Long read: Nepal, non-alignment and shifting geopolitics
Nepal’s geostrategic location, the escalating competition between India and China, China, and the United States, and the intensified differences in their opinions and tensions have made it a crossroads for emerging and established powers’ rush to global power
In 2012, India initiated a thorough examination of its non aligned foreign policy through an independent group of analysts known as “Non-Alignment 2: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century,” The group comprised eight distinguished scholars, military officers, and businessmen including Shyam Saran, who was serving as the foreign secretary of the Indian government at that time. The core objectives of Non-Alignment 2 included “re-working for present times of the fundamental principle that has defined India’s international engagements since Independence,” and adapting nonalignment to a rapidly evolving world while upholding its “fundamental principle.” This was to ensure that “India did not define its national interest or approach to world politics in terms of ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere; that India retained maximum strategic autonomy to pursue its own developmental goals; and that India worked to build national power as the foundation for creating a more just and equitable global order.” (Non-Alignment: 2.0) This highlights the enduring significance of the Non-Aligned Movement.
In the post-Cold War era, the NAM maintained its relevance and viability, as evidenced by the participation of leaders at the highest levels in its summit meetings and their reaffirmation of the organization's founding principles. Due to its sensitive strategic location between two powerful neighboring countries with global ambitions, Nepal finds itself in a perpetual state of an unresolved Cold War. The cyclical turn of India-China relations, shifting from cooperation to competition, then to conflict, and eventually to accommodation, to reconciliation, alongside the similar pattern observed in US-China relations, has exerted a profound influence on their respective relationships with Nepal. However, Nepal’s own relations with these nations have remained amicable, as Kathmandu has successfully built friendly relations with all three. China’s emergence on the global stage as a formidable global power and rival to the United States has intensified competition between the two countries. Nepal’s geostrategic location between India and China renders it “the geopolitical heartland of Asia” (Dahal, 2022), from which each power observes the other.
Nepal’s geostrategic location, the escalating competition between India and China, China, and the United States, and the intensified differences in their opinions and tensions have made it a crossroads for emerging and established powers’ rush to global power. American policy toward Nepal has begun to reveal “more Chinese factors,” and Chinese engagements in Nepal have begun to expressly demonstrate their concern over a growing American presence in Nepal aimed at China.
At the 19th National Congress, President Xi declared, “it is time for us to take center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind.”. China’s presence, influence, and power in South Asian countries have grown significantly over the years. From the Himalayan frontiers to the waters of the Indian Ocean and everything in between, is under the increasing watch and attention of China. The steady rise in China’s economic engagements through her use of economic, and diplomatic resources have evoked a range of responses from its regional neighbors.
In a broader context, China views the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and QUAD as aimed at “countering China’s economic clout, military power, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)” (Liang, 2022). Strategic tensions between the US and China are high and rising in South Asia which are reflected in the fiery exchange of words between them over a development grant extended to Nepal by the United States. In Feb 2009, Joe Felter, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, compared MCC to BRI and said that Chinese investments in Nepal must serve Nepali interests not Chinese, offering the new infamous Hambantota Port deal in Sri Lanka as proof of the latter. A day later, Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqui shot back that Felter’s comments were ‘irresponsible.’
As the fulfillment of commitments to Millennium Challenge Corporation-Nepal Compact (MCC) got delayed due to political wranglings in Nepal, the US saw China’s hand in “fomenting propaganda” (Lu, 2022) against the $500m development grant assistance extended to Nepal. China called it American “coercive diplomacy.” Beijing questioned “does a gift come with the package of an ultimatum? How can anyone accept such a “gift”? Is it a “gift” or Pandora’s box?” (Chunying, 2022). The sharp exchange of words between the United States and China regarding this grant for infrastructure development illustrates Nepal’s delicate foreign policy balancing act. The MCC package was finally approved by Nepal’s Parliament on 28 Feb 2022, despite opposition and criticism from China. MCC intends to improve Nepal’s connectivity and cross-border transmission lines within India.
China is increasingly viewed as America’s primary competitor. China considered the State Partnership Program (SPP) of the United States, which was launched in 1993 as a post-Cold War initiative initially encompassing “humanitarian assistance and disaster response, peacekeeping operations, defense professionalization, ground force capacity, and counter- terrorism” as an effort to expand its defense relationship. During the Dec 2018 visit of Nepali foreign minister Pradip Gyawali to Washington, it was reported that the two foreign ministers discussed “Nepal’s central role in a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific and global issues including North Korea” (Patel, 2018).
This “highlighted the enduring strength of the US-Nepal partnership and the close people- to-people ties that form the foundation of the relationship.” The US 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report cited Nepal and Sri Lanka as emerging “critical partners.” Nepal withdrew from SPP on June 21, 2022 after learning that it includes security and military components. China “commended” Nepal’s decision not to proceed with the SPP. This statement clearly suggests that there is a significant display of geopolitical maneuvering and counter-maneuvering among major powers in Nepal.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the United States does not “seek to block China from its role as a major power” and is not “forcing countries to choose” between the two superpowers. As stated by Blinken, nations have a “choice”. However, the United States warns its allies to be wary of China while China speaks of building bridges, tunnels, railways, and other infrastructures. As China invests billions of dollars in infrastructure funds to connect the world via BRI, this strategy is claimed “superior” to the alternative.
Nepal requires foreign aid to lift its citizens from poverty and provide them with decent lives. In a multipolar world, it will take more work to manage trade offs. Given its geostrategic location, the gravitas of global geopolitics has clearly reached Nepal. As reflected by the MCC–Nepal compact, the contract for American grant aid, the nation must play the geopolitical game, which has arrived at its doorstep, with caution, skill, and wisdom.
China’s foreign policy of non-interference in internal affairs appears to have emerged from its traditional framework. Lately, Beijing is perceived to take a keen interest in the internal affairs of other nations due to its security concerns. In Sept 2019, the Nepal Communist Party and Communist Party of China (CPC) signed a six-point bilateral agreement, under which, the “chief of International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China Song Tao and other CPC officials imparted ‘training’ to around 200 NCP leaders on Xi Jinping Thought”. The formation of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) in 2018 came through the merger of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist- Leninist) led by former Prime Minister KP Oli, with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) led by former guerrilla leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also a former Prime Minister. China had welcomed “the merger of the two parties and hoped that Nepal can achieve its national development goals at an early date” (Kang, 2018). The tie-ups between CCP and NCP and the adoption of ‘Xi Thought’ also suggests a Sinicization of Nepali political parties through the import of CCP models (Mulmi, 2021, 172). However, the unity did not last long. Nepal’s Supreme Court ruling dealt a shattering blow declaring the NCP’s name invalid. This created a pre-merger scenario, and two factions parted their ways.
In October 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal. It was the first visit by the President of China in 23 years. Nepal and China signed twenty agreements to strengthen connectivity, trade, economic assistance, and security ties, thereby elevating Nepal-China bilateral relations to a “new height” of strategic partnership characterized by enduring friendship for economic growth. Additionally, the Chinese President pledged to “help Nepal realize its dream of becoming a land-linked country from a land-locked one.” This was widely seen as a pivotal moment in Nepal “rapidly drifting into China’s orbit of influence” (Ganguly, 2020). However, there is no possibility of Nepal aligning with China, India, or any of the other great powers.
In this light, non-alignment for Nepal is less of a political statement and more of a pragmatic response to the country’s actual situation. Real non-alignment would keep other nations at arm's length and help safeguard the nation’s vital interests in sovereignty, territorial integrity, and economic development. Nonalignment was to maintain a ‘posture of neutrality’ in an effort to balance its relations with huge neighbors and other great powers (D’Souza, 2014: 377) As the NAM has carved out a niche in international affairs, its membership has ballooned from 25 to 120 members. It is undeniable that there is widespread cynicism regarding its role and capacity, even though a unified approach to diverse challenges has been developed. The world looks to the NAM because this is the only forum that has as many members from all continents and regions as it does.
Clearly, NAM has grown despite a series of severe setbacks. It operates in an inhospitable environment because most of its members belong to a group of countries living in poverty with citizens who are victims of social injustice, economic imbalances, escalating hunger and unemployment. Nonetheless, their cohesiveness in action has given them effective leverage. The size of the nonaligned countries’ markets gives them a commanding position, as they also contain vital raw material sources and deposits of natural resources. The shared suffering of billions compelled them to unite, and brought the NAM to create a joint stake in united ameliorative actions, be genuinely true to its mission, strengthen its capacity for action, and adopt concrete measures to maintain and increase the relevance, influence, and impact of its decisions.
Even in some well-informed circles, there is considerable confusion and hesitancy regarding NAM’s significance in the post-Cold War world and the context of rapidly shifting geopolitics. With the disintegration of one of the rival power blocs—the Soviet Union—skepticism appears to be intensifying, and questions are being raised regarding its continued relevance and viability. Some scholars describe the NAM as the “mellowing of the Cold War” and the disappearance of the adversarial relationship between the superpowers, and therefore see no reason to continue the NAM process. The question of “non-aligned against whom?” arises frequently. Should it be thrown out as a relic of the bipolar world?
Others argue that despite repeated commitments and calls from NAM summits to advance disarmament, work for the reduction of the nuclear arsenals, take effective steps to eliminate nuclear weapons and divert precious resources for much-needed development to improve the quality of life for people around the world, powerful countries have continued to produce increasingly sophisticated weapons of mass destruction. As arsenals that are capable of destroying humanity and human civilization continue to grow, the dangers are increasing, not decreasing. Though NAM’s influence on the disarmament process has been negligible, this does not make its advocacy for disarmament any less compelling; rather, it becomes more compelling with each passing day. Nepal advocated that nonaligned nations should continue coordinating their efforts to expedite the disarmament process to redirect billions of dollars currently accumulating in destructive weapons to peaceful uses, (Shah Dev, 1973: 63).
As a multilateral forum of sovereign and independent states, the NAM will only be as effective as its members permit. The United Nations Charter, which forms the legal foundation of the postwar order, requires UN member states to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Even though much of the United Nations has not lived up to the vision of its founders, there is no question of disbanding the international organization, and the same is true of the NAM. The Movement’s ideology is sufficiently adaptable to meet the requirements of our ever-changing world (Dixit, 1991: 139).
The significance of the NAM cannot be overstated. But the NAM can only be effective if its members are able to reconcile their contradictions and differences, overcome animosity and hostility, and work collaboratively to achieve their goals with concrete action plans. President of Cyprus, George Vassiliou stated that the NAM has the experience and resources to become a “force for progress and justice in the world” (The Times of India, 8 Sept 1988). He said, “The tasks facing us today can be more effectively met if our countries, instead of following developments, take the initiative and become masters of their own destinies.”
Similarly, vigilance is required against new manifestations of neocolonialism and its other forms. In June 1992, Indian Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao stated, “The pursuit of a non-aligned foreign policy is more important than ever.” To be non-aligned consists primarily of supporting the independence and development of nations. Whether there is a single bloc or multiple blocks at a given time, the objective of a nonaligned country remains the same: to maintain its independence, to make decisions based on its own values, and not to follow others in advance. Then he added, “The Chimera of hegemonism should not be pursued” (Rao, 1992).
Despite their social and political differences and divergent viewpoints, it must be acknowledged that the NAM has reached a consensus on fundamental issues such as disarmament, justice principles, and the establishment of a new international order. It has maintained consistency on several issues of critical importance, played an increasingly positive role in international affairs, and exerted a growing influence on the United Nations and other international forums. In a speech to the Nepali Parliament, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala expressed confidence that nonalignment will help all small nations achieve self-respect, independence, and economic growth (The Independent Weekly, 24 Sept 1991).
The NAM was the powerful voice, positive instrument, and rallying point of the decolonization and anti-apartheid struggle. Its contribution to the disarmament process cannot be overlooked. Now, they should be solely concerned with eradicating the poverty, hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy, and misery of the bottom billions. Due to the sheer number of its members, the NAM is a crucial factor in the emergence of a new world order. The global system is no longer unipolar, and it has become unquestionably multipolar, multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual, and multireligious.
There are new realities, changed circumstances, and new requirements of regional markets, information technology, and advances in science. Regional groupings that are equally capable of influencing regional and global order and altering foreign policy parameters have emerged. Nepal should emphasize cooperation, peace and development with all willing to assist it in escaping its perpetual backwardness. It should adhere to its fundamental principles without deviating from its historical trajectory, geographical context, or geopolitical realities. NAM has demonstrated that it opposes replacing one system of hegemony with another. Humanity must continue to fight for a just and equitable order within the framework of multilateralism under the United Nations. NAM’s objectives remain relevant in the face of numerous formidable global challenges. They continue to be relevant until they are fully realized.
NATO, which arose as a counterbalance to the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact Treaty, now exists even after the end of the Cold War and has become a military wing, at least for European security. If NATO as a military organization can have relevance in the twenty-first century, albeit with modifications, then the NAM should claim at least equal relevance (The Hindustan Times, 1995). In January 1994, NATO decided to accept new members. Stability in the post-Cold War era depended on the expansion of NATO, according to Strobe Talbott’s 1994 article in The New York Review of Books. Consequently, pursuing the NAM remains a worthwhile objective and makes it a more vibrant institution and effective instrument of peace and stability, bolstering its founding principles and pillars.
Some consider NAM to be more ceremonial than substantive. Translating broad ideas into policy, interests, and outcomes is not always straightforward. “Non-alignment was no exception to the rule, and the pursuit of a global profile sometimes came at the cost of narrower national interests.” India now aspires to be a “leading power, not just a balancing power” (Jaishankar, 2020). This is an explicit assertion that the foreign policy concept of non-alignment is dead (Raghavan, 2020). Others believe the time has come to bury non-aligned fences (Kalbag, 2014).
There are fears among the non-aligned countries that are inching closer to powerful nations. In the ever-evolving realm of geopolitics, foreign policy is closely “related to international security and great power relations.” Even within the non-aligned countries, many young people are more pro-Western and pro-American and less attached to the intellectual legacy of non-alignment (Smith, May 8, 2018). Aligning with certain nations restricts the options for independence, autonomy, freedom of choice, and maintaining flexibility. In contrast, nonalignment allows the country to evaluate each issue based on its merits and take a position in its best interest. Any order rests on a foundation of fundamental principles. At a time when the world is poised on the precipice of profound changes and is headed toward greater interdependence, only rule-governed interaction creates a predictable and stable international environment in which states can coexist, coordinate their interactions, collaborate in pursuing national, common, and collective goals, and peacefully resolve disputes and differences.
Concerning the world’s drift toward nationalist populism, there is a feeling of insecurity and despair. Social media are fostering a massive social awakening. The radicalization and narrowing of politics bolster exclusive nationalism. There is an inward focus on the part of major powers. The increasing polarization of domestic politics, populism, and mistrust of elites, even in established democracies, threaten national democratic institutions’ stability. Democratic countries are short on democratic principles and are under threat from various sources. The United States fights militants in the global war on terror (GWOT), but its efforts to promote freedom and democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq are a glaring failure. At a time when global governance structures are under question, and being redefined, nonalignment stays relevant to assert and pursue national interests without being excessively influenced by major powers.
Democracy is in decline, and it is challenging to find vociferous defenders of it. There is a decline in the willingness of democracies to defend the order they established after World War II. A new Cold War is readily apparent. Radical and Islamist militant groups are encouraged to obtain greater legitimacy and financial support. Countries, including the superpower the United States, face the costs and repercussions of global crises that have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the widening of social and economic disparities. Nonaligned nations can independently raise their voices on any issues affecting their interests, irrespective of the big powers’ geopolitical affiliations. As they are free to maintain their independent positions, they uphold the principles of fairness, equity and justice in global affairs.
The United States has the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which sanctions countries for trading with the opposing side. Even amid this, non-aligned nations have maintained their independence by refusing to side with large feuding powers. On March 2, 2022, 193 countries at the United Nations unanimously approved a resolution regarding Russia’s “aggression against Ukraine”, with 141 votes in favor, 35 abstentions, and only five votes against. Even the continent’s closest allies, Serbia and Hungary, voted against the invasion. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “The General Assembly’s message is loud and clear.” In a separate UN vote to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council, 58 member states abstained, while Russia was expelled by a vote of 93 to 24. Nepal was among those who abstained. There is a growing tendency among non-aligned nations to adhere to the pragmatic principle of ‘judging every issue on its merits without fear or favor’ and to adopt a stance that is in their best interests.
The concept of non-alignment has proven to be dynamic and ever-changing. Being a non-aligned nation did not merely entail maintaining independence from a military bloc; it also entailed evaluating every issue independently, without fear or favor, and maintaining ideological neutrality. As a country situated between two of Asia’s largest neighbors, both of which are emerging global powers with distinct political and social systems, the NAM has assisted Nepal in maintaining a much- needed balance in her international relations.
Over the years, non-alignment has established itself as an independent Movement with some political and moral influence over the course of world events (Khanal, 1988: 16-23). It is necessary to make the NAM an effective forum in the 21st century. Messages from various sources point out that NAM will have to work hard, examine and analyze its methodology of work and its institutions to adapt itself to the changing needs of the time. In assessing the relevance of the NAM, changes of all sorts since the end of Cold War- need to be taken into considerations as the Movement was not conceived as a counter only to the Cold War or power blocs; but also, as an expression of long-term concerns and a framework of reference points for foreign policies toward newly emerged, independent states. NAM has shown enough flexibility to meet the needs of a rapidly shifting situation.
Though the Non-Aligned Movement appears replete with enormous problems and contradictory trends, its contributions to the world at large are worth noting. The NAM has over the years become synonymous with the sovereign right of every independent state, giving freedom to every sovereign nation to choose national positions and vote independently. It has emerged as a manifestation of the hopes and aspirations shared by two-thirds of humanity, envisioning a world characterized by peace, independence, justice, equality, and prosperity. The nonaligned countries have stood together on most of the pressing issues of the world. Those who are deriding nonalignment today may bear in mind that by the seventies, quite a number of countries which had been in military blocs, decided to join the Non-Aligned Movement as the military blocs became a liability for many of the independent states (Chakravarty, 1986).
India and China are both nuclear powers and at the center of rapidly shifting geopolitics. “The new Cold War that is emerging is not like the past one. Since we are located between two major powers and we are the center of focus geopolitically, a carefully designed foreign policy is needed for a small country like Nepal” (Khatri, 2021). In this risky, uncertain, and confusing time, Nepal feels squeezed into a dangerously uncomfortable zone, and therefore needs to tread cautiously while staying away from any strategic alliances. “Non-alignment which constitutes one of the basic tenets of our foreign policy has a direct bearing on the perception of our geo-strategic situation” (Khanal, 1983: 1 and 12).
NAM faces a litmus test as it strives to reorient its priorities and plans and calls for the restructuring and democratization of the United Nations through a balanced relationship between the United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council, and the Secretary-General. As China fears isolation, it has intensified its engagements with NAM member states, developed pragmatic arguments to woo countries from the Global South, and persuaded non-aligned nations to consume Chinese arguments “like candy” (The Economist, March, 26, 2022).
Big powers, America and China are keen to draw nonaligned countries into their orbit. Both the United States and China strive to win them over, and cultivate the leadership of the Global South that constitutes the majority of the nonaligned countries. America cultivates nonaligned countries on issues of development, debt relief, security or finance, and maintains 88 defense “partnerships” (excluding formal alliances), though some are limited in scope. It would be a tragic result if, uniting the West, America alienates the rest. (The Economist, April 11, 2023). China comes with a “win-win cooperation” narrative and strategically leverages its formidable economic prowess to win the nonaligned countries and promises to promote the construction of high quality infrastructure projects, enhance connectivity and interconnected world. Beijing actively engages with local governments, international organizations, and private entities to foster mutually beneficial relationships, exchange expertise, and promote knowledge sharing at various levels.
The Economist has also examined a specific subset of countries, referred to as the "Transactional 25" (T25). The T25 comprises the 25 largest nations, which showcase a remarkable diversity in terms of their wealth and political systems. This group includes vast nations such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Egypt, as well as smaller states like Qatar. They represent 45% of the world’s population and their share of global GDP has risen from 11% in 1992 to 18% in 2023, surpassing that of the European Union. They have chosen to remain non aligned in the continuing rivalry among the United States, China and Russia. They are “brutally pragmatic” and their stance on the Ukraine conflict will have a profound impact on the global order for decades (April 13, 2023).
As the established global order starts to weaken, the significance of non-aligned countries is steadily increasing, becoming an inevitable component of the emerging power equation. Countries like India, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia are actively seeking greater influence in global affairs. Both the United States and China are competing to sway these nations. While nonaligned countries may lack a strong common agenda, it would be unwise to underestimate their significance. The T25 nations hold growing economic power and have opted against imposing sanctions on Russia. They have chosen to maintain a neutral stance in the ongoing competition between China, Russia and the United States.
They are pragmatic. Lately, pragmatism is manifested in limited confidence in the institutions of the post-1945 American led order. As most countries wish to avoid being forced to join one geopolitical bloc or the other, the superpowers are competing to win them over. China sees non-aligned countries as biddable, much as the Soviet Union did. The Economist suggests that the West must engage with non-aligned countries in their own transactional terms, with a mix of carrots and sticks. The emerging world order is a long way from America’s unipolar moment in the 1990s. But in the marketplace for influence, the West can compete. Over 4 bn people are keen to see what it has to offer, (The Economist, April 13, 2023). Nepal must be non-aligned with any power blocs to earn the trust and confidence of its neighbors and international community. Even in the altered geopolitical context, there is no reason for non-aligned nations such as Nepal to be apologetic or defensive about its membership in the NAM. It seeks cooperation, goodwill, and support from the international community as a genuine non-aligned state. Nepal has consistently exhibited this foreign policy stance as a member of the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement. Undoubtedly, Nepal’s instability greatly complicates regional security prospects and regional and global stability. Due to its great stabilizing value and contribution to the region’s future security, the nation must be cautious and vigilant in its relations with its immediate neighbors and the wider international community, given its location in a hostile security environment. Nepal has accomplished the balancing act in the past, even during difficult times, and it should continue to do so in the future. The location of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Secretariat and other regional offices of multilateral organizations in Nepal exemplifies the consistency and creditworthiness of its foreign policy. Nepal also houses the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament (RCPD) in Asia and the Pacific for Asia and the Pacific and International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
Nepal’s objective should be to win the goodwill of its neighbors and friends and well-wishers in the international community, secure the greatest possible resources for economic development, and garner support for expanding its diversification policy. Nepal expects its neighbors, friends, and well-wishers to understand the complexities and sensitivity of the situation while acknowledging the realities on the ground and pursuing diplomacy that is principled, pragmatic, and balanced. This should be guided by the five principles of peaceful coexistence known as Panchsheel.
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, characterized by growing interdependence and “increased strategic ambiguity and fear,” countries like China, India, and the United States will likely maintain their central positions in the global order. As a result, Nepal and its neighboring countries will likely find themselves at the center of international attention, which may invite geopolitical maneuvering and counter-maneuvering on Nepali soil. Given these circumstances, Nepal needs to exercise caution, remain vigilant, and adopt a proactive approach in effectively managing geopolitical challenges. This can be achieved by reorienting, revitalizing, reshaping, and restructuring national institutions. It is equally important to equip these institutions with the necessary resources, capabilities, knowledge, and analytical capacities, which may require acquiring appropriate technologies.
The world is in the midst of a crucial process of “replacing old geopolitics with new geopolitics. It is a time of threatening contradictions” (Falk, 2016:10). Traditional geopolitics was predicated on the primacy of hard power and territorial expansion. In contrast, modern geopolitics relies on soft power and recognizes the limits of force. China has risen not through the hard power of its military and unprecedented economic growth but through the soft power of its culture, language, tourism, and conference diplomacy. The organizing principle of Nepal’s foreign policy, a balanced relationship with its two immediate neighbors, remains relevant despite the altered
circumstances. Nepal evaluates each issue based solely on its merits, without regard to anyone’s fear or favor, and without committing itself beforehand to one bloc or the other. Since the 1950s, there has been a national consensus on the principle of non-alignment evidenced by the seven constitutions adopted to date.
Nepal is occasionally subjected to “bigemony” due to its geostrategic location and fragile geopolitics (Dahal: 2022, 21). When their interests converged, Nepal’s competing neighbors did not hesitate to impose their decision, violating the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. While concluding a bilateral agreement, India and China included Nepal’s Lipu Lekh pass- in the tri-junction area between Nepal, China, and India- in their sphere for “enhancing border areas cooperation through border trade, pilgrimage by people from the two countries (India and China), and other exchanges” (Joint Statement, 2015) without the knowledge and participation of Nepal, a small neighbor. This demonstrates a departure from their much-touted policy of non-interference in Nepal’s internal affairs and respect for its sovereignty. The then-government of Sushil Koirala protested the inclusion of Lipu-Lekh in India and China’s joint statement without Nepal’s knowledge and drew their attention to the need for a correction to reflect the ground realities (Bhattarai, 2017: 33). To this day, neither party has responded to the note. This is yet another illustration of Nepal’s precarious position at the intersections of competing interests and conflicting concerns in the context of great power games.
Non-alignment is not ‘equidistance’ between two neighbors - India and China - or with any of the rival powers - the United States, Europe, China, and Russia - nor is it equivalent to neutrality. It was never intended for Nepal to be closer to one neighbor than another. Non-alignment is active, positive, and dynamic, necessitating value judgment rather than maintaining a culture of silence. Nepal's role as an "anchor of regional peace, stability, and security" can be attributed to its non-aligned foreign policy, which has had a significant impact on its international relations.
Non-alignment is not an indifferent attitude in foreign policy conduct. One of the founding leaders, Nkrumah, said, “We are firmly aligned with all the forces in the world that genuinely make for peace.” He argued, “International blocs and rivalries exacerbate and do not solve disputes and that we must be free to judge issues on their merits and to look for solutions that are just and peaceful, irrespective of the powers involved. We do not wish to be in the position of condoning imperialism or aggression from any quarter. Powers which pursue policies of goodwill, cooperation and constructive international action will always find us at their side” (Nkrumah, 1958).
In international relations, the spirit of NAM has proven to be a bulwark of stability and order. In the midst of intensified geopolitical rivalry and competition between China, the United States, and India, it has served as a crucial balancing force. Non-alignment has served Nepal’s national interests well and contributed to the country’s independent image and standing in regional and international forums. As national self- preservation is one of the strongest instincts, it is a lesson that “Nepali leaders must learn on how to recover from the current
foreign policy of immobility, keep self-preservation robust, and vault again as a powerful actor due to its strategic geography linking India, China, and other powers” (Dahal, 2022). The doctrine of NAM was “a living testimony to the increasing role of moral power as against brute force in shaping the course of the international system” (Singh, 1989: 217). He said, the Non-Aligned Movement has to “devise effective mechanisms to contain and resolve regional disputes and in particular to ensure that such disputes do not give rise to armed conflicts among its members.”
In the context of Ukraine, President Joe Biden presented a choice between democracies and autocracies. Biden had told the Summit of Americas that “democracy is not the only defining feature of American histories, but the essential ingredient to America’s future.” However, an ex-Chilean diplomat was quoted as stating that the “real cleavage over Ukraine is not between democracy and autocracy, but between the Global North and the Global South” (Traub, 2022). After the invasion, the West united while the rest of the world fragmented. The charge of Russia is considered an unprecedented threat to the post-World War II order. The existing order, as Shivashankar Menon writes, “does not address their security needs, their existential concerns about food and finances or transnational threats such as climate change.” The Global South requires action, not just words. The South would continue to evaluate situations based on their merits and “would not transfer support to China.”
There are arguments that “the policy of non-alignment may seem irrelevant in today’s increasingly polarized world”
(Menon, 2022) as reflected in the sharpening divides between democracies and autocracies, the rich and the poor, the West vs the East, and fragmentation of economies. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, non-alignment has been an attractive option for countries in the Global South. Whether we refer to it as ‘strategic autonomy,’ independence of actions, decision- making, or judgments, the founding spirit of non-alignment is to secure national space free of conflict and competition among great powers. It believes that military alliances or blocs and rivalries between great powers only exacerbate tensions and endanger peace, stability, and order (Bhattarai, 2022). In the evolving situation, if peace is to prevail, the political equation requires the path of the golden mean or the middle way that Gautam Buddha, taught us some 2,560 years ago. Non-alignment espouses this virtue.
In the military, ideological, and economic contexts, post- World War II politics produced new alliances and alignments. Each and every conflict would be assigned to one of the two poles. In spite of the fact that all nations in South Asia are UN and NAM members and do not belong to any formal military alliances, some have close bilateral ties with one or the other. The close relationship is beneficial if it promotes regional peace, harmony, and progress. Their membership in the NAM group demonstrates the validity of its principles. All agree that the NAM is a force for good in international relations. NAM provides a framework for all of them, if they so choose, to resolve their bilateral and regional differences and problems through peaceful negotiations.
Some believe non-alignment serves no purpose when great powers do as they please, and the weak must accept the outcome. The developed nations hold the keys to economic and technological progress. As nations live in a world that is increasingly interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent, there is growing respect for the work of the Non-Aligned Movement, regardless of what major powers believe and consider activities to be in line with or at odds with their own interests. Even more, space is opening up in a multipolar world for the application of non-alignment and the activities of non-aligned nations. In an increasingly polarized and diverse world, non-alignment as a moderating force based on ideological pluralism and a vision of the world based on equality and tolerance becomes increasingly significant. The future is wide open for non-alignment concepts (Petkovic, 1989: 39).
Non-alignment has a future because it represents the convergence of distinct social, economic, and political systems that avoid power bloc groups. And its resilience is provided by its diversity. Global rearmament, which slowed after the end of the Cold War, is on the rise again. Non-alignment has consistently opposed the infuriating arms race. There is a growing awareness among major powers of NAM's stance that nuclear weapons cannot be used and that efforts to achieve military superiority are no longer rational. In an era of advanced technological development, artificial intelligence, and economic power, the military no longer influences the balance of power and the acquisition of influence. Even though some NAM member states are at the forefront of the arms race, the NAM continues to oppose the arms race. Complete and general disarmament is the only alternative to preventing global destruction.
The revival of the Non-Aligned Movement's significance has been prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As the UN votes reveal, the overwhelming global solidarity has stood in opposition to this grave violation of the UN Charter, international law, and internationally recognized borders. In his farewell address, Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House, stated that "only 39 countries are actually imposing sanctions on Russia over its behavior" and that the "vast majority refuse to take sides or become involved," labeling them "neo-non-aligned" (Niblett, 2022). He argued,"The strategic competition between China and Russia, on the one hand, and the US and its allies, on the other, has empowered these countries as never before. The neo-non-aligned can now triangulate between the world's democratic and authoritarian poles... (and) can leverage their strategic values to the two sides in order to gain investment and protection from both." These countries want "to be in nobody's sphere of influence — political, military, or cultural — and just use their best efforts and agility to take the most they can from either camp."
Numerous developing nations of the Non-Aligned Movement have made substantial advancements and risen in global development statistics. Their role, influence, power, and goodwill in the world have grown. They have been able to cultivate enduring coalitions in multilateral institutions. This allowed them to avoid taking sides. Due to the invasion of Ukraine, Indonesia was under pressure as a G-20 host to exclude Russia from the meeting. The President of Indonesia, commonly known as Jokowi, Joko Widodo, was one of only a few leaders to have met with Presidents Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and refused to be pushed around. NAM gave him the freedom and ability to make independent actions and decisions.
As long as the development gap between developed and developing countries persists, equality in international relations will not be realized. At a time when the destinies of nations have become intertwined, their economic, technological, ecological, and other issues converge. NAM has acted as a pioneer. Today, bipolarization no longer exists, and the United Nations has survived the collapse of the collective security system. History has demonstrated that Dulles was incorrect when he characterized the non-alignment policy as “immoral” and shortsighted. Instead, respect for the Non- Aligned Movement's activities has increased.
Countries in the developing world do not feel compelled to choose sides (Traub, 2021). They have demonstrated a preference for the issue- or value-based coalitions among like-minded nations. Their perspectives on contemporary global issues have evolved, and non-alignment assists them in avoiding subordination to either polarity. Some developing countries have decided to break with the West and insist on a neutral stance between victim and perpetrator.
It is difficult for great powers to relinquish their influence and power. As demonstrated by historical evidence, there has never been a peaceful ascent of a major power. Nation-states have experienced periods of conflict, contradiction, tension, and rivalry. It is only natural for them to seek to continuously increase their striking power by frantically seeking new allies, expanding their spheres of influence, and establishing military bases in every corner of the world. However, there needs to be more credible and imaginative leadership to present and respond to global crises. There have been significant occurrences with no leadership rising to the occasion. NAM’s platform provides space for a policy of 'flexible engagement' due to its admirable record of tolerance and openness, despite the remarkable diversity and fractious nature of its constituents.
The NAM's values have become universal, whereas regional military alliances or blocs have become outdated. Numerous intellectual traditions, such as Buddhism, have imparted nations with the principles of peaceful coexistence which have shaped the present day concept of non-alignment. "The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the Bandung Spirit, first advocated by Asia, are all the more relevant today. We should honor such principles as mutual respect, equality, mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence, follow a policy of good- neighborliness and friendship, and make sure that we always keep our future in our own hands" (Xi Jinping, 2022). Developed nations perceive the NAM as "continuing to be relevant in global politics” owing to overwhelming representation of its members at the United Nations.
NAM could become irrelevant only if it does not reinvent, reorient, or continue performing more of the same tasks in the context of change. This would not contribute to improved outcomes. After initial goals were met such as decolonization and the end of the Cold War, it is now time to seek a peace dividend. As stated in the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, the NAM should revitalize itself to confound its detractors and boost the morale of its supporters, who still believe it has yet to outlive its historical missions. History bears witness to the fact that external interference in internal affairs has only resulted in misery, destruction, and disorder, as well as sown the seeds of discontent and created a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.
Despite strategic rivalries within NAM member states, it is imperative to foster unity in the face of external intervention. It is crucial to comprehend and discern shared global challenges, transcending the boundaries of strategic rivalries in the larger context.
The era of spheres of influence and dominance has come to an end. Our world has evolved into a polycentric system, marked by a dispersal of global power towards a more inclusive world order. Transnational challenges such as pandemics, threats to global health, climate change, and terrorism have never put more pressure on nations to cooperate. The United States, Europe, Russia, and China should join forces to confront the new generation of global challenges. The 20th century had extensive knowledge of Non-Aligned Movement. NAM member states declared neutrality in the conflict between communism and the free world that drove the Cold War. The twenty-first century is unlike the twentieth century. Nonetheless, a similar scenario of strategic competition between China and Russia, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies, on the other, has once again caused the world to look to the NAM for a peaceful and dignified place to stand.
At a time when the global credibility and soft power of the West have been "damaged by their past hypocrisy and double standards" (Niblett, 2022), and no other forums or institutions created after World War II or the Cold War or recent creations possess the moral weight, power, influence, and global reach to rally the world to a common cause, only the NAM has the potential to provide a solution in this critical period. Due to its membership in NAM, Nepal has maintained better relations with both of its neighbors than they have with each other. Maintaining a healthy balance between these two enormous and prominently emerging global powers-China and India- enables Nepal "to minimize the restrictions imposed on Nepal's freedom of action and to contribute to that country's internal and external security" (Rose and Dial, 1969). As the risk of major conflict has never been higher since the end of the Cold War, the vision of the NAM architects for conflict prevention and peaceful resolution of disputes in these chaotic, turbulent, polarized, and uncertain times has never been more pertinent.
The foregoing presentation highlights that NAM’s relevance is growing in the present context. It challenges the notion that it has lost its relevance. What has undermined its relevance are the misunderstandings, differences and propagandist efforts from within and outside. The core argument of NAM stresses the importance of evaluating every issue on its own merits and relating it to their national interests. This freedom of choice implies the ability to have an independent foreign policy, allowing member countries to make autonomous choices and take actions based on their national interests. This highlights the continued need for NAM to provide a platform for countries to express their autonomy and pursue their unique foreign policy objectives.
Six decades after its inception, it is essential for the NAM members to reaffirm their principles, make others understand their spirit and adapt to the evolving global landscape. Even though the NAM member-states are no longer under colonial rule, the issue of colonialism may still exist in various manifestations. This highlights the continued relevance of the NAM's principles in addressing such challenges and advocating for self-determination and independence. At the height of the Cold War, Nepal’s decision to develop relations with the People’s Republic of China, Israel and Pakistan in the 1950s and its maneuverability displayed in the early 1960s, particularly relating to the opening of the Himalayan frontiers, were taken as Nepal’s climax of foreign policy independence, (Baral: 2023).
The Non-Aligned Movement has emerged as an essential component in addressing major challenges of the 21st century, rather than being seen as a problem. In the context of escalating great power competition, the NAM's significance has only grown, emphasizing its relevance in global affairs. As rising powers assert themselves on the world stage, the NAM serves as a unique platform for coordination and cooperation among these nations, playing a pivotal role in shaping the global order and resolving pressing issues.
In the contemporary geopolitical landscape, the NAM can become a central player, actively contributing to the dynamics of international relations. It serves as an ideal platform for diverse nations to come together and identify areas of common ground, promoting dialogue and fostering cooperative efforts toward finding sustainable solutions. By facilitating discussions and negotiations, the NAM provides a neutral space where member states can transcend their differences and work towards shared objectives.
The NAM is a crucial tool for diplomacy. With numerical strength and rising economies in its fold, the NAM provides a platform to harness the collective strength of these nations to tackle global challenges effectively. The diverse perspectives and resources within the NAM member states can collectively formulate comprehensive approaches to complex issues, contribute to sustainable development, poverty eradication, and other key global objectives. Together NAM member states can also work to persuade the big powers to correct the“highly unequal allocation of power,” in the UN organizational structure, which remains dominated by great powers.
Nepal’s greatest strengths lies in its reputation as an independent and sovereign state, maintenance of pluralism amidst immense diversity, remarkable attributes of tolerance and harmony, and consistently making significant contributions to United Nations peacekeeping missions for the “maintenance of international peace and security” in various conflict-ridden regions around the world. Nepal's unwavering commitment to principles of peaceful co-existence and nonalignment has not only earned it international recognition, admiration, and respect but has also established the country as a reliable and highly desirable partner. This has helped enhance the credibility of Nepal’s impartiality, professionalism, and global standing.
Nepal's foremost priority should be the development and strengthening of its national democratic institutions, with a key focus on maintaining their non-partisan nature and aligning them with the country's best interests. By doing so, Nepal can truly showcase its potential as a nation adept at skillfully navigating the intricate and constantly evolving geopolitical landscape of this complex and sensitive location. Nepali leaders must learn to make prudent foreign policy decisions based on a cool, realistic, and objective assessment. Managing plurality, ensuring accountability, enhancing state capacity, and caring for humanity’s needs within a framework of legitimate institutions will be the demands of our time. One of the most important lessons of the first two decades of the twenty-first century and the late twentieth century was that even small powers, weak states, or small non-state groups could generate positive effects disproportionate to their physical size or ostensible material power by disseminating information, thereby expanding horizons and options. Nepal should work to gradually restore its influential "power of example."
Nepal is committed to democratic pluralism at home, and multipolarity in international relations. Positioned between two rising global powers with different social and political systems in a strategically significant and sensitive location, Nepal sets an example for other nations with its unwavering dedication to democratic pluralism. Within its borders, Nepal upholds the principles of democratic governance, values the coexistence of diverse communities, celebrates unity amidst huge diversity, and actively promotes inclusivity, freedom of expression, and the safeguarding of human rights. Nepal's advocacy for multipolarity in international relations demonstrates its progressive approach to global affairs. By advocating for a diverse and balanced distribution of power among nations, Nepal actively contributes to fostering a more equitable and cooperative world order. As a truly non-aligned nation that has steadfastly maintained its non-aligned status among other non-aligned countries and rich historical legacy, robust credentials as an independent and sovereign nation, and significant contributions to peacekeeping missions, Nepal possesses the necessary attributes to assume a prominent leadership role.
NAM aimed to “create an independent path in world politics that would not result in member states becoming pawns in the struggles between the major powers” (Smith, 2021). Current geopolitical developments in the region and further afield portend ominous trends for Nepal. For a nation to rise to the occasion and navigate the complex vicissitudes of challenges, its internal affairs must be in order, and its leaders must take the unfolding geopolitical developments seriously, analyze and dissect them closely, carefully, critically, and comprehensively and their possible implications on Nepal’s national interests, and shape foreign policy narratives creatively, correctly, and courageously in the best interests of the nation. Non-alignment remains a tool and Movement toward an independent foreign policy.
Excerpts of Bhattarai’s new book “Non-Alignment, quest for an independent foreign policy,” was published by the Centre for Nepal and South Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University
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