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Nepal and India: Caught in a foreign policy rut (Part II)

Nepal and India: Caught in a foreign policy rut (Part II)
There are various factors that contribute to promising and sometimes disappointing foreign policy outcomes adopted by Nepal and India regarding one another. It is hence virtuous to uncover the camaraderie and the discords that the foreign policy is facing. Foreign policies of both Nepal and India endures from contradiction, ad hoc measures, and inconsistency with an absence of short- and long-term strategic approaches narrating polarity of unilateral, bilateral, regional and multinational facets of relations, with an inclination to the Rational Actor model of diplomacy. But approaches of foreign policy by way of the political process, inter-branch politics, organizational process, bureaucratic political arrangements and consistency and functions of diplomacy endure to endorse the constituents, the most important of which are security, diplomatic and economic interests that often uphold, coexist and persuasively influence each other. With Cold War 2.0, rise of China and rivalry between the two largest economies, reorientation of neutrality and non-alignment and multi-alignment compels contemplation beyond the traditional domain of non-alignment that advocates sovereign equality of all states. It is important to encourage friendly relations amongst all countries, to advocate peaceful settlement of international disputes, and to oppose the use of force and nuclear weapons garnering the objectives of the Non-Alignment Movement. Nepal’s geographic positioning is significant in global politics. With the shift in geopolitics, Nepal has been the recipient of great power interest, and attaining more prominence with both immediate neighbors. Reassessing the foreign policy with all stakeholders for a united public policy and subjects of international law to safeguard the well-being of the Nepali people with the projection of national interests to the immediate neighbors and the world is essential. Small states like Nepal will form an integral part of the international order.

India is Nepal’s largest trade partner  as well as  the largest source of total foreign investments, while Nepal is the ninth largest trading partner of India. China, meanwhile, has been the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment in Nepal from 2015 onward. Nepal is also the seventh largest source of remittance to India, with $3.2bn a year remitted as per the World Bank. India provides transit for almost a third of Nepal’s trade in accordance with the Indo-Nepal Transit Treaty.

What is wrong? Primarily, inconsistent Nepali and Indian national policies are paving way for governments to engage or intervene in their particular philosophical theory and reasoning, imprisoning Nepal-India rapport from time to time. Nepal and India lack a national foreign policy. The policy deficit and the influence of the institutions like the intelligence community, diplomatic community, the security community or personal association in the political settings has been the impulsive element for driving foreign policy, which has proved to be short lived. It is more driven by personalities who direct politics and polities lacking strategic outlook–like the 12-point agreement without an exit strategy. Security has been the driving factor rather than politics-diplomacy-security. The perception of Nepal and India relationship is geographically driven with Kathmandu as a forceful factor and the political parties opt for nationalism with anti-Indian oratory is more profound. People living in the urban areas or the cities, mountains, hills and the Tarai observe the ties with their own sensitivities and requirements. The political leaders, political parties and the government are the compelling drivers of the relationship, not the national foreign policy, which derives from national interests. These are the main constituents consequential to what Nepal and India foreign policy and relationship is today. This is not to stress that the Nepali policymakers are truthful and flawless. It cannot be repudiated that Nepal is occupied with conspiracy theories that attribute all in-house inconveniences to India. There is also a strong indication that past policy orchestrators in Nepal and India are responsible for the instabile national foreign policies. Nepal’s survival is not looking for new diplomatic philosophy but to follow the moralities of King Prithivi Narayan Shah that Nepal is a “yam between two boulders”. It won’t be a bridge at least in the near future as some political orchestrators examine. Nepal has had 20 governments in the last 30 years of them 12 after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006. Nepal-India special friendship has reached its lowest point after little more than half a century with various acknowledged factors. Foreign policy inconsistencies  Nepal and India have always stood with each other on their political journey from independence of India to Nepal’s declaration as a secular, federal republic. The political and social transformation in Nepal originated with India’s recognition of the Nepal Communist Party Maoist as one of the sources of political powers of the state together with monarchy and the democratic political forces. The two pillars of political governance, constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy abstained, finding a space for the third. But there remains a question if the prerequisites in the national strategic policy alteration was the national Indian foreign policy or if it was the day-to-day government. Foreign policies initiated with the British departure from the Asian region, with India’s and other nation states’ independence. Democracy as a political system was just introduced. The United Nations stood as the global body for recognition for small nations. The strategic surrounding south of the Himalayas was influenced by India and north of the Himalayas by China in making of the foreign policy. All three countries, Nepal, China and India, were occupied for their own unity and political systems. The US was the second country to establish diplomatic relations with Nepal with the opening of the embassy in Aug 1959 after the United Kingdom. When interpreting observances on diplomacy and Indian policies towards Nepal, four important subject matters stand out, pointing to the future of bilateral relationship. The first is India’s observation on China’s growing influence, which is believed to be well supported by the growing affiliation amongst the communist parties of both Nepal and China in addition the dilemmas in the Himalayas particularly the 2017 Sino-Indo border standoff or the Doklam standoff in addition the May 2020 skirmishes in the Sino-Indo border both in the Himalayas. Second, is the political instability, political trust, social aggravation and extra regional power’s influence in administering the country. Third is the reluctance of support from the Nepali side on the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which form the foundation of the special adherence. Finally, on the contrary, is the imperative example of the people-to-people relationship, cultural and traditional affinity, civilizational linkages and economic ties as the largest trade partner. Also perceptible is the prospect on the effects of the 12-point agreement that is questioning empathy. For Nepal, equidistance policy with immediate neighbors and friendship with all has been the appropriate phrase for prominent politicians and national political parties but is inappropriate. Domestic politics and particular leader’s interpretations detract from the relationship that should be based on national interests. Foreign policy is based on disagreements like border problems and challenges like floods and inundation, not strategic national interests. Four factors are evident. One, considering India as a hegemon with roles in day-to-day administering. Two, keenness is politics of convenience playing one nation to another alongside domestic nationalism common in times of elections. Three, ad hoc arrangements punctuated by hyper populism, not by principles and meritocracy. Lastly, lack of strategic thoughts of the imminent risk to national credibility and stability. In addition, the current relationship is based on foreign policies that lack the new geopolitical realities that circumscribe the two countries. Geostrategic situation also plays an important role in formulating national interests as it did in the late 1940 to mid 1950s. The driving factor in finding a new approach for foreign policy at present necessitates four considerations. The geographic positioning is vibrant with China and US rivalry and Tibet as the soft belly. China views Nepal as the buffer state in the center of the Himalayas with access to mainland India. China and India’s confrontation along the Himalayas is ongoing. China’s growing interests in South Asia will strengthen. Deduction  Picking up on these arguments, it is important to look into reality and perception that prominent political leaders, political parties and the system of governance in Nepal and India leave open to further worsening the relationships, not merely political and people-to-people but national interests and  national credibility. While striving for functional democracy, Nepal lives to thrive, opportunity to resolve and rebuild clarity, comprehensiveness, understanding, perceptiveness, decisiveness, perseverance for building confidence key components of foreign policy is visible but policymakers need to act. The region is divided into powers and small nations looking for growth who are sometimes trampled, questioning the sphere of influence and the regional security architecture. Sino-Indo competition in the Himalayas, Nepal-Indo resource management and in addition emerging China and the rising India look for preserving political space south of the Himalayas. China’s aspiration has come as a major irritant and a foreign policy challenge, but for Nepal it is an opportunity to reduce India dependency and to achieve progress. Buffer states whether in the Americas, Asia, Africa, Europe or the Oceanic have been facing political glitches and diplomatic setbacks but have also played a role to prevent conflict between two rival or potentially hostile great powers. The concept of buffer states can be tracked down as part of a theory of the balance of power that entered European strategic and diplomatic thinking in the 18th century. So, the strategic imperative is for India the fear of China’s influence taking over and vice versa or the competition for influence or control which does not occur to non-buffer states. The Himalayan nations Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and Sikkim were buffer states between the British Empire and China. At the present time as well as time to come with China’s fortification of Tibet and growing interests as a global actor as well as the skirmishes that are occurring in the Himalayas has and will position Bhutan and Nepal as the buffer state for the balance of power. The discords are the arguments in the use of resources, absence of strategic planning, deficiency in regional outlook, centrality of values and principles, relevance of rules and norms and the shortfall in security judgment. Therefore, the commonalities are civilizational connections, people-to-people bonds, open border movement of goods and personnel, special arrangements like the defense relationship or defense diplomacy, economic ties and the pegged monetary arrangements. These needs to be strengthened. Nepal is robust internally but characteristic of vulnerability is often reflected with an exposure to a high degree of economic openness with dependence on strategic imports, a dependence on a narrow range of exports or services, and susceptibility to external economic shocks externally. Successful strategy of foreign affairs ends–and therefore begins–in the real world of international relations, and for Nepal and India, the understanding of the geopolitical shift and a win-win accord. The foreign policy has marched together in search for identity, inclusiveness, values and a democratic system. Together with finding national foreign and bring about constructive headways and wind-up instability in Nepal-India relationship in the new geopolitical realities, five possessions must be apparent:

  • One, Nepal and Indian foreign policy should be well spelt out against the Rational Actor model or policies of a particular party or influence or as convenience. Nepal will be accustomed with the function of multilateral diplomacy in enriching and intensifying opinions to level the playing field of rival power politics. Though disadvantages exist but often can be circumvented, reduced and turned to strategic advantage depending on collective political harmony and the rule of law, a stringent emphasis on limited intents, quantitative and qualitative approaches and embracing creative answers.
  • Second, strategic autonomy by pursuing national interests with cohesion or interrelation that complements smallness, which will contribute in generating a shared purpose and dependability in the foreign policy and diplomacy. This will lessen impediments in governance surfacing from competing or contradictory interests and perceptions of interests of powers.
  • Third, engagement in developmental efforts with an operational foundation for strategic connectivity (energy, water, infrastructure) with support to strategic planning for the use of resources, strategic developmental efforts and security diplomacy.
  • Fourth, as a buffer, Nepal to find a political and diplomatic resolution with a mutually agreed upon declaration for a demilitarized nation state in the sense of not hosting the military of either power but standing firm with its own military forces. Foreign policy of small states is diplomacy and diplomacy of small states is a subgroup of diplomacy.
  • Lastly, landlocked, candidness, narrow-mindedness, flexibility, weakness and dependence are factors influencing engagement in the international system. To overcome vulnerability and constraints international development institutions and international partners must expand state-of-the-art solutions modeled to deliver correlated development and financing issues.
In conclusion, to emphasize on collective strategies to address common security challenges. India’s policy in South Asia is based on “Neighbourhood First” but Nepal and India relationship goes further because of geographical proximity, cultural and people-to-people correlation, economic or demographic conditions and democracy. If cross-cultural communication is effective, it winds up by influencing other global actors and regional actors or changing the international environment in ways favorable to both Nepal and India’s interests. As a remover of obstacles and an achiever of objectives it must begin with an accurate mental picture of domestic, regional and international realty, an understanding of the politics-economics-security of foreign policy at both Delhi and Kathmandu with security, prosperity, democracy and development as pillars of diplomacy. The author is a Strategic Analyst, Major General (Retd) of the Nepali Army, and is associated with Rangsit University, Thailand