I am a big fan of Robert D. Kaplan. The American journalist-cum-scholar has perfected the art of weaving an expansive geopolitical narrative based on his extensive travel, a deep study of history, access to the right people and unique insight. Even if you don’t see through his Realist lens, you cannot but marvel at the hard work put into his books, each dripping with untrammeled enthusiasm for his chosen area of study. Reading Amish Raj Mulmi’s new book ‘All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China’ reminded me of Kaplan’s works.
Both take in broad sweeps of history to make their case, and each leavens the heavy history bits with on-the-ground anecdotes. But there are also important differences. While in his writing Kaplan is palpably bubbling with enthusiasm, Mulmi adopts the tone of a more detached observer. Another difference is that Mulmi relies more on historical archives than on his travels or conversations with powers-that-be. (The author has not been to China save for his visit to a tiny border area.)
One of the first things that strikes you about the book is its neutral tone, as Mulmi holds back from asking Nepal to pick and choose between China, India and the US, the three main foreign powers discussed. Making extensive use of archival records in India and Nepal as well as the CIA’s declassified documents, Mulmi draws an arc of China’s progressively heavier engagement in Nepal. Over time, it becomes a story of the Communist Party of China appropriating Nepal’s traditional links with Tibet.
In the name of balancing India, Nepali political establishment has moved closer to Beijing. To appease the dragon, it has cracked down on Tibetan activities. Harking back to the era Mao’s red buttons were ubiquitous in Nepal, Xi Jinping too seems minded to export his ideology on the back of his signature Belt and Road Initiative. Thus, as China pledges billions of dollars in grants and loans, Nepali ruling class has to agree to be trained on ‘Xi Jinping thought’, and to blindly back China on Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong.
But the book’s deterministic title is also a touch misleading. Even Mulmi concedes that as Chinese influence has shot up, the Nepali political class is still in a position to calibrate its relation with the northern neighbor. He wants them to do so to their country’s benefit. “[Relations with China]… need to be sustained, nurtured and developed as they evolve,” Mulmi writes. “It is in Nepal’s interest to do so, and imperative to do it in a way that acknowledges its own aspirations.” This means engaging China in Nepal’s development process while also being aware of the risks of unquestioningly doing the dragon’s bidding.
It won’t be easy. For instance, the author advises the Nepali government to engage with Chinese people and “not just its unitary government system… [to] fully realize the potential of Nepal’s budding economic relationship with the country.” But how can Nepal directly engage the people of China whose lives, and especially their dealings with the outside world, are controlled by the CCP? Nor is the tiny Nepali state in a position to bargain with the Chinese colossus on this.
Mulmi travels to various places on the northern border to grasp how the Chinese influence is seeping into Nepal. He also talks to ex-Nepali businesspersons who previously worked in Lhasa, Tibetan refugees in Nepal including former Khampa rebels, and Mustang locals to knit together the long history of China’s engagement in Nepal.
His argument is that Nepal’s turn to China did not start with the 2015 border blockade; it was a process set in motion by a long history of Nepal’s relations with Tibet, the Chinese emperors and then, after Tibet’s annexation, with the communist China. The author relies on the CIA’s declassified files from the second half of the 20th century to gain a better understanding of the triangular Nepal-India-China relations—and there are quite a few revelations.
A central theme runs through most of Kaplan’s books: all discussions on international relations must start with geography. This couldn’t be truer in the case of Nepal, which finds itself precariously sandwiched between its two giant neighbors. Yet Kaplan also believes that wise leaders can minimize the effects of geography and even use it to their country’s advantage, as did Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore’s case. And this is what Mulmi is advocating for. Given Nepal’s perilous location, its leaders have to show foresight in charting its foreign policy course.
All Roads Lead North is perhaps the most readable book in English to date on Nepal’s contemporary relations with China. For its deep scholarship, ease of reading, and a historical perspective of Nepal-China relations, the book will be read by generations to come, by scholars and non-scholars alike.