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Nepal-India security ties in the mutable epoch (Part-III)

Nepal-India security ties in the mutable epoch (Part-III)
Let’s start with a normal scene in Nepal-India relations. A head of government in Nepal shows commitment to improving Nepal-India relations. But whoever is in the opposition in the Parliament grows suspicious, questioning the very motive of the one in power. Three important interactions have occurred within a year with three visits and three schemas between top government officials of the two countries. They are clean energy (hydropower), infrastructure development and strategic connectivity.

After Sher Bahadur Deuba’s visit to Delhi in April 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Lumbini in less than a month in May 2022. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal awaited a visit reversing his first visit to Beijing in 2008 and concluded the four-day trip to India recently with a focus on clean energy, strategic connectivity—both road and railways infrastructure development—easy monetary system, people-to-people relations and with Nepal’s entry into the India-led International Solar Alliance. This holds six projects and seven agreements with focus on power cooperation and development cooperation. The idea was to re-stress and re-visit the strategic means to achieve the end goals for a harmonious relationship.

The latest developments are in keeping with India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy and PM Modi’s address to Nepal’s Parliament in August 2014, in which he expressed his country’s intent to ‘HIT’ Nepal by building Highways, I-ways and Transways. Making the most of HIT as well as security diplomacy with defense cooperation, law enforcement coordination and intelligence sharing as integral parts remain formidable challenges.   Strategic posture  During his recent visit to India, Dahal showed willingness to complement Indian needs, vis-a-vis political, energy and freshwater, with the hope that this will result in economic enhancement for the Nepali people. But Nepal-India ties are not going smoothly, what with ongoing border disputes that can come up as a political whip during elections, thereby impacting the political setups. Of several disputes along the 1,850-km Nepal-India border, disputes over the India-controlled Kalapani-Lipulek-Limpiadhura and the Susta region stand out. There is also the fallout of India’s Agnipath defense recruitment scheme for enlisting Nepali citizens in the Indian Army. Dahal’s reappointment as PM with support from the Nepali Congress after the withdrawal of support from the CPN-UML in the Parliament points toward a joint response from New Delhi and Washington. In this context, recent visits of US Under-secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland (in January) and USAID chief Samantha Power (in February) and the visit of India’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra (in mid-February) are noteworthy. These trips underscore Nepal’s significance in the geostrategic scheme of things. Also important to note is the fact that the election of NC candidate Ram Chandra Paudel paved the way for the authentication of the Citizenship Amendment Bill that his predecessor, Bidya Devi Bhandari, had nixed. These maneuvers have political-economic-security corollary and a determination for stimulus influence over all countries in South Asia.   Security ties Political interests have changed as technology and geography have become more accessible and reachable than ever. Nepal-India security relations should also be read in this light. They refer to safety measures, or strength against possible detriment or undesirable coercion by nation states and non-state actors preventing the freedom to act. It is the safety from threats and protection of predominantly seven bodies–from economic security, food security, health security, environment security, personal security, community security, human security, physical security to political security. Without peace and stability, sustained economic growth and poverty alleviation are not possible. Peace and stability in Nepal, India and the entire region is possible through security diplomacy. To achieve these ends, law enforcement cooperation and intelligence coordination are necessary between Nepal and India. The new threats to Nepal-India relationship involve obstruction in traditional security ties based on the Treaty of Peace and Friendship (1950), so security diplomacy will be key in coming years. Military-to-military relationship, law enforcement coordination and intelligence community cooperation play an important role in fulfilling foreign policy objectives. While talking about military ties it will be contextual to delve a bit into the Agnipath recruitment scheme. Agnipath is about defense diplomacy that has a distinct setup—domestic, regional and international. The traditional practice of recruiting Nepali Gurkha into the Indian Army remains stalled with political concerns deprived from an understanding of what their absence really means. It is not just about the 75 percent that return after four years adding on to the unemployment list nor is it only about the possibility of unwanted elements misusing them against Nepal. It has strategic bearings garnering political trust, geopolitics, economic, diplomacy, employment opportunities and people-to-people relations. The two nations should move forward acknowledging the trends of defense diplomacy changing its discourse for peace or against peace, diplomacy for development or diplomacy for or against democracy.   The way forward Nepal-India relationship has been primarily viewed through a political lens and PM Dahal’s visit is no exception. The visit has emphasized political-economic-security outlooks of the relationship when world powers are striving for a new world order and Asia for a new normal. Foreign policy, diplomacy amongst different instruments of power and regional connectivity to address the strategic needs of South Asia and beyond—they all are equally important as diplomacy amongst the defenders of national interests. The colonial period, India’s independence, its strides in shaping a favorable security architecture in 1970-1990, its economic growth and global aspirations, Nepal standing out as a sovereign country during the colonial period and China consolidating its territorial gains after 1950 are some of the developments that beget attention. In a changing world, growing interests of China and India are not just in their ‘spheres of influence’, but well beyond as well. For China, it is the Indo-Pacific Region with multi-continental diplomatic engagements. For India, it is beyond its immediate neighborhood to Southeast Asia, East Asia, West Asia or the Persian Gulf. Nepal can play a significant role in addressing challenges facing not only India, but the South Asia region as a whole. These challenges include power shortages, flooding, inundation and shortages of freshwater, which have been impacting comprehensive security. The Joint Vision Statement on Power Sector Cooperation of April 2022 has now entered the sub-region through trilateral power connectivity between Nepal, India and Bangladesh. Being part of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) will have geopolitical and geoeconomics propositions for Nepal. The transportation connectivity and border crossing arrangements between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) should remain an integral part of the international organization and plurality. The joint military exercises envisioned in the BIMSTEC will have a crucial role in addressing the changed dynamics of defense diplomacy, which needs strengthening. In this context, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s decision to conduct the first joint military exercise of 10 member-states in the disputed South China Sea this September is quite significant. Commenting on this development, Admiral Yudo Margono of Indonesia recently said that the exercise is aimed at strengthening “ASEAN centrality” and does not include any combat operations. Nepal and India security relationship is not and cannot remain bilateral; it is regional and international with ‘strategic connectivity’ focusing on power, freshwater, infrastructure, transportations connectivity as well as security connectivity. It has the potential to become an indispensable driver of modernity and progress as well as mutual economic growth in the region, with long-term power trade and management of water boosting reciprocally-beneficial ventures. The author is a Strategic Analyst, Major General (Retd) of the Nepali Army, and is associated with Rangsit University, Thailand