Saurav Raj Pant
The Rain Gods are on the doorstep! Earthquake affected people are waiting eagerly to start their new life in a concrete dwelling before monsoon. But, National Reconstruction Authority still remains a ‘bargaining chip’ for political actors. Many leftist political wonks led by the perceived monolithic nationalistic figure Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli, have adopted the slogan of unqualified nationalism and have made Nepal a pawn in the ‘Great Game’ between India and China. Nepal’s foreign policy based on Non-Aligned movement (NAM) now lacks the notion of relevance and we need to rethink of it. Likewise, New Delhi is suffering from its own foreign policy nightmares wherein the different cast of characters like its Intelligence agency (R&AW), Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and Prime Minister Modi are at a loggerheads over key foreign policy issues. This has contributed to at times confused and other times overambitious Indian foreign policy. From Nepal to Pakistan to Myanmar—India is losing. India vision of becoming a key player in the sub-continent halted due to suspicions, lack of coordination and ideological tussle between this troika. This has provided space for the dragon to continue promoting and implementing the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative (which among other things envisions running a night train from Beijing to Lisbon and a maritime route from Fuzhou to Nairobi and ultimately to Athens). China has also been focussing on the ‘String of Pearls’ geoeconomic and geostrategic policy that aims to encircle the Indian Ocean by connecting the Chinese mainland to the port of Sudan and developing several deep sea ports along South Asian waters for both economic and military (implicit/covert) purposes. It has already established a base at port of Gwadar of Pakistan and several others in Myanmar, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
Highlighting the methodology of this Chinese strategy Parag Khanna, one of the influential IR scholar says, “China is not conquering the world but she is buying the world, without one bullet being shot”. The changing world order boosted by the economic forces of globalization has made everyone a potential player on the ground. The West’s obsolete foreign policy based on realism is gradually being replaced by soft power diplomacy often used to good effect by the European Union and China in recent times. The contentious milieu of international foreign policy that advocates for humanitarian and economic intervention has elicited perilous examples of the ‘boots on the ground’ and R2P approach. For example, the Middle East turmoil and intractable wars in the Arab world - a product of an R2P approach - have been utter failures.
From behind closed doors of the United Nations headquarters in New York to regional strategic thinking hubs in New Delhi and Beijing, the new vision for the geopolitical landscape of the world is being vehemently discussed. The contemporary foreign policy of Nepal is a legacy of the inaction and neutrality adopted during the Cold war world order, when the Communist bloc led by the Soviet Union and the liberal forces bloc led by USA confronted ideologically in the heart of Berlin and fought many a proxy wars in different parts of the world. The 21st century great game too will be shaped by power struggles in Asia not between outside powers this time but between great powers within Asia. India and China are bound to be embroiled in a struggle for civilizational and military superiority and Nepal occupying a sensitive geopolitical location sandwiched between the two giants will act as the theatre where this game may play itself out. Nepal, however, despite legitimate concerns has a lot more to gain than lose in the process.
However, there is a lack of an internationalist thinker in Kathmandu’s circle of power, a statesman with the innate capability to guide and provide a vision for Nepal’s foreign policy. Meanwhile, Kathmandu doesn’t allow any space to its population to argue over foreign policy decisions and issues. It’s decision making on foreign policy matters is undemocratic, unsystematic and sporadic to say the least. It conducts its foreign policy in the same manner as a stockbroker hedges his/her bets in a stock market - through speculation - which means that most of the times it is fortune that decides fate and as evidenced by recent experiences, the fate has largely been fateful. One might argue that Kathmandu is not economically vital for Asia and the rest of the world but it is important to recognize that given its unique geography, history and tradition, it can be prove to be extremely vital as a hub for diplomatic exercise e la Geneva or Doha in Europe and the Middle East respectively. It could even surpass New Delhi or Beijing in terms of being the diplomatic capital of Asia because of the twin aspects of neutrality (in terms of geopolitics) and centrality (in terms of geography).
Our Prime Minister is a nationalist merely by virtue of his rhetoric as most of his foreign policies only exist in the headlines of the national media. What is nationalism? What is sovereignty? Who defines nationalism and sovereignty and in what way? To know where our nationalism exists today, one just needs to take a tour of Doha, Dubai or Riyadh. Every day, nationalism comes home to Nepal either in the form of much needed remittance or a coffin wrapped in the national colours. Remittances contribute more than 25% to our nation’s GDP but it also means that our people rely on another country’s economic growth and are at their mercy in terms of labour rights and conditions of work.
Economy is today’s nationalism. Series of shifting alliances between namesake leftists or democrats without any serious ideological position has clearly plunged Nepal into a great ideological vacuum. Inefficient leaders emboldened by sycophantic political cadres and vast patronage networks simultaneously create propaganda against the Northern or Southern neighbor eventually leading to Nepalese public being subjected to a lack of basic development and even unfulfillment of essential needs. Has Nepal been standing on her own feet over all these years? Does Nepal have robust international partners or alliances to strategically counter the maneuvers of our Northern and Southern neighbor? Nepalese politicians often use sinister political rhetoric to gain media attention. Will Nepal be able to withstand any coercive action taken by the Northern or Southern neighbor? Are the leaders of Nepal internally prepared if such an eventuality strikes? The top tier leaders of Nepal are the neo-shahs of Nepal. They literally behave like dramatists in front of the international community and only possess adequate flattering skills in order to keep the aid money flowing into the government’s coffers for personal expropriation. Public awareness of the hypocrisy of power holders of Nepal incisively cuts through the rhetoric of nationalism. They’re fully aware that creating a series of speech stunts against the international community is an action taken to preserve the perverse ‘nationalism’ of this semi feudal or semi capitalist state.
The development model of Nepal has often been challenged and ridiculed for being non-sustainable. Public Private Partnership (PPP) is doing great in Africa and health standards of many Africans are rising. The joint initiatives of public and private sectors have been contributing to the boom in growth rates in this continent. In Nepal however the PPP model has become a tool for furthering political patronage and showering favours upon loyal private players. Political parties want to ‘gift’ tender to their ‘favorites' without any professional proficiency. This is a goon’s governance system; from hydro to road, corruption has penetrated and homed itself inside the heredity (DNA) system of Nepalese society.
European and American youth are spending more time in the cities of Asia, in search of opportunities. The entire gamut of economic activities that hitherto formed the eminent domain of the ‘developed West’ have been shifting their base from London to Dubai or Frankfurt to Shanghai. During such times when a global shift is evident, with India and China being an integral part of that change, Nepalese leaders and public are largely unaware of such a shift - a shift that is rewriting the history of post-1945 world order in an utterly new way. Nepalese leaders are mostly ‘occupied’ with gaining and misusing power while the general public weaves pipedreams of travelling to the Gulf for a better future. But, better future is already knocking on our doorstep.
The world is watching us seriously. It is not the 1950’s anymore when BBC made a documentary about Nepal to show to the world - “Look! A new nation called Nepal has been found.” Rather it is a time when the western media should be eager to write - “Look! A new diplomatic hub has been found in this 21st century.” And it is the duty of Nepalese leaders and those of us who elect them to make this vision a reality.
-- Pant was a Research Intern at Asian Institute of Diplomacy & International Affairs (AIDIA)