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Sino-Indian rivalry in Nepal essentially geopolitical

KATHMANDU: Over the past several months – and particularly in the wake of Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s official visit to China in March this year – there has been a steady drumbeat of inflamed rhetoric and propaganda exercised over China’s increased presence/activity in a Nepal steadily but determinedly escaping from India’s clutches, in the aftermath of the crippling five month-plus boycott it inspired/supported.
To be sure, the theme of Sino-Indian rivalry in Nepal is as old as the hills; it is rooted, essentially, in the irrefutable geopolitical reality that Nepal lies uncomfortably saddled between the two great Asian leviathans, India and China – a fact of political life amply understood by modern Nepal’s unifier Prithivinarayan Shah who sought to fashion a realistic Nepal-centric state policy around it.
In contemporary times – or, following India’s independence and China’s re-assertion of its sovereignty over Tibet, in the wake of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China – this competition has focused on India’s relentless endeavour to obtain an acknowledgement of a ‘special relationship’ with Nepal and China’s equally evident determination to ensure that Tibet remains firmly within its orbit, among other means, by receiving assurances from Kathmandu that ‘free Tibet’ activities in Nepal would not be allowed free reign.
Incidentally, the India-China struggle for sway in Nepal is well reflected in India’s firm opposition to King Birendra’s Zone of Peace proposal of 1975, which China was among the very first external powers to support. Given monarchical Nepal’s most cordial ties with her puissant northern neighbour – underlined by Beijing’s decision to invite King Birendra as the first foreign dignitary to witness Tibet’s formal ‘opening’ in 1976 – the toppling of the monarchical regime in Nepal, via open and clandestine Indian support to the Maoists and other like-minded forces, introduced a dangerous southern slant to her foreign/security policy.
While China, recognizing political reality, began dealing normally with Kathmandu’s new ruling clique, the southward bias of the new polity/regime continued – until Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India overplayed his ‘Madeshi card’ triggering a fierce backlash, most visible in the shape of Oli’s visit to China resulting in a spew of significant bilateral agreements including those related to trade, energy supplies and direct road, railway and telecom connectivity between Nepal and China.
In the calculus of geopolitics, a correction to Nepal’s hazardous southward slide and over-dependence on India has been introduced. Whether or not such a situation will continue to prevail, of course, remains to be seen; much will depend, in my view, on what transpires on a much broader arena: on how China reacts to what now seems to be an incipient Indo-US alliance now taking shape which is linked, in turn, to its relations with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, and the Philippines vis-à-vis the South China Sea dispute.
What warrants singular attention in the context of Modi’s recent visit to the US – his fourth in two years – is this roseate assessment of Modi’s ‘vision’ by US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal: “This vision which I have come to call the ‘Modi Doctrine’ laid out a foreign policy that overcomes the hesitations of history and embraces the convergence between our two countries and our shared interests.”
Former Indian Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to the US, Nirupama Rao, in ‘The Hindu’, is no less gung-ho about the significance of Modi’s latest American foray. She asserts that the Indian prime minister did well to take the opportunity provided by his address to the US Congress to emphasise the “geopolitical accent” to the bilateral partnership between India and the United States.
Stressing the “growing geopolitical and security dimension” of the friendship between the two countries, Rao is thrilled by Modi’s reference, in his address to Congress, to “oceanic security” which she believes has to do with the “organic connectivity between the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea”, as is reflected in India’s “welcome confidence and assertion with which India is engaging partners like the US, Japan, Australia and Singapore in the maritime sphere.”
Modi’s transparent hurry to forge or reinforce security ties between the two countries even as the American president has become a virtual ‘lame duck’ is revelatory; no less so is his push to gain support from as many countries as possible for India’s bid to be readmitted to the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), not to mention the awkward fact that he wasn’t even welcome to the United States until he became prime minister in 2014.
Naturally, there are bound to be adverse consequences from such a geopolitical overdrive. In Pakistan, for example, the national security adviser Sartaj Aziz expressed concern about the “growing strategic ties” between India and the United States and bemoaned that Washington “approaches Pakistan whenever it needs it and abandons it whenever it does not need Islamabad.” He also came down heavily on US backing for India’s NSG membership bid, warning that country-specific exemptions could negatively impact strategic stability in South Asia.”
Though Beijing has not, thus far, reacted officially to the incipient formation of a putative anti-China alliance, even in India questions have been raised about the wisdom of Modi thus rushing into such an arrangement. Sushil Aaron, for instance, argues in the Hindustan Times that Modi is “pushing India-US ties in ways that work at cross-purposes with the objectives of the India-China friendship…India’s interests are not served by settling into an adversarial relationship with China.”
The key question for us is this: to determine whether India’s aggressive, bullying tactics exhibited of late – including the chorus of vicious propaganda against the broadening or updating of Sino-Nepalese ties – is connected with the unspoken, but very real, geopolitical tussle between the Asian behemoths in Nepal in which much of India’s new found confidence in dealing with China emanates from the incipient Indo-American defence pact in-the-making.

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