It is naïve to believe that sovereign nation-states consider anything but their core interests while dealing with the outside world. And seldom do these interests have anything to do with democratic norms and values.
BRI was China’s way of prolonging its economic development by financing projects abroad, in the expectation of juicy returns. While dispensing loans under the BRI, China didn’t bother about the recipient countries’ human rights and governance records. And it would be strange if China, a rising global power, were not looking to secure its interests, geopolitical or otherwise, through those business deals.
The same applies to the US. The new ‘Build Back Better World’ initiative it has pushed, at its heart, hopes to find new markets for American products and clients for international institutions it has traditionally financed. Plus, yes, it also aims to contain China’s economic and military rise.
But aren’t Western democracies more concerned about human rights and liberal values? It depends. Whatever they do at home, abroad, these are only cloaks to hide their competitive Hobbesian instincts. If the Americans were so concerned about democracy and human rights, why are they abandoning Afghanistan now? Only the American soldiers stand between the Taliban and the seat of government in Kabul. Soon as the Americans are out, the Taliban will impose sharia law, ban girls from attending schools, and outlaw all forms of entertainment.
Even in Nepal, the Americans backed the party-less regime of King Mahendra after he let the CIA use Mustang to wage a guerrilla war in Tibet. After 9/11, the US administration unequivocally supported King Gyanendra’s ‘war on terror’, with money and guns, helping him add fuel to the Maoist conflict. While our erstwhile Panchayat-era kings got ticker-tape parades in the US capitol, none of our democratic leaders have received similar welcomes there.
Am I saying Nepal should pick BRI over B3W? Not at all. Why do we need to choose? Let the two initiatives compete to win our trust, and to help us on our terms. The Americans entered Nepal in the late 1940s to safeguard their interests, but we wanted them here to secure our own interests: the involvement of a strong third actor like the US had become vital as India and China threatened to settle Nepal’s fate between them. Nepal is destined to continue with this delicate balancing act if it is to continue to preserve its independence.