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The new world, and Nepal-India ties

The new world, and Nepal-India ties
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is visiting India from May 31, his first abroad trip after assuming office on 25 Dec 2022.  The much-awaited visit was delayed primarily due to two key reasons: first due to the fluid political situation at home, and the second due to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s busy schedule. The Indian prime minister has just returned from Japan after participating in the Quad Leaders’ Summit. Over the past couple of years, India has been in the focus of global powers. In December last year, it assumed the G20 presidency and is preparing to convene the G20 leaders’ summit for the first time. India is also set to  host Quad Leaders’ Summit later this year. Prime Minister Dahal’s India visit will be meaningful amid growing US-China rivalry, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and  China and Russia coming closer for a shared objective of weakening the US global dominance.

The Western bloc sees India as a counterweight to China’s influence in the South Asian region, and has come up with a series of policy and institutional measures to contain China’s growing military and economic influence in the smaller countries of this region. Meanwhile, after the Western sanctions, Russia too is looking at Asia to expand its trade and business, with India at the center.

So far, India, one of the biggest powers in Asia, and other small countries of the Global South have refused to join bloc politics. They have taken a neutral and independent position on the Russia-Ukraine war. India, for example, continues to engage with Russia regardless of the criticisms from the Western powers. India’s economy is in the sixth position behind the US, China, Japan, Germany, and the UK, but it is poised to become the third largest economy, overcoming other powers. And as India increases its engagement with global powers, its top political level has little time to engage with small Asian countries, including its neighbors like Nepal. It takes several months for envoys of South Asian countries to even get to pay a courtesy call to Indian Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar. Through the G-20 presidency, India wants to shape global debates, says strategic analyst Binoj Basnyat. He adds India’s ambition to lead the Global South is evident in its influence in global political affairs and increased engagements with political-economic-security groupings like the Quad, BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the G7, G20 and ASEAN. Though the “neighborhood first” policy remains at the core of Nepal-India relationship, Basnyat says it is also important to acknowledge India’s expanding engagements with West Asia, East Asia and Far-East Asia. Prime Minister Dahal should be well-informed about where the world and Asia is heading when he holds talks with his Indian counterpart Modi. The Nepal government should be clear about where it stands amid the changing geopolitical landscape. The clarity of vision also applies when dealing with other powers like China and the US. Countries like Japan, South Korea, Canada, and Germany, among others, have come up with their own Indo-Pacific visions as per US’ Indo Pacific Strategy. India is already a member of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Will Prime Minister Dahal consider this changing global scenario and changing India when he sits for dialogue with Indian leadership? This time too Foreign Minister Narendra Saud has continued the customary practice of seeking suggestions from former foreign ministers and experts for the prime minister’s India visit. Obviously, Nepal and India have some long-standing issues such as border dispute and EPG (Eminent Persons’ Group) report that should get due priority when the two sides sit for a meeting during Dahal’s India trip. But Nepal should also look beyond these issues to foster a more dynamic relationship with India. Prime Minister Dahal should be able to present Nepal’s vision on how Nepal wants to take the economic benefit from India’s rise and changing global environment. For instance, Bangladesh has come up with the Indo-Pacific Outlook outlining guiding principles and objectives. The document recognizes the stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific as a crucial factor in realizing Bangladesh’s vision 2041. Nepal could make a similar vision on the Indo-Pacific which does not mean that Nepal should join the US' Indo-Pacific Strategy. The Quad Leaders’ Summit has come up with several initiatives and projects for the Indo-Pacific region. Nepal should be able to present its position through India. Likewise, Japan has shown greater interest to invest in the infrastructure of South Asia, which is an opportunity for Neap. Japan and Nepal can work jointly in connectivity projects including roads, railways and waterways. Nepal must have a concrete plan on how it will execute and use such projects for greater economic cooperation. South Korea has also shown its interest to engage with Nepal under its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Nepal and India can sign a long-term comprehensive economic cooperation in this regard. Nepal is going through an economic recession, unemployment rate is surging, and foreign investment is dwindling. In this scenario, Nepal should be able to lay out a clear vision on how it wants to engage with India on the economic front, instead of just seeking assistance for some development projects. Of late, there has been some progress on connectivity projects but there is no plan on how we are going to use those connectivity projects.  Similarly, the Nepal government needs to make preparations with how it is going to engage with Indian states that share borders with Nepal. India has already adopted a policy of competitive federalism which means Indian states compete with each other in attracting foreign investments and Nepal can take benefit from those Indian states. There should be introspection on how Indian investment is not coming to Nepal and why multinational companies are hesitating to invest. Until now, unskilled manpower and seasonal workers have been going to India for employment. Now, we can request India to provide certain quotas for skilled workers. Thousands of students who studied in India and Western universities could get high paying jobs in the Indian market. There has been good progress on energy cooperation between Nepal and India, but many issues are yet to be settled. Nepal has a high potential of contributing to the entire South Asia for clean energy. For that to happen, there is a need for collaboration between Nepal and India. India is the current chair of G20 and it is an opportunity for Nepal to make its voice heard at the international level. For instance, the impact of climate change on the Himalayas is an urgent issue of Nepal on which global attention is required. Nepal can ask India to make this one of the key agenda of G20. But Nepal’s plans and visions are unlikely to figure during Dahal’s India visit. It is already clear that his visit will revolve around the same old agendas, and that Prime Minister Dahal will most likely use the trip as an opportunity to cement his power. It is already too late to come up with a vision on how Nepal is going to engage with new India and other powers. .The same point is applicable with China, because Nepal is not prepared to take benefits from China’s rise. Many scholars have already started talking about G3 which means the US, India and China will shape the new world order. Uddhab Pyakurel, associate professor at Kathmandu University, says confusion in understanding Nepal’s geo-political reality has remained the main challenge for Dahal and his party. As the Maoist party has never been rational when dealing with Nepal’s immediate and distant neighbors, he adds to expect a major development in Nepal-India relations out of Prime Minister Dahal’s upcoming visit would be a folly.