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Monish Tourangbam: Navigating Indo-Pacific geopolitics will be the test of Nepal’s diplomacy

Monish Tourangbam: Navigating Indo-Pacific geopolitics will be the test of Nepal’s diplomacy

Monish Tourangbam is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst and the honorary director at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies (KIIPS). He holds an MPhil and PhD from the School of International Studies, JNU, and has taught geopolitics and international relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal, and Amity University, Noida. Tourangbam has also been a visiting faculty at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, a SAV visiting fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC, and associate editor of the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal. He has been an Indian delegate at a number of high-level Track II Dialogues and regular commentator on US foreign policy, India’s foreign policy, geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific and South Asia besides other pertinent issues of international relations. Kamal Dev Bhattarai of ApEx talked with him about the Indo-Pacific Strategy and its implications for Nepal. 

How do you see the implementation of US Indo-Pacific Strategy 2022 in the Indo-Pacific region?

The US Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) more than anything else affirms the prevailing view in America’s policymaking community that the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) comprehensive rise is the most prominent strategic challenge to US primacy in the international system, and more particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. “The PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific,” the IPS says. Although it does mention a host of global issues including the pandemic and the climate change that require renewed American leadership, the focus of this strategy on the strategic challenges posed by China is quite apparent: That the United States needs to face such challenges squarely, and build a “free and open Indo-Pacific that is more connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient,” in concert with allies and like-minded partners is what this strategy contends. The economic, political, and military balance that was heavily tilted toward the United States and its allies in the post-Cold War era has been rapidly shifting to a much more complex environment. 

The IPS is emphatic in pronouncing the Indo-Pacific region as the most consequential in terms of its impact on the world, and one that will require the US to deliver more than ever. The cornerstone of implementing the IPS quite clearly lies in how well the United States is able to diagnose the 21st century problems that the region confronts, and devising the solutions to the range of issues traversing the military plus non-military areas.

How do South Asian countries perceive the IPS and how are they responding to it?

It will not be easy to put all the South Asian countries under one particular bracket or category, while assessing how they perceive and respond to the US Indo-Pacific Strategy. Despite being grouped under South Asia, the countries in this region possess peculiar geography and interests that shape their perceptions and responses to the IPS. Each country depending on their maritime or continental features, and their terms of engagements with the US perceive and navigate the politics, economics and security of the evolving Indo-Pacific region. For instance, the imperatives of development and security in each of the eight South Asian countries shape their strategic behaviors as well as tactical responses. 

Quite evidently, the exponential growth that India’s partnership with the US has seen in the last two decades, despite its own history of “estrangement”, is something that continues to and will overwhelmingly shape how South Asia features in US Indo-Pacific Strategy. Moreover, in deciphering the perception and responses of South Asian countries to the IPS, the China factor will loom large, because of Beijing’s growing strategic footprints in the region. While the US-China strategic competition is an overriding factor in the Indo-Pacific strategy and the military implications are quite apparent, the IPS is much more comprehensive in its scope and its non-military dimensions that are development oriented or human-centric are equally significant for the South Asian countries.

What are its implications in this region?

The looming shadow of the Indo-Pacific increasingly hovers over the politics, economics and security of South Asia. Whether South Asia occupies a pivotal position in terms of shaping the contours of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy can still be debated. The way Washington perceives the Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical region, and implements it still reflects a bias towards the maritime aspects, more particularly the Western Pacific, and the contestation with China’s growing ambitions in the South China Sea plus the Taiwan Straits. 

Moreover, South Asia does not have any treaty ally of the United States, and hence its security commitments in the region are quite different compared to those in the East Asian theater. The withdrawal from Afghanistan portends a new era in Washington’s South Asia strategy, that calls for greater resources devoted and policy attention to build an “open and free” Indo-Pacific amidst challenges posed by an assertive China. The downward slide in India-China relations, the growing US-China rivalry and the burgeoning India-US strategic cooperation, are leading to a complex competition-cooperation-confrontation dynamic affecting the dependent and independent agency of South Asian countries. 

In South Asia, the US is a distant power in terms of geography but not as far as strategy and influence are concerned. While South Asian countries seem to hedge their bets between India and China, the role of the US cannot be discounted. The US’ strategy in South Asia has largely focused on the triangular axis of India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but its Indo-Pacific strategy has been widening the menu of military and non-military engagements in the subcontinent. As far as hardcore security implications are concerned, how South Asian countries perceive and respond to America’s evolving concept of integrated deterrence will be significant.

Compared to other countries, there has been much discussion in Nepal about IPS, how do you see such debates in Kathmandu?

The evolving debates in Nepal on the IPS and the Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical plus geo-economic region expectedly reflects the permutations and combinations resulting from Nepal’s own perception of its core development needs and security imperatives. With the Nepalese parliament ratifying the US engineered Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Beijing smells a brewing concoction of American infringement on its growing strategic footprints in South Asia and the Himalayas, in particular. While the Himalayas witnessed US-China power tussle during the Cold War as well, it has traversed a long way from ideological rivalry through rapprochement to the new great power competition of the 21st century. 

Lately, the US is attempting to re-engage a mountainous Nepal in need for development aid and assistance, at a time when a proximate power like China looms large with its plans under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the same time, Nepal by dint of history and geography cannot ignore the overwhelming influence of India. The varying political views within Nepal and the pressures from Washington and Beijing witnessed during the negotiations leading to the ratification of the MCC is symptomatic of US-China competition trends witnessed across the larger Indo-Pacific region. How Kathmandu maximizes its gains and minimizes its losses amidst the Indo-Pacific geopolitics and geo-economics will be the test of Nepal’s diplomatic toolkit and the practice of its relative autonomy.