Nepal: Choosing between India and China

Biswas Baral

Biswas Baral

Nepal: Choosing between India and China

The goal should be to reduce our overreliance on India rather than trying to search for its alternative as our ‘special’ partner /

How has Nepal preserved its independence for over 250 years despite its precarious geopolitical positioning? Multiple factors may be at play, their importance ranked in line with your political persuasion and understanding of international relations. Traditionally, one such factor was the ability of Nepali rulers to maintain a delicate balance between India and China. Whenever Nepal felt threatened by India (or by British India), it sought Chinese support to protect its sovereignty, and vice versa. When, at the end of the 1940s, Kathmandu felt this balance was proving untenable, it looked to Western powers for help.

In this process, after the British (1816), in 1947 the US became only the second country to establish diplomatic relations with Nepal, followed by France (1949) and the Russian federation (1956). The US was also the second country to recognize Nepal as a sovereign entity, again after the British. The latter-day Rana rulers realized their rule in Nepal could be prolonged only with a third-country support. It was also the only way to ensure Nepal’s continued independence between India and China, both of which sought to consolidate their territories around the time of Indian independence in 1947.

Rulers of a country precariously sandwiched, not just between two growing powers but between two civilizations, have to, perforce, be flexible in their foreign dealings. Fixed notions and ideologies are of little use for Nepali rulers who need to be perpetually on their toes. Yet we now have a communist government that exhibits a clear bias in favor of its ideological cousin to the north. 

Perhaps no other government in Nepal’s democratic history has as keenly felt the need to diversify away from India. And rightly so. Overreliance on one power is fraught with danger. This applies as much to our relations with India as with China. The 2015-16 blockade created an enormous mass in favor of closer ties with China to balance India. KP Oli-led communist coalition rode to power by cashing on this optics. 

Yet the hard logic of geography—and the cultural and socio-economic similarities it entails—inextricably twines the future of Nepal and India, for better or worse. The goal should thus be to reduce our overreliance on India rather than trying to search for its alternative as our ‘special’ partner. 

Our government issues a statement in favor of China’s crackdown on Hong Kong; our foreign minister is busy rebutting ‘hoaxes’ around the BRI in hit tweets. But when was the last time Nepal issued a statement that was even remotely pro-India? Better, why can’t we be neutral? 

That is not the only problem. Most of the NCP leaders seem to believe that Nepal can do without all other powers bar China. Take the current ruckus over the MCC compact. I have myself been highly skeptical of the MCC process and its murky relations to the ‘military’ Indo-Pacific Strategy. As much as I hesitate to unconditionally support the compact, I am in its favor as good relations with the US are in Nepal’s interest. This is also because the compact is vague enough to be interpreted in our favor.

Ideology cannot come in the way of national interest. India and China are on the brink of an all-out war. What if we are asked to take sides by India (because of the Gurkha regiments) or by China (Oli government’s unconditional backer)? Who will we then ask to get us out of this impossible predicament? Who are our friends besides our two neighbors whose voice counts on the international stage? 

Our future lies not in our confinement within Indian or Chinese spheres but in embodying the spirit of diversification that the Oli government claims—unjustifiably till date—as its central foreign policy plank.