Not trying to be a doomsayer, but with the US and India getting closer militarily against China, things are going to get bleaker for Nepal. And if we don’t get our house in order and our priorities straight, we run the risk of feeling the horrors of a superpower rivalry. Not because we are important, but because we are unimportant and insignificant due to our poverty and weak military. That makes it a perfect proxy battleground for major powers.
They may not be eager to make us their enemies’ Afghanistan or Vietnam or Korea. But as things stand, and from a realistic perspective, events beyond our control, and even the control of big powers, could lead to an ugly situation here. Time has come to study the not-so-distant history of China’s role in the Cold War, the Soviet mistakes, the plight of Afghanistan, and how they all led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are lessons for Nepal.
Let’s first look at the nature of the US-India defense cooperation: Weapons apart, one of the most important aspects of the recent US-India defense pact is information-sharing, under which India will have access to satellite images and other intelligence gathered by the US. Similarly, India will also get accurate GPS coordinates to target military installations in China, if things come to that. So, what's the big deal, you may ask? The big deal is that a real military alliance often starts with intelligence sharing because, information, as it was in history, is still a tool that decides the outcome of any war.
Sharing of sensitive intelligence between two friendly powers signals to the opponent that it now has to deal with the combined strength of the two (or more) powers and runs the risk of a two (or more) front war. China today finds itself in the position the Soviet Union did in the 1970s. Today’s India is what China was then, and China today is what the Soviet Union was for the US and China back then.
Let’s then look at the Sino-Soviet relations to better gauge what is in store for all powers—and for us.
The People’s Republic of China pursued the policy of yibian dao (“lean to one side”) immediately after its founding in 1949 and allied with the Soviet Union. But owing to various reasons the Sino-Soviet partnership started to crack and by the 60s they were sworn enemies. With the Soviet sympathizers in the Communist Party purged or killed or sent to reeducation camps during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Chairman Mao faced no opposition in the party to get closer to the United States.
Soon, the two sides were openly talking and President Nixon’s China visit in 1972 led to the US-China strategic alliance against the Soviet Union. As expected, a major component of this alliance was modernization of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. The US began providing modern arms and technology to China, and China in turn allowed the US to maintain CIA posts in Xinjiang to gather intelligence against the Soviet Union. This kept both countries abreast of the Soviet military movements.
A slippery Soviet slope
This strategic alliance was what led to the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union. The Soviets were now forced to deploy more forces along their borders with China. The cost of deploying troops in harsh terrains was not cheap, but the Soviets had no option. Similar to what China is faced with now.
The Soviets had to justify their rising military spending and prove they were not to be taken lightly and that they were not to remain quiet when an openly pro-Soviet regime in Kabul was threatened. The USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the US—supported by China, among others—decided to get involved to give the Soviets their own Vietnam. Also, through its proxies—the various factions of the Afghan resistance, the Mujahedeen—the US mounted a formidable defense. The Soviets were forced to retreat and soon after the Soviet Union became history.
But how does what happened then apply to today’s Nepal, you may ask? And that’s a valid question.
First, China will have to deploy more troops along its rough and harsh borders with India, which is not going to be cheap.
China’s defense spending will have to increase because despite being a major military power it is years behind the US in military technology. China understands that the US is not a power to be taken lightly and it always has a new weapon or two in its arsenal that most have not even dreamed of or have only vague knowledge about. And it’s always safer and better to avoid a direct confrontation. But China will have to operate with the assumption that the US could get involved in its military confrontations with India and that China could be subjected to a multiple-front attack. And the military spending has to go further up.
Rising military spending with trade restrictions imposed by the US and its allies could lead to economic problems and China will find itself, like the Soviets, having to justify its military spending to its people, to prove its international standing. As it also wants to avert direct confrontation against India and the US, it will be forced to look for less risky battlegrounds in its neighborhood.
If history is any guide, major powers refrain from directly confronting each other in their territory and even outside. They rather use proxies. China sent volunteers to Korean War, the Soviet Union and China provided money weapons and intelligence to Vietcong during the Vietnam War, and the US provided weapons and money to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
Nepal, the natural choice
Russia still dominates much of Central Asia, and China wouldn’t want to get involved there. South East Asia is a major economic powerhouse and it makes no sense to get involved there as well. Pakistan is a nuclear power and a sworn ally, therefore out of question. India is big and not as weak and now with the US as an ally isn’t to be touched. Afghanistan, with the presence of the US and NATO forces, isn’t a good option either. And other South Asian countries don’t share land borders with China. Naturally, in this case, Nepal appears to be the best choice to settle things with its opponents.
From the perspective of US-India alliance too, it makes sense to lure China in Nepal. India needs to find a way to end its rivalry with China or it would be faced with major economic consequences. The US too would have to find a way to work with China as well, lest other ‘rogue states’ side with China and create problems for the US elsewhere. (Or, for that matter, it could as easily be China luring US-India alliance in Nepal.)
Nepal, an ally of none and as such of no significance to any, is a poor economy with a weak military. Its political leaders have no long-term vision. Top party leaders are constantly embroiled in intra-party feuds concerning their positions on India or China. This allows the US-India alliance or China to wage a proxy war in Nepal. From the superpower perspective, it only makes sense. Not that they are waiting for it to happen but there’s nothing they can do to avoid it either.
Therefore let’s not be too optimistic and talk about peace and how India and China would settle their differences soon and all that.
The surge in Hindu and Han nationalisms in India and China respectively would make any amicable solution to their problems difficult, if not impossible. And things are unlikely to return to pre-Ladakh days soon. Both need to appear tough and now India, with the US by its side, is in no mood to back down, and for the Chinese inching back would signal weakness and the CCP doesn’t want to be portrayed as weak. Same with the Indian leadership. Add arms race to this dangerous mix and one has to snap sooner or later. They would both be glad to take their fight elsewhere, and Nepal is the most convenient battleground they can hope for.
Revolutions and counter-revolutions
Maybe Nepal will witness revolutions supported by one of US-India or China and counter-revolutions by the other, each side linking change here with their national security. And that is what is going to bring the superpower rivalry to us. Even if Nepal is totally destroyed, it’s not going to affect the world economy and security even a bit. One will instill its puppet regime and withdraw and the other would support the forces against the puppet regime, and that’s about it. The real fighting powers would have reached settlements and be in good terms with each other, and as big powers they need to be in good terms—and a messed-up Nepal then (just as it is now) will be no one’s immediate priority.
Maybe this is the reason Nepal has remained or been forced to remain weak—and is constantly being reminded of how insignificant it really is. While others get billions in aid and FDI and weapons and choppers, all we get are old discarded weapons, field hospitals, buildings to teach languages to our soldiers, and just enough aid to survive.
So, yes, Nepal is important in unimportant ways and this country can be bombed right and left to settle scores elsewhere.
And who do we blame for this? Without a doubt all leaders who ruled us after King Mahendra. Although he paid lip service to it, the king was no fan of non-alignment. He believed in pragmatic alignments. For instance, he was addressing the US Congress on 28 April 1950, the same day Nepal and China signed the treaty of friendship. Yet King Mahendra also refused to comply with the Chinese request to do something about the Khampa rebels in Mustang.
Sadly no one after him followed his policy and years of mismanagement have made us a friend of none—and reduced our status to a battleground where superpower strengths are tested and their rivalries settled.
Let’s just hope people living off our tax money are aware of this clear and present danger.