We will eventually overcome the novel coronavirus pandemic. But Nepal will never overcome its geopolitics. The Covid-19 pandemic will cause untold pain and hardship here. Yet as soon as it’s over, or even before it, geopolitics will make a resounding comeback. Even during a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, Nepal was careful not to antagonize either of its two big neighbors, by asking each for nearly equal help in dealing with the virus. But the goal was always to import trained men and vital material from China, which has already significantly controlled the spread of virus within its borders.
US President Donald Trump has thrown down the geopolitical gauntlet through his repeated reference to the ‘China virus’. Beijing has doubled down in response, accusing American bombers of dropping the coronavirus into its territory. The Middle Kingdom was quick to reach out to the rest of the world, including Nepal, asking them not to use Trump’s ‘xenophobic’ virus labeling. Even though China may have bungled its first response to the outbreak and let the virus spread, it has since offered every kind of help to other countries deal with the corona crisis. Beijing had also asked Kathmandu what it needed.
Meanwhile, the MCC compact is stuck in the Nepali parliament, and with the election of Maoist hardliner Agni Sapkota as the new speaker, it is not sure to pass. No, it is not Chinese pressure holding up the compact. But China surely does not like the idea of the Americans spreading their influence in South Asia. It loathes the rapprochement between India and the US and New Delhi’s increasing willingness to partner with the Americans to minimize Chinese influence in the region. As Yun Sun points out in War on the Rocks, “The consensus in China seems to be that India wants and needs to rely on the United States to balance China’s growing regional dominance.”
Nepal will thus be forced into increasingly harder choices. If the current communist regime is seen as continuing to cozy up to Beijing, and resisting the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the search for the regime’s alternative will intensify. Again, the calculation in New Delhi is that it can challenge Beijing’s designs on South Asia only with American help. So much the better if Washington also promotes the idea of India as the undisputed leader of South Asia.
Despite the corona videoconference, there is no real possibility of SAARC’s revival. Modi remains steadfast on his anti-Muslim Hindutwa agenda. When the threat of importing corona from Pakistan into India is over, he would like to have nothing to do with Islamabad. This will push Pakistan closer to China, with the inevitable consequence of further bolstering Indo-US ties. Pakistan will then have no need for SAARC and by extension no need to accept India’s leadership of the region. The undermining of SAARC will further erode the bargaining power of its relatively smaller countries like Nepal.
The corona scare has pushed China and the US further apart. Even if a Democrat wins the US presidential election, it is hard to see this bilateral relation improve much. The reverberations of this tussle will be felt around the world, including in Nepal, a geopolitical outpost the Americans have closely monitored since the 1950s.