The declassified “US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” reinforces American paranoia over China’s rise. The intent of the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) had never been in doubt: containing America’s chief geostrategic and ideological rival. Also widely known was American reliance on India to accomplish this goal. What the declassified document has done is show the extent of this reliance.
The framework pitches for ever-closer strategic alliance with India. Rather explicitly, it says the US should “offer support to India—through diplomatic, military, and intelligence channels—to help address continental challenges such as the border dispute with China and access to water, including the Brahmaputra and other rivers facing diversion by China”. Translation: In the event of a future India-China border war, the Americans will come to India’s aid. They will also back India’s right to uninterrupted flow of the rivers originating in Tibet, which will perforce involve opposing China’s various dam-building projects upstream.
Likewise, the strategic framework’s section on China vows to “promote US values throughout the region to maintain influence and counterbalance Chinese models of government”. The US engagement in the region will be enhanced, partly to educate people here about “China’s coercive behavior and influence operations around the world”. American allies and partners will also receive help “to ensure strategic independence and freedom from Chinese coercion”.
There is now no doubt that the overarching goal of American engagement in South Asia is to minimize China’s role in the region while enhancing India’s. How should smaller South Asian countries like Nepal respond, then? To protect China’s interests, should Nepal shun all future American help and cooperation, even at the risk of inviting greater Indian meddling? That would be unwise.
For Nepal, there really is no alternative to broad engagement. Rather than shun Americans and make them more reliant on India, it would be wiser for Nepal to keep them engaged. Whatever the framework says, Nepal is a far too important geostrategic outpost for the Americans to leave its patrolling to India. For one, they know the Indians are incapable of containing China on Nepali soil on their own. Let us not forget: Nepal established diplomatic ties with the US precisely to gain some leverage over its two giant neighbors—and the importance of having such leverage has never been greater.
Nepal should therefore endorse the MCC compact—even if it’s a part of the IPS, as the declassified framework suggests when it speaks of helping India “diversify its energy supplies”. Otherwise, what are our options? Nepal’s primary strategic concern was and remains not letting its two giant neighbors dictate terms here.
Some say Nepal should follow in Sri Lanka’s footsteps: throw out the MCC and engage with the US under a different framework. But what difference does that make when the Americans have clearly spelled out the terms of their future engagement in the region? How does stripping the MCC of its old garb and getting pretty much the same thing under a different guise help Nepal’s cause?
The cost of a precarious existence between a bullying neighbor and one we barely understand is eternal vigilance and diversification beyond the two. This entails doing business not just with the Americans but also the Europeans and our other bilateral and multilateral partners—keeping all our options open. This may not please China. We will have to try to make it understand our compulsion—a tough ask. But the effort will be worth it.