Even until a couple of years ago, rare were commentaries in official Chinese media pointedly directed at India. The Middle Kingdom didn’t see the South Asian giant as worthy of its attention, much less consider it a strategic rival. Things have changed. Now not a day goes by without The Global Times, the Chinese communist party mouthpiece, spewing venom against the Indians, who have supposedly forgotten their place. What hasn’t changed is the old Chinese obsession with America.
India and the US are consolidating their ties under the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Quad. When the foreign ministers of four Quad member states—the US, Australia, Japan, and India—recently met in Tokyo, they recommitted to fighting for an Asia not dominated by a single power. Anti-China sentiments have been crystallizing in all four countries, and the ‘concert of democracies’ seems determined to together contain China.
Speaking at the Tokyo meet, in a clear reference to China, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar expressed India’s commitment to “upholding the rules-based international order, underpinned by the rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, and peaceful resolution of disputes.”
Such anti-China polarization in turn sharpens the geopolitical rivalries in South Asia. Addressing the (virtual) UN General Assembly not long before Jaishankar, Nepali Prime Minister again invoked his country’s abiding faith in ‘non-alignment’. “We believe in amity with all and enmity with none,” he thundered. But his government’s foreign policy antenna tuned to Beijing’s signals, such vows of non-alignment sound hollow. Oli has of late tried to cool tensions with India—for instance, by stopping the publication of a Nepali school ‘reference book’ accentuating the border dispute at Kalapani—yet there is no doubt where his fealty lies.
Friends and foes keep changing in the uncharitable world of international relations, and it matters not whether your pal is a dictator or a democrat. But can a country as precariously placed as Nepal afford to pick sides? Didn’t Nepal first embrace multilateralism in the 1950s with the realization that there was no other way to safeguard its sovereignty? Taking a unilateral course could prove costly. The spate of fake news in India over China’s supposed designs on Nepal is already disconcerting.
Both domestic and foreign observers of Indian foreign policy now broadly agree that having failed on nearly all vital domestic fronts, appearing tough against China and Pakistan is Narendra Modi’s last lifeline. This entails India taking a hard line against smaller neighbors like Sri Lanka and Nepal, lest they irrevocably spin into China’s orbit.
For over 250 years, maintaining a delicate balance between India and China has been Nepal’s survival secret. When one power posed a threat, it sought help from the other. But such manipulation—partly made possible by the sheer difficultly of communication between the British India and the Qing China—is no longer an option in this interconnected world of instant communication. Just as Nepal, a key BRI member, has been invited to play a pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, it will in time be asked to support the Quad. I am unaware of any homework on how the country will deal with this 21st-century ‘democracies v dictatorship’ challenge.