Watch and shoot: How should Nepal navigate complex India-China-US geopolitics?

We must exercise caution and adopt a neutral but flexible approach in developing relations across the entire spectrum by keeping all options open.

Gaurav Shamsher Rana

  • Read Time 4 min.

The emerging pattern of Nepal-China relations is as unclear as the emerging pattern of destructive power politics in Nepal. Domestic policies drive foreign policy, goes the saying. To my mind, searching for opportunities in this horrible mess is a cliché that will not provide any direction. The need of the day is pragmatic institutional reforms directed to strengthen the bulwark of governance, that has been undermined by reckless politics.

Strategic thinking implies studying the past, living in the present, and preparing for the future. All forecasts, predictions or contingency plans are based on facts, assumptions, or plain speculations. Projections and policies based on facts are productive but any others can be hugely erroneous and harmful in the long term.

Therefore, our policy formulators must take into cognizance this important point. Some facts that will determine the contours of change in our current foreign policy, and color future relations, are as follows.

First, the BRI remains to be a conceptual strategic project with internal and external dynamics, carrying both economic and security implications. However, it’s facing major teething problems.

Second, if the Indo Pacific Strategy is an American strategy to encircle China, then the Global Security Initiative (GSI) is a counter strategy to provide China a platform, to exercise greater influence in the region, and around the globe.

Third, the fallout of US-China regional and global competition, confrontation and rivalry is consequential.

Besides, Nepal views both the IPS and the GSI as military alliances.

The UN is the only global multilateral organization with form and substance, as the world transitions into a multipolar order.  Though economic imperatives are driving geopolitics, the specter of war is omnipresent. Hard power and military effectiveness in pursuit of national interests is a primary tool and stark reality.

As in Cold War 1.0, Cold War 2.0 will generate excessive pressure on small nations to choose sides along regional economic groupings or strategic security blocs based on alliances and partnership. Peace and humanitarian ideals are only a facade to obscure the exploitation of global natural resources and raw materials.

Security has three dimensions national, regional, and international. Furthermore, in the absence of a common definition and understanding of the term national security, it is essential for us to arrive at a common interpretation of this abstract concept. Security threats are broadly placed on a spectrum of conflict ranging from nuclear war at the apex to humanitarian assistance at the bottom.

They are further classified as traditional or non-traditional threats. Furthermore, a distinction between internal threats earmarked as security, and external threats tagged as defense are also made.

To add to the complexity of this plethora of ill-defined concepts and terminologies, is the concept of “Comprehensive Security”, a concept whose residual notions are splattered across our constitution. This concept questions the efficacy of the military and the state being regarded as the only referent object of security and considers other sectors such as political, economic, societal and environmental as referent objects too. These are untried and untested academic concepts that challenge the sanity of all military planners to the hilt, while attempting to put into practice. Has our constitution, or for that matter ensuing laws or acts, amply defined this conceptual dilemma with clarity?

In international relations, national security and the pursuit of national interests rests upon the foundations of an effective foreign and defense policy. From this standpoint, we can consider ourselves to be a lame duck, as defense matters in our case are relegated to the bottom of the heap. Therefore, integration and coordination of foreign and defense policy is crucial, to inject a semblance of objectivity into our current efforts. This should not depend on foreign handouts in a beggar’s bowl but should rest on the pillars of self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and self-sustainment. At the end of the day, all handouts come with a string attached.

If the Indo Pacific Strategy is an American strategy to encircle China, then the Global Security Initiative (GSI) is a counter strategy to provide China a platform, to exercise greater influence in the region, and around the globe.

The Chinese see India as a benign power and not a threat. However, they view the US as a major threat and are xenophobic over the manipulation and mobilization of the Free Tibet Movement. It is perceived to be a secessionist movement and a major threat to China’s core interest. This factor together with India and the US’s Comprehensive Global and Strategic Partnership, is the substance around which Chinese initiatives vis a vis Nepal are centered.

Proactive military diplomacy in the form of training exchanges, joint exercises, and other such military events are regular calendar activities of the Nepali Army, carried out frequently between India, China, the US, and other friendly nations. These activities have greatly enhanced interoperability, professionalism, and standardization of procedures among participating nations. Unfortunately, the gains achieved in this arena instead of being leveraged in the interests of the nation are being squandered. This disinterested approach has unfortunately, provided space for the growth of alarmist speculations and convoluted conspiracy theories.

The crux of all interests is permeated by issues concerning security. Both our neighbors want a stable and prosperous Nepal. They also do not want to see Nepali territory being utilized as a launching pad by radical elements. There is a convergence of interests between our neighbors. Exploiting this convergence by gearing our national policies and institutions, to deliver the prerequisite security assurances, would assist in improving relations and setting a productive pattern for the future.

Nepal would do very well to stick to the contours of its existing policy, to conduct an independent foreign policy based on the Principles of Panchsheel, non-alignment and the UN charter, as sanctioned by our constitution. In the current ambiguous geopolitical environment, we must exercise caution, and adopt a neutral but flexible approach, in developing relations across the entire spectrum by keeping all options open, as the situation unfolds.

In a rudimentary form, our actions in the regional and international arena should match a verbal military order that prepares one to ‘watch and shoot.’

[The above article is an edited version of remarks delivered by Gaurav Shamsher JB Rana at the seminar on ‘The Evolving Nepal-China Relationship: Navigating Challenges and Seizing Opportunities’ organized in Kathmandu on September 13. Rana is former chief of Nepal Army.]