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Importance of getting your geopolitical sums right

KATHMANDU: Ripple effects from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fourth scurry to the United States are many – some visible, others not. Included in the former category is that a day following his ‘historic’ address to a joint session of Congress, the US Senate refused to recognise India as a “global strategic and defence partner”, after a key amendment necessary to modify its export control mechanism, failed to muster the requisite ‘aye’ votes.
Although former Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao had gushed lyrical about the “growing geopolitical and security dimension” of Indo-US friendship, the Senate vote indicates that things on that front are not exactly as burnished as the Indian establishment would want us to believe.
Indeed, if Indian strategic thinker Bharat Karnad’s assessment is to be given any credence, Modi’s embrace of Washington comes at a pretty stiff price. As Karnad explains in Hindustan Times, while India and the US do share some “interests and concerns” with China as the “main worry”, he reminds that while the US is separated from China by the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, India does not enjoy such a geo-strategic advantage.
“Hence for India, China is an immediate and potent threat best kept in check by India joining a coalition of rimland states – Asean, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea – with the US featured as an extra-territorial balancer.”
One fly in the ointment is the possibility that New Delhi’s passionate embrace of Washington will annoy if not offend Moscow – hitherto a major factor in India’s strategic calculus – to the extent of “firming up a formidable Russia-China-Pakistan triad.” Besides, “with India and the US getting together, China will be more determined to deny India entry into the Nuclear Supply Group (NSG), leave alone a permanent member of the UN Security Council.”
Of course, the above does not take into account that the United States and China not only do not have any territorial dispute – as India and China famously do – but are moreover bound by a raft of shared interests including those covering trade, investment, and dealing with North Korea’s opaque nuclear intentions, among other myriad issues on the international agenda. Can anyone, therefore, nimbly assume that, in all and every eventuality, America will rush to rescue India from China’s wrath – if it should ever come to that?
Additionally, what if the Obama administration is replaced by one led by Donald J. Trump? Is it sensible to bet the store that Trump will ipso facto endorse every understanding forged between Obama and Modi? In fact, even if Hillary Clinton is elected president such a hypothesis would be quite a stretch, not least given Clinton’s tough stance against Modi in the aftermath of the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002!
Speaking more generally, it is absolutely vital for nations to get their geopolitical sums correct – in their own interest. Let me provide one striking example relating to the US’s military involvement in Vietnam. As detailed in Walter Isaacson’s ‘Kissinger: A Biography’:
“The US had become involved because it viewed North Vietnam’s actions (in South Vietnam) as a manifestation of Chinese-Soviet expansionism. But by 1969 it was becoming clear that this was a misreading of the independent nationalism of the Vietnamese communists and of the relationship between China and the Soviet Union.” Once the myth of monolithic international communism was exploded, America – and the rest of the world – quite naturally began to reassess their geopolitical moorings, past assumptions and basic strategic priorities for advancing their respective national interests.
One pat postulation was that international communism would, if unchecked, topple one country in Southeast Asia after another in the fashion of “dominoes” in its relentless, inexorable drive to communize the world. That, quite simply, didn’t happen.
For nations, such as the US, with generously-funded and well-equipped intelligence agencies with the means to spy from space, it became clear by 1969 that, in addition to the war of words between Moscow and Beijing, there had actually occurred a series of armed clashes over a disputed island on the Ussuri River (Wusulijiang in Chinese) on the border between Chinese Manchuria and Soviet Siberia.
When this new rivalry became unmistakable and irrevocable it paved the way for the historic rapprochement between China and the United States, an event of humungous geopolitical significance. Begun in the early 1970s it transformed the international geopolitical and diplomatic scene in multiple and fundamental ways – the effects of which are manifest even today,
How should Nepal view/react to the recent goings on the India-US-China relations front? I can do no better that draw attention to some telling observations of former American ambassador to Nepal, Julia Chang Bloch, made during a recent conversation in Washington DC with Jyoti Devkota and Nirmal Pahadi, as reported by Setopatieo.com.
She recalled, interestingly enough, that when she was the American envoy to Nepal, “India had enforced a blockade against Nepal.” That “made it simple for me to understand India’s presence and role in Nepal.” Notably, she also believed that “India has, of late, sought to expand her intervention in Nepal’s sensitive organs, including the political leadership.”
She opined, “If Nepal’s political leadership is truly responsible, the problem of Indian intervention will gradually be solved. Today’s political leadership is not honest about it.”
Queried about China’s role and presence, she explained that Beijing’s “principal” interest is to ensure that Nepal remains a “buffer zone” between India and China. Beijing’s interest in Nepal is “Tibet and Tibetans who cross the Himalayas to enter Nepal.”
Though Bloch was understandably coy about spelling out America’s interest in the context of Sino-India relations in Nepal, we would do well to get our geopolitical sums right by not breezily assuming that America will reflexively underwrite any or all of India’s interventions in Nepal, even those as that might irreparably damage the vital and multi-faceted Sino-American relationship.

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