The globe-trotting Narendra Damodardas Modi was only half-jokingly referred to as the ‘foreign policy’ prime minister during his first term. In the five years, he visited 59 countries, from Argentina in South America to Turkmenistan in Central Asia, from Rwanda in East Africa to Canada and the US in North America. During this time he came to Nepal four times. There were only two countries he visited more often: China and the US.
Modi has firmly entrenched India in the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy even while he has tried to maintain a kind of modus vivendi with China after a tense standoff over the Doklam plateau in 2017. The BJP election manifesto spoke of enhancing India’s role in the Indo-Pacific; it was silent on the BRI. India has been noncommittal about the signature foreign policy initiative of Xi Jinping largely because CPEC, a key BRI project between China and Pakistan, passes through a disputed Kashmir territory.
But after the 2017 ‘informal’ Modi-Xi summit in Wuhan, China, the two countries have been able to collaborate, even as they “agreed to disagree” on several issues. Both realize that with the sole economic superpower turning inward, they need each other to ensure there are no bumps on their road to prosperity. India may be reluctant to sign on to the BRI, but it is keen to preserve the peaceful status quo with China. Therefore, India has proposed a second Wuhan-like informal Modi-Xi summit, this time in Varanasi, Modi’s electoral constituency.
Comfortable in his role as India’s torchbearer abroad, Modi no doubt feels even more confident of his ability to maintain the delicate US-China balance following his thumping victory in the recent Indian elections. It will be tough though. The Americans want India to play the pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific to check Chinese inroads into South and South East Asia. India also sees the centrality of the US role in its strategic competition against China. Yet it will be reluctant to further distance itself from China, irrespective of what the Americans want. China did Modi a huge favor by giving the UN Security Council the go-ahead to designate the Pakistan-based Masood Azar, someone implicated in various terror attacks in India, a terrorist. This was publicized as a huge diplomatic victory for the Pak-hardliner Modi, who as a result reaped huge electoral benefits. Modi will be obliged to return the favor to the Chinese.
But with the US determined to tighten the screws on China, will the Indians be able to resist the American pressure to ‘isolate’ the Middle Kingdom? And how will such pressure play out in South Asia, including in Nepal? Will the Indians, in true ‘Wuhan spirit’, give the Chinese, their biggest geopolitical competitor, more or less a free hand in Kathmandu? Or will Modi agree to greater US involvement in Nepal, its traditional ‘backyard’ where India has always frowned on any western activism, to China’s visible discomfort? Or do China and the US now have such influence in Nepal individually that Indian concerns become secondary?
It will be difficult for Nepal if each of these three powers starts pursuing exclusive geopolitical interests here in Nepal. Or if two gang up against one.