It’s not unusual for old ideas, even the ones you once seriously considered, to completely escape your mind. I was recently reminded of one such forgotten idea: Nepal-India-China trilateralism. The occasion was an AIDIA webinar in which I was invited to speak along with other guests from the three countries. The first question that crossed my mind when I got the invite: why now? This pie-in-the-sky dream is clearly not being realized soon.
But then turning Nepal into a ‘vibrant economic bridge’ between the two Asian giants has been a stated foreign policy goal of the Oli government. India, mindful of China’s already considerable sway in Nepal, has shown no interest in it. Now in light of escalating border tensions between India and China—and Nepal’s own border skirmishes with India—the trilateral idea appears doomed. One suggestion offered in the webinar, by Indian and Chinese speakers alike, concerned the pursuit of trailaterism through track II and track III mechanisms. Build a consensus on it at an intellectual level before kicking it up for consideration at the political level, they suggested.
An interesting idea, I thought. But, again, what is the point when those making the final decision simply don’t want to hear of it, especially in India? Instead, Nepal can look to improve its ties with the two neighbors separately, and if it can gain their confidence in due course, maybe then pursue the trilateral idea.
Separately, the Chinese seem perturbed by India’s growing strategic proximity with the US and its implications for South Asia. They don’t understand why Nepal, a great friend of China, cannot follow Sri Lanka’s example and dismiss the MCC compact out of hand. Why is the ruling Nepal Communist Party, with excellent brotherly ties with its Chinese counterpart, hesitating to do the right thing? They also link the paucity of progress in BRI projects in Nepal to American interference, this time via the MCC.
The burgeoning US-India strategic links also put the Chinese in a bind. They wanted to work with India under the BRI framework to keep the Americans from making mischief in South Asia. But the prospect of such extensive India-China cooperation in the region is getting bleaker. The India-China rivalry in Nepal may hence get an added edge in the days ahead.
The Chinese attitude to the Oli government seems to be hardening too. Besides the long delay in BRI projects and Nepal’s hesitance to drop the MCC compact, their suspicions of Kathmandu have been heightened by the recent Nepal visits of RAW chief Samant Goel and Indian army chief M.M. Naravane, especially the latter, who insinuated China as the origin of Nepal’s claims over Kalapani. What is cooking in Kathmandu, they would like to know?
The Chinese had for some time been trying to persuade the Indians of the mutual benefits of connecting the big markets of North India and West China. Nepal said it would be more than happy to act as a bridge between them. Made perfect economic sense, too. But as the recent Indian boycott of Chinese goods in India—and the Indian Premier League’s cancellation of its 440-crore-rupee-a-year contract with Chinese mobile giant VIVO—suggests, nationalism trumps economic calculations any day. If only the Indians and the Nepalis understood the ice-cold Chinese logic of pursuing development and poverty-alleviation at all costs.