Nepal’s geopolitical catch as Washington and Beijing lock horns over Taiwan crisis

In case Nepal finds itself in the US-China geopolitical push and pull over the Taiwan question, how should it handle the situation?

Illustration by Kyoko Nemoto

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 6 min.

On August 3, before the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi wrapped up her Taiwan trip, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal in Kathmandu shared a strongly-worded press statement with the Nepali media. Much of the content of the press note resembles the official rhetoric and remarks of China’s Foreign Ministry: That Pelosi’s Taiwan visit seriously violates the One-China principle and the political foundation of China-US relations, it infringes on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, undermining peace and stability across the Taiwan strait, that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, One-China principle is a universal consensus of the international community and a basic norm in international relations, the Taiwan question is purely an internal affair of China, China opposes American meddling in Taiwan, and so on.

Particularly noteworthy in the statement is the mention of Nepal. China and Nepal have always understood and supported each other on issues of core interests such as sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, says the statement, before lauding Nepal’s longstanding commitment to the One-China principle and resolute opposition to “Taiwan’s independence.” The statement says this opposition is the political foundation of China-Nepal relations. “We believe that the government of Nepal and its people will continue to abide by the one-China principle and understand and support China’s legitimate and justified position and work together with China to defend each other’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity,” said the statement.

The intended message is clear. China wants Nepal to take China’s side on the Taiwan crisis or just stay neutral.  The statement seems to be directed to deter Nepal from taking a position against China vis-a-vis Taiwan.  The statement can also be read as advice, or polite warning, to Nepal not to compare the Taiwan issue with the Russia-Ukraine war, just in case Washington-Beijing tensions over Taiwan escalates and the Nepal government is advised to take sides. 

Context matters

Back in February, when the Sher Bahadur Deuba government took a firm position on the Russia-Ukraine war, it was largely seen as the government doing the right thing. The day the Russian invasion of Ukraine started on February 24, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement opposing Russia’s “use of force against a sovereign country.” Few days later, Nepal voted against Russia in the United Nations General Assembly condemning the attack.

The rationale for standing with Ukraine was simple: Nepal is a small state lying between the two powerful and nuclear armed Asian juggernauts–India and China. As such, Nepal as a small and sovereign state should speak up for the protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other smaller states. 

The ruling party leaders justify Nepal’s position on Ukraine on this ground.

Speaking at a policy dialogue program organized by Policy Research Institute, the think tank of the government of Nepal, last month, Prakash Sharan Mahat, former foreign minister and the spokesperson of Nepali Congress, repeated these arguments. He defended Nepal’s position on Russia-Ukraine war by saying that just in case China or India someday decides to attack Nepal thinking that Nepal has violated their core interests, Nepal should have set a ground for garnering international support for the protection of Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. “What if China or India, someday, based on the perception that Nepal is going against their core national interests, decide that they should invade Nepal?” He said. “India and China stood for their interests. We stood for ours.”

The members of opposition CPN-UML who appeared ambivalent on the government’s stand on condemnation of Russia in February have started to express reservations in recent times.  The argument of Rajan Bhattarai was in sharp contrast to the argument of Mahat.

While rooting for continuity of Nepal’s non-aligned principle he argued that Nepal must not lose balance in its foreign policy. “We must not lose balance in our relations with neighbors and foreign powers,” he said.

Commenting on Nepal’s position on Russia-Ukraine war he said that Nepal’s position on Russian aggression on Ukraine should have been limited  only to calling for peaceful resolution of the conflict. “We should not have voted in the UN in favor of a certain country and against others,” he said. “We should have limited our opposition to condemning the Russian aggression. Not stood for vote. We made mistakes in the Russia-Ukraine war.”

There would be no reason to worry for Nepal if we had a leadership who could ensure that attempts to drag Nepal into the geopolitical conflict would be resisted.  

While the Ukraine-Russia war continues unabated,  Nepal is likely to find itself in a tight geopolitical rope because of another complicated and serious geopolitical conflict involving the world’s superpowers—the US and China–on the Taiwan question. Both the US and China are Nepal’s development partners with which Nepal shares a long history of friendly relations. Some aberrations aside, Nepal has sought to maintain cordial ties with both the nations.

It’s no secret that US-China relations are fraught and it will remain so, no one knows for how long, as China is doubling down its military drills around the Taiwan strait. Much of the Western world, including the US, which is supporting Ukraine by all means,  has supported Taiwan and opposed China, while China is hitting back at countries and critics who oppose its actions in Taiwan.  

What should Nepal do?

As the US-China tensions escalate and if push comes to shove, Nepal is likely to find itself in the geopolitical push and pull. The Western bloc will wish for, expect, or even pressure, if need be, Nepal to take a position against China, and China will wish for, expect, and even pressure, if need be, Nepal to take their sides on the Taiwan crisis.

Just in case this happens, how should Nepal handle the situation? I approached three foreign policy watchers.

Nepal has no business speaking about it, said Khadga KC, the professor at Tribhuvan University’s Department of International Relations and Diplomacy. “Consider America’s own position. Despite all the differences, America itself still seems to stand for One-China.  Since the 1972 Nixon-Mao meeting, America has stood for One China at least in principle,” he said.

According to KC, the government of Nepal should not be ill-advised to consider the Taiwan crisis like the Ukraine crisis. “They are completely different cases,” he said. “I would not even like to think  the government will support Taiwan. I would like to believe Nepal will not speak about the island which is purely an internal matter of China.”

According to him, Nepal should firmly and unwaveringly stand for One-China policy.  “Nepal must not do anything, in words and deeds, that goes against Nepal’s long-held One-China policy.”

Chandra Dev Bhatta, who is a scholar of political economy of international relations, has similar opinions. “The best response is silence.  Nepal should stay silent,” he said, citing that Americans themselves are divided over whether Pelosi should have made the controversial trip to Taiwan in the first place.

“Taiwan is not comparable to Ukraine. It is a territory that the US itself has admitted as part of China. The logic that Nepal is a small state and it should speak up for small states does not apply in the case of Taiwan,” said Bhatta.

He, however, believes that Nepal can appeal for peace to both sides if the US-China tensions escalate over the Taiwan question. “The most Nepal can do is appeal for peace to both Washington and Beijing and call for restraint. Other than that Nepal can do nothing more in case the conflict escalates between the two superpowers over Taiwan.”

But what if the pressures mount on Nepal to take sides? 

“Whatever the pressure and wherever it comes from, Nepal should not fall for it. Nepal’s One-China policy is sacrosanct and inviolable,” said Chauyen Lai Shrestha, who served as the Chief of the Department of International Relations of ruling Nepali Congress.

“Nepal should not even think about speaking on the Taiwan crisis. Ours is a nation that has in principle and practice abided by the One-China policy.  Taiwan is an internal matter of China. To speak about Taiwan would be like shooting oneself in the foot,” Shrestha said.

Reason to worry 

There would be no reason to worry for Nepal if we had a leadership who could ensure that attempts to drag Nepal into the geopolitical conflicts–in which Nepal has  no role whatsoever–would be resisted. Or if we had somebody in Singha Durbar who could confidently tell Joe Biden and Xi Jinping: Keep your competition for global supremacy and ego clash with yourself, don’t drag us into this mess. We believe in nonalignment and we are not going to support or oppose either of you.

Nepal’s often compromised and partisan intelligentsia and political formations often make their positions based on their petty gains not on larger geopolitical realities. 

Besides, Washington-Beijing tensions are happening at a time when Nepali leadership at the helm looks blithely ignorant and uncaring. The only goal of the leadership seems to be to secure the source of income for the upcoming elections and to keep the coalition intact, at the expense of everything else.

This is happening at a time when Nepal has a prime minister who looks less serious about the foreign affairs. Many Congress insiders wonder who the de facto foreign minister of the country is. The man the PM picked to advise him on foreign affairs has the track record of being partisan and controversial

What started with the visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan—which China considers as its own territory and seeks to reunite with mainland China ‘by force if necessary’ but which the US and the Western world view as a self-ruled island–has culminated into the possibility of open US-China confrontation.

Nepal hopes, wishes that the Taiwan-China conflict—and thereby Washington-Beijing conflict—does not escalate and there will be a peaceful resolution.  

Nepali people– who are bearing the brunt of the Ukraine-Russia war on economy and livelihood–are really worried about the consequences of conflicts involving the world’s superpowers.