By M.R. Josse
KATHMANDU: In this column’s maiden appearance attention was drawn to the need to recognise that it is imperative to manage the inherent competition for influence and geopolitical advantage between India and China in Nepal before it assumes destabilising proportions.
Against that backcloth, it was gratifying that former Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai in an Himalayan Times interview (5 June) declared magisterially: “We need to have balanced policies vis-à-vis our neighbours and external players. If we fail to have a balanced foreign policy, we will be trapped in the vortex of international politics.”
Though the progenitor of the Naya Shakti Nepal was making perfect geopolitical sense it was hardly surprising that he neither referred to Nepal’s geopolitician nonpareil – Prithivinarayan Shah – nor to King Birendra’s Zone of Peace proposal which sought, essentially, to ensure “balanced policies vis-à-vis our neighbours and external players.”
I found it difficult to digest his recommendation for a balanced foreign policy for Nepal, emanating from someone who enjoys a peerless, nay legendary, reputation for his cloying proximity to India and things Indian!
Bhattarai’s coyness in recognising the roots of modern Nepal’s commonsensical policy of equilibrium between India and China is matched in naivety perhaps only by JNU pedagogue Mahendra P. Lama who lectures us (Vide Kathmandu Post, 1 June) not to consider Nepal as “the proverbial yam” (in the imagery of Prithivinarayan Shah) between India and China.
The professor of South Asian economics should well know that the a key determinant of state policy is the country’s location vis-à-vis its immediate neighbours, and the world at large. Given Nepal’s size, land-locked configuration and strength, as compared to China and India, the ‘yam-between-two-boulders’ imagery and the injunctions on state policy contained in Prithivinarayan Shah’s Dibya Upadesh, based on that hard geographic reality, make perfect geopolitical sense.
French President de Gaulle phrased it pithily when, in a handwritten note to Egyptian President Nasser, he reminded: “Geography is the constant factor in the making of history.” (Mohamed Heikal’s ‘Autumn of Fury: The Assassination of Sadat’).
Moving on, I wish to recall a recent Huffington Post news report, quoted by Ratopati.com, where it highlights the inherent dangers of an open Nepal-India border that serves as the transit point for assorted terrorists, including those operating in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I mention this here not least of all in light of my repeatedly made assertion, including in last week’s piece, that that frontier should be transformed once more into a normal border between two sovereign, independent states.
On the geopolitical chessboard some other noteworthy developments are taking place. In this context, I refer to C. Raja Mohan’s recent write-up in the Indian Express wherein, after drawing attention to the presence of the Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina and the Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena at the G-7’s outreach session at the Ise-Shima summit, he informs: “There has been a remarkable rise in Japan’s strategic interest in South Asia.”
In fact, as per Mohan, a new geopolitical dynamism is emerging from all corners of South Asia – a movement that “poses a number of challenges for India” including that reflected in China’s granting to Nepal and Sri Lanka dialogue partner status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
What has not escaped my notice, either, has been American President Obama’s recent tour of Japan – including Hiroshima – and Vietnam, where he announced the lifting of all restrictions on US weapon exports to its former enemy and spoke publicly of “big countries trying to bully small neighbours” – a loaded observation which he did not make during a much earlier trip to India, which like Vietnam, has in the past been locked in conflict with China.
Geopolitics was, of course, very much in the air at the Shangri-la Dialogue conference where the tussle between the United States and China over the South China Sea row was reflected in comments by American and Chinese representatives. Indeed, US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter not merely explained that the US approach to the Asia-Pacific remained one of “commitment, strength and inclusion” but pointedly emphasised that “the United States will remain the most powerful military and the main underwriter of security in the region for decades to come.”
Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo rebuffed American pressure to curb China’s activities in the South China Sea, thus: “We do not make trouble but we have no fear of trouble…China will not bear the consequences, nor will it allow any infringement on its sovereignty and security interest, or stay indifferent to some countries creating chaos in the South China Sea.”
Significantly, despite repeated notes of concern from countries such as Japan, India, Vietnam, and South Korea, Sun rejected the prospect of international isolation. He also said, “Actually, I am worried that some people and countries are still looking at China with the Cold War mentality and prejudice. They may build a wall in their minds and end up isolating themselves.”
Notably, at the Singapore security summit, Japanese Defence Minister Gen. Nakatani said his country would help Southeast Asian nations build their security capabilities to deal with what he called unilateral, dangerous and coercive actions – a transparent reference to China.
Without any doubt, geopolitical maneuvering is the order of the day. As much is manifest in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertion in a Wall Street Journal interview, on the eve of his fourth visit to the United States, that ties with China have improved, while downplaying the notion of an extant Indo-American axis.
Interestingly, Modi rejected the notion of a Cold War with China even as a phalanx of senior US officials is off to Beijing to attend the 8th edition of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
With both India and the US walking a tightrope on China, one is constrained to ask: why, if India’s relations with China are hunky-dory, should Nepal be constantly badgered and bullied about growing ties with China, her northern neighbour?
Arresting developments on geopolitical chessboard
By M.R. Josse