Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dreads open confrontation with China. Most recently, his government has been playing down the building of a ‘village’ by Chinese troops in Arunachal Pradesh. Unlike Pakistan, a far weaker military adversary that India can control to an extent, China is right now an invincible rival. The Hindu-nationalist prime minister is aware that active confrontation with China and reverses for India will make him lose face. Yet the Indian army is already preparing for the inevitable as it re-orients its forces towards China, and away from Pakistan. Whether or not Modi wants it, India and China are headed for more confrontation—and he will somehow have to deal with it.
The Americans meanwhile want ever-closer strategic ties with India to check China’s growing influence across Asia. India at this point has no option but to accept American help as China gets more aggressive on its border. But it will be a tricky balance. There is still great reluctance in India’s strategic community about allowing America into South Asia under the Indo-Pacific framework: Why should India give the US greater leverage in its traditional backyard?
Back here in Nepal, US Ambassador Randy Berry has been making the rounds of the houses of top Nepali political leaders, hot on the heels of a similar, much criticized house-hopping activism of the Chinese envoy, Hou Yanqi. Surely, in diplomacy, what is wrong for the Chinese is also wrong for the Americans. The US envoy is not meeting Nepali heads of state and government; he is rather currying favors from individual political leaders. This is perhaps the clearest sign that the Americans are determined to get Nepal to endorse of the MCC compact—which is quickly emerging as an indispensable part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy—at the earliest. (His Excellency knows that cannot happen without a functioning House.)
The IPS vows to come to India’s rescue in the event of a border war with China. Following the publication of the Indo-Pacific Framework, and its clear emphasis on enabling India to balance China, the Chinese too have increased their lobbying in Kathmandu against the MCC compact. How can the government of Nepal, they are asking our officials, help Americans encircle China? Earlier, the Chinese used to laugh off Indian activism in Nepal, which they saw as rather amateurish. No more. The Chinese are now determined to thwart both Indians and Americans. This Chinese need to undermine US-India co-operation at all costs; the American wish to pursue their regional interests with Indian help; and the Indian strategy of using American help while retaining its primacy—it is an impossible combination of goals.
In this vastly changed geopolitical reality, Nepal will also have to prepare for some nightmares: more foreign funding to destabilize it; the prospect of Nepalis dying on the Indo-China front; growing Indian claims over disputed territories; another border blockade; who knows what! At the rate India-China relations are deteriorating, time may also not be far when Nepal has to choose between competing Indian and Chinese goods, everything from telecom equipment, railway gauge, vaccines, to military hardware.
Nepal needs to be prepared for the worst. But it is far from it. During such heightened uncertainty in the region, the country does not even have a permanent government. The ruling party is split (or not), and elections seem far-far away. No wonder competing international powers are trying to build their constituencies by bulldozing diplomatic niceties.