than February 28” to accept the $500 million grant, to be spread over a five-year period. The second option was becoming ineligible for the grant.

Quite surprisingly, Sumar’s warning worked. Nepal’s parliament chose to placate a long-distance friend at the cost of disappointing her neighbor China, whose mere assurance that she stands behind Russia has spooked the West.

Swing states and vassal states

While Nepal sought to join the American security bandwagon, the past 100-plus days have prompted an increasing number of nations to prioritize domestic interests over the interests of America and Europe. Much of the world no longer believes America has the ability to protect them from nations projected by America as perennial ‘villains’.

In essence, unlike Belarus, the vassal state of Russia, Bhutan, the vassal state of India, and Ukraine, the vassal state of the United States, more and more nations are moving towards being what the leaders of the old world order are now terming “swing states”.

Cracks, for instance, have appeared in groupings formed around the world during the past 75 years of uninterrupted US sway over the planet, giving rise to an increasing number of swing states.

India, for example, has disappointed the West with its stance, of lack of it, on both Russia and China, despite an ongoing border standoff with the latter in Ladakh.

Whether Nepal’s long-held policy of Panchasheel and non-alignment remains intact is already quite debatable. 

Indian bluster on Ladakh, it appears, is more for public consumption, or to placate voters, while realpolitik is veering increasingly towards commercial interests. Though India dislikes China, Indians love Xiaomi, which, at the moment of this writing commands a quarter of India’s smartphone market.

In 2019, Narendra Modi used bluster tactics to placate a populace enraged by the Pulwama incident in which 40 Indian soldiers died.

Goaded by commentators, some of whom went as far as suggesting it was time to nuke Pakistan, Modi responded by bombing some vacant sites in Balakot, Pakistan. Doctored reports were then fed to the Godi media that vengeance had been exacted.   

Meanwhile, the meeting of QUAD nations held in Tokyo in May, which the US had hoped would lead to the evolution of a NATO-like alignment in Asia-Pacific, but against China, failed because of Indian reluctance.

This prompted White House Indo Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell to term India a “swing state”, and some QUAD members to term India an “unreliable partner”.

Such remarks have hardly mattered to an increasingly assertive India.

A week later, following US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s criticism of India for the rising religious intolerance and “attacks on people and places of worship”, India was quick to respond with criticism of the US for “racially and ethnically motivated attacks, hate crimes and gun violence”.

At the GLOBSEC Forum in Slovakia earlier this month, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar quite famously favored India’s ties with Russia and China, rejecting American-led insistence that it condemn Russia.

Tellingly, he said “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”

He added, “…China and India happened way before anything happened in Ukraine. So the Chinese don’t need a precedent somewhere else in the world on how to engage us or not engage us or be difficult with us or not be difficult with us.”   

Nations, across the globe, with the exception of Sweden and Finland, are increasingly prioritizing their own interests, and looking for ways to bolster their own defense capabilities, having outsourced security to the United States for seven decades.

Meanwhile, cheap Russian crude is making its way to India’s privately-run refineries and then being exported to Europe, which while banning the import of Russian crude, has shown no qualms in buying the same from refineries run by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries. Ambani is among Narendra Modi’s chief electoral financer, which guarantees the former major policy favors and indemnity that the likes of Carlos Slim Helu once enjoyed in Mexico, guaranteeing Helu complete control over that country’s telecom services.

The past 100 days have seen an increasing number of countries shying away from the US and Europe’s war against Russia. The war has variously been termed “total war” by the Americans, a precursor to World War III by Goerge Soros, who has made an unenviable name for himself by attempting to, to devastating effects, socially engineer the global south, and a war with no end because it is essentially a war of attrition—one aimed at weakening Russia instead of defeating it.   

Last month, in another blow to the United States, ASEAN nations refrained from mentioning Russia in their joint declaration.

Having banned oil imports from Russia and desperate to find an alternative, US president Joe Biden this month almost visited Saudi Arabia. The visit has been scuttled, at least for now, because it would mean Biden sitting together with Mohammad bin Salman, alleged by US intelligence to have issued the order to kill Jamal Khashoggi four years ago.  

Meanwhile, Japan is mulling to bolster and expand its counter-strike capability from intercepting and shooting down hostiles, to attacking their launch bases, including, if necessary, China’s Central Military Commission (CMC).

The CMC is China’s highest national defense organization, directly led by President Xi Jinping.  

World order is changing

All these developments are evidence of a fast-crumbling old world order. Nations able to grasp the gravity of the situation are framing strategies to deal with the unknown that is emerging.

In the evolving context, Nepal’s leadership appears blissfully unaware of the central role China is set to play in whatever will emerge.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is busy defending his corrupt Finance Minister who tweaks the national budget to benefit certain businessmen. At times, he is spotted yawning beside Narendra Modi in Lumbini, complacent perhaps in the misplaced belief that with Modi by his side, he has the world by his side.

Someone should remind our yawning prime minister of what Napoleon Bonaparte famously said: “China is a sleeping giant. Once she wakes up, she will shake the world.”

China woke up some 20 years ago when it gained entry into the World Trade Organization. Ever since, it has been a story of China’s steady rise and the West’s steady decline.

A neighbor that has shaken the world to the extent that it sends bombers while QUAD leaders meet in Tokyo, regularly sends fighters over Taiwan, and yet gets away with tame statements of condemnation from the United States isn’t one to be taken lightly.

While India appears to have grasped the tectonic global shifts and is cozying up with China and Russia, Deuba appears confident that MCC will salvage Nepal’s economy and SPP will protect Nepal from military threats.

Instead of reaping benefits from her geographical location between two increasingly assertive economic and military powers in the world, of which one is set to unseat America as the world’s superpower in the not-so-distant future, Nepal has clearly regressed to what her founder Prithvi Narayan Shah said of her over 250 years ago.

The key difference is that the yam has aged and is at its historical weakest, while both the boulders have become mighty and less friendly. 

Bikash Sangraula is a Kathmandu-based journalist and author.