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The New Geopolitics of India, China and Nepal

Sandwiched between two great powers with global ambitions Nepal is not in an easy position. It has to strive to maintain a creative and strategic balance between the two powers so as to protect its own national interest while remaining an important and trusted friend of both. There was a time when Nepal wanted to operationalize this concept with the idea of the country as a “zone of peace”.,

India and China are both great powers with super power ambition. China is already viewed as a near super power while India seems eager to follow the same path. Sandwiched between these two great powers is Nepal.

Great Power Status

Generally, to achieve a great power status a country need three crucial ingredients. What distinguishes great powers from other powers is their ideological perspective, current and projected economic might and their willingness TP project “greatness” with increasing accumulation of military power. The last factor becomes necessary because great powers are active participants in the power balance equation in their region and beyond and are constantly engaged in managing a relationship that can simultaneously be cooperative and adverse. A nation may have the first two but still it is not taken as a great power if it does not have the capability to express its strength in military terms. China or India are wannabe super powers because they seem determined to focus on all three fronts, even though India at present is far behind China.

In this globalized world a growing economy means an increase in international trade and the movement of goods across the oceans. Naturally great powers are vitally concerned in the security aspect of this globalized economic structure and are willing to spend a great deal of money for this end. So as the economy grows there is increasing concern for security and willingness to spend in military assets just in case there is a threat to their vital interests.

As a great power and an emerging super power China is the new kid on the block watched with both appreciation and apprehension by others. It is the second largest economy almost as large as the USA with a deep pocket and a willingness to expand economic interactions in all parts of the globe. India’s economy is much smaller relative to China but a strong ambition to assert its greatness in the comity of nations on both ideological, economic and military spheres drives its leadership which is eager to erase the psychological trauma caused by the defeat with the Chinese in the 1962 border conflict. It has the fourth largest standing army in the world and its leaders are eager to point out that India today is vastly different than 1962, meaning that its military muscle is an important element of new power balance in the region..

What about the economic dimension of Indo-Chinese relationship? The normal assumption is that increased economic interaction reduces the chances of conflict between nations. For countries that are economically interdependent the cost of war is high and there is an inbuilt incentive to avoid conflict as far as possible. As a theory of peace, it does make sense but in reality it is not as effective as its adherents believe. Before the first world war major European countries like France, Russia Britain and Germany and Austria had close economic interaction but it did not stop them from a destructive conflict that lasted over four years. In late 20th century it was almost taken for granted that globalization would lead to a peaceful China that would gradually democratize and engage in economic interaction in a Western led world order established after the Second World War . China’s economy is now an important part of the evolving world economic order and a major pillar of world economic growth. Even trade between India and China that was negligible about two decades ago is approaching 100 billion and immense future possibilities remain. In the meantime, cooperation with the western world is gradually turning into rivalry especially with the USA .In this process globalization has lost its initial charm and there are now second thoughts about its future. There is the concern that globalization is leading to a new global power balance vastly different from that established in the mid 20th century. So, the tradeoff between increased economic interdependence and other political and security interests remains uncertain.

The “Minimum Interest Doctrine”

Sandwiched between two great powers with global ambitions Nepal is not in an easy position. It has to strive to maintain a creative and strategic balance between the two powers so as to protect its own national interest while remaining an important and trusted friend of both. There was a time when Nepal wanted to operationalize this concept with the idea of the country as a “zone of peace”., a proposal put forward by the late king Birendra. This was not acceptable to India which considered Nepal as being under its own economic and security umbrella signalling the continuation of the policies of the colonial era. So the King’s proposal failed even when 116 countries of the world supported it.

The power rivalry between China and India is a reflection of the changing objective reality of the region that is no longer isolated from tensions among established and emerging powers in different parts of the globe. For Nepal it means that the 19th century traditional policy of aligning with British as promulgated by the then Nepali PM Jung Bahadur Rana while ignoring the northern neighbor is no longer a viable option. The national consciousness of the Nepali people as citizens of a sovereign and independent nation has strengthened over the years; it is keenly aware of the changing political, economic and security dynamics of the region and is cognizant of the fact that Nepal as an independent nation has new ambitions for a prosperous and a free society even as both India and China have interests over Nepal that encompass economic and security considerations. To manage these interests while enhancing economic interactions with both nations remaining within the framework of Nepal’s sovereignty and independence is the task of Nepali diplomacy; it can be difficult but not impossible as long as the policy makers in Nepal can visualize the “minimum interests “ that China and India have over Nepal in the course of both rivalry and cooperation in future.

The “Minimum Interest Doctrine” (MID) could be an operational concept for small nations like Nepal that are in the middle of great power rivalry or “ potential conflict zones”. It is based on the assumption India and China have a certain set of minimum interests that they would like to see recognized in Nepal so that the chances of great power rivalry inside Nepal is minimized. It is based on the logic that it is not necessary to identify the long-term national interests of both India and China over Nepal as long as Nepal’s leadership has an idea of the composition of minimum interests that they would want to see protected at all cost inside. Being able to satisfy this condition while protecting its national sovereignty and promoting economic prosperity is the challenge facing the Nepali leadership.

The minimum interests that China and India would want to maintain over Nepal does not define a unique package. It remains flexible and is determined by three major variables. First, is the trend of domestic politics in Nepal. If the Nepali state is able to project efficiency, strength and confidence associated with a stable and functioning political order our neighbors will have less reasons to worry about their interests in Nepal. Therefore, it is extremely important that we keep our internal house in order and maintain national unity on vital issues affecting the economic prosperity and human dignity of the Nepali people. Looking at the political behavior and economic performance of the Oli government there are now serious causes of concern on this front. Second, the political relation between China and India will crucially determine that minimum level of national interests that they both would like to see maintained in Nepal. Deterioration in India –China relations can change their perception of threat and conflict in the region and affect their minimum national interests in Nepal. It can lead to new and unexpected pressure on the government in Nepal. Third, developments in the relationship between the USA and China becomes another new pressure point on the Nepal government since both countries would try to define their minimum national interests that Nepal should be aware of. On all these three fronts Nepal at present faces a difficult situation. Survival with dignity demands that we maintain a strategic balance so as to retain the trust and confidence of our neighbors as well as friends outside the region.

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