Geopolitical tensions surrounding Nepal
Kundan Kumar Jha
Geography remains to be the most significant element in defining governance process and mechanism of any state. Many states around the world have either derived specific advantages due to their geographical posturing or have suffered because of their geography. Powerful states in international system look to counter external threats within the system from another power centre either by investment in form of strong bilateral relations or via foreign aid and economic assistance in states that geographically surround them or look to dominate such states through regular interference and political bargaining. Foreign policy in such circumstances helps prevent conflict and promote national interest of states.
Nepal, sandwiched between India and China, has largely suffered because of its geography and landlocked nature. The period after unification of the kingdom of Nepal primarily focused on security of state amid British colonial leadership in India and conflict in Tibet. Nepal was unable to look beyond her neighbourhood during the period but trade relations with India and Tibet partly flourished. Nepal’s expansionist policy and rising might was soon realised by British East India Company which eventually led to the outburst of war between two states.
The loss of territory and simultaneous rise of Rana regime in Nepal forced authoritarian leadership in both states share special relationship between them. During the period, Nepal was unable to build any significant bilateral relationship with other countries around the world. The relationship with China suffered largely as a result of opium trade which completely overshadowed the concept of buffer state as Nepal remained closer to the Indian establishment. Opium trade saga almost paralysed relationship with Tibet.
Nepal went on to sign Treaty of Peace and Friendship with India in 1950 which further delayed its connection with the world. The treaty provisions were such that they gave India undue advantages related to different political, social and economic streams. India held on to the position of strategic importance vis-à-vis Nepal, threatening her relationship with another influencing neighbour China.
The 1951 tripartite agreement between Ranas, the king and political parties ended the 104 years old Rana regime establishing multiparty democracy in the country. The years followed afterwards saw people openly criticising Indian hegemonic order. Nepal got admitted to United Nations in 1955 and also successfully reinitiated bilateral relationship with China in the same year. This widely opened the debate of buffer state in the country calling for changes in foreign policy to remain equally closer to both the neighbouring states.
Nepal became the founder member of non-alignment movement during the same period and also held a neutral position during Sino-Indian war. Although in policies Nepal desired equal relationship in terms of political, social and economic issues with both the neighbouring states, Indian dominance thwarted chances of economic prosperity and political improvement in the country.
The concept of bridge can be associated with the idea of interdependence and will highlight Nepal’s equidistant foreign policy aspiration inducing equal help and benefits from the neighbours.
Today Nepal has become firm after years of political revolution and civil war but she still remains confused over her foreign policy guidelines that can help the state assure sustainable development. The successful completion of three-tier elections in the country has shown early signs of economic crisis. In this scenario Nepal needs to emerge as a bridge between India and China to ensure spill over benefits from powerful and dominant economies like China and India.
The concept of bridge can be associated with the idea of interdependence and will highlight Nepal’s equidistant foreign policy aspiration inducing equal help and benefits from the neighbours. The bridge-buffer debate which has taken the driving seat ever since Nepal’s evolution as a federal republic state provides answers to all the questions that promises development and at the same time presents challenges.
Historically as a buffer state, Nepal has suffered because it could not extend its foreign policies beyond neighbouring blocs. Buffer enjoys the position of strategic importance but in case of Nepal the reverse is true since for almost a century the Nepali state has lacked political stability and strong international support. Buffer brings into equation the orthodox paradigm that does not allow Nepal to choose between partners outside national territory that can strongly support her cause for sustainable development.
The newly emerged concept of ‘bridge’ brings about numerous possibilities of development in infrastructure and economy. Recent development in political arena has advocated for connectivity routes under the guidance of China that brings together the opportunities of economic transformation through trilateral cooperation among Nepal, China and India. This cooperation will also diversify Nepal’s highly dependent trade relationship with India which almost accounts for above 60 percent of total trade export and import to and from the southern neighbour.
Trade diversification will not only give advantage to Nepal but will further help flourish India-China relationship in terms of trade. The economic corridor supporting trilateralism will provide China with easy access to South Asian market and at the same time will benefit India by giving it access to Tibet. Considering Nathula Pass not to be all season route which remains to be the only trade corridor between India and China despite 4,500kms of common border the trilateral cooperation will provide best alternatives to ever expanding trade between them.
Although the idea of bridge, trilateralism and transit have been confined to discourse only, they are different concepts which give more or less the same message that Nepal’s geopolitical situation has both opportunities and threats. Trilateralism prioritises partnerships between participant states on different issues ranging from trade and economy to security. It will be a partnership born out of reciprocity and interdependence between the three countries.
However, bridge is simply a metaphorical representation of such a partnership, particularly in terms of trade and economy. Similarly, transit refers to a condition reached due to geographical proximity, connectivity, transport and most importantly infrastructure development, to eventually foster greater trade between India and China via Nepal. The above-mentioned concept however requires differentiation particularly to convince our neighbours that Nepal doesn’t view trilateral cooperation as a strategic concept but a purely economic and socio-cultural phenomenon.
This concept needs to be implemented if Nepal wants to come out from its historical geopolitical tensions and follow the footmarks of neighbouring states China and India for economic transformation. The challenge ahead is to bring together both the immediate partners to believe in Nepal’s aspiration for prosperity and ride connectivity boat for mutual economic win-win situation.
The writer is a student of international relations.
Published on 5 April 2018