Examining South Asian Water Diplomacy From an International Legal Perspective
December 11, 2023
02 March, 2023
The headlines of one of the articles of a famous newspaper 'Kathmandu Post' read- In Nepali politics, you can never trust your friends (Mulmi, 2020). This saying has now assumed special importance when one considers the political crisis that engulfs Nepal currently. The election of the famous communist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (alias Prachanda) and his appointment as the next Prime Minister of Nepal have raised questions over the new policies which his administration might introduce. These especially include foreign policies of the nation, and how a change in it will impact Nepal's neighbouring countries. This paper will specifically address how Nepal's foreign policies may change as a result of the election of a former communist leader to the country's highest position, as well as any potential repercussions for India and China.
The format of this paper is divided into three main components. In the first part, it delves into the question of why Nepal is such a significant nation, especially from the perspectives of its Asian neighbours- India and China. This also invokes the question of why the Himalayan country's foreign policy are such an important aspect of the Asian theatre. In the second part, it will be introducing Nepal's new Prime Minister, and his journey of transition from being a guerrilla fighter to Nepal's Prime Minister. A special reference in this part would be made to the political nature of Nepal, and the background of the recently concluded elections. Before providing a brief conclusion, the study's final section will examine the effects of the country's change in leadership on its foreign policies.
Part I: Nepal- A transitioning bridge between India and China
Nepal has long been crucial to India's defence strategy. Nepal's range of Himalayas has always acted as India's defence line. This has assumed even greater importance in the aftermath of the 1962 skirmish between India and China. Since then, Nepal has acted as a buffer state between both countries.
Nepal has a special as well as an important presence in the South-Asian theatre. Not only is the country the borderline of defence between two world superpowers (India and China), but Nepal has also come to define what can be termed as a playing field for major powers of the region. China, for instance, has been lending financial help to the country, in what some scholars have termed as a 'debt trap' diplomacy.
While many other scholars have rejected that such a policy of debt-trap diplomacy does exist, one thing is certain that Nepal has become a playing ground for China to display its growing influence in the region. Similarly, India too has been showcasing its influence in the region by heavily financing the infrastructural projects in Nepal (Chaudhury, 2022).
What such instances showcase, is that Nepal has emerged as a major force for countries to showcase their capabilities. Perhaps, it would not be wrong to assume that the country has become a playing ground for proxy conflicts. What is even more prominent to note is that in recent years, Nepal has emerged as an important geopolitical force in the region. A closer and deeper friendship with Nepal has been the starting aim for both China and India, which is why it becomes important to note the foreign policies which Nepal will now adopt post the elections. A friendly foreign policy towards either India or China will earn them a regional ally or foe, and a more aggressive foreign policy would invite caution from both countries. Likewise, Nepal's foreign policy would also predict the future of the South-Asian region. A straightforward illustration of this would be the improved ties between Nepal and China during KP Sharma Oli's leadership in 2020; Oli published a number of maps showing disputed areas as being a part of Nepal (Bhattacherjee, 2020). This brought a drastic tide of change in India-Nepal relations and strengthened Nepal-China relations. It was in this context that for the first time in the history of the region, Nepal adopted an aggressive attitude towards its role as an equally active player in the region, which forced New Delhi to develop a sight of caution in its relations with Kathmandu. Similarly, other countries also realized that they could not dictate to Nepal according to their interests or even take Nepal's bonhomie for granted. This instance was just one amongst the many others when Nepal showcased its growing relevance and influence in the region. This is also again, why Nepal's new foreign policy assumes significance, both for the political future of Nepal as well as the future of the South Asian region.
Part II: Prachanda- From guerrilla leader to Prime Minister
The story of Nepal's latest Prime Minister Pushpa Dahal's political career takes birth amidst the anti-monarchy protests in Nepal. During the period from 1996 to 2006, Nepal witnessed a Maoist insurgency against the then-present monarchy (Shih and Prasai, 2022). This power struggle was led by the Nepal Communist Party, under the leadership of Pushpa Dahal (Ibid). It was during this period that Dahal assumed the title of Prachanda meaning 'fierce'. After the insurgency ended in 2006, Dahal decided to enter mainstream politics. Prachanda assumed the leadership of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), abbreviated as CPN (MC) (Ibid). This party later, joined the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) or CPN (UML) under K.P.Sharma Oli's guidance to form the join Communist Party of Nepal (Chaudhury, 2021).
In the recently concluded elections, Dahal's party joined hands with Oli's faction and several other parties and won a majority in Nepal's legislature. Following this, Dahal was elected as Prime Minister of Nepal. It is also important to note here that Dahal before getting elected this year, has also served as the Prime Minister twice before, though both those terms were very short owing to Nepal's unstable political scenario, where many Prime Ministers have seen their term dissolve before the Constitutionally-defined term limit.
Part III: Nepal's foreign policy: post-elections
Recently concluded election of Nepal have raised important concerns of its implications over the policy making. There have been numerous speculations that the election of Prachanda as the new Prime Minister may be bad news for India. This is primarily because of two reasons. First, Prachanda has often adopted an anti-India stance and can be seen criticising India on multiple fronts. Second, during the Maoist insurgency, the communist front was weak and divided. China under these circumstances had offered to step up to the challenge. Not only did China offer to bring the two fronts together under the umbrella of the Nepal Communist Party, but also trained the cadres and provided them with other forms of assistance as well (Aljazeera Report, 2005). This would only mean that the Prachanda administration has close relations with China, and the Nepalese government would always prioritize the interests of its Chinese neighbour over those of India.
On the other hand, it would be ignorant to assume that the implications would be that simple. As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, in Nepali politics, there are no friends, and all that remains are interests. Even in this case, the same saying holds. If the Nepalese foreign policy was to remain always pro-China and anti-India, one could not explain the interests of Prachanda to visit India and not China, as his first visit after becoming the Prime Minister (Public Trust of India, The Hindu, 2023). While the visit of the Prime Minister remains unconfirmed, the fact that Prachanda has expressed even the slightest interest in visiting India stands as testimony to the commitment he shares in order to enhance ties with New Delhi. This is a significant breakthrough for New Delhi, considering that it was only the former Nepalese Prime Minister KP Oli who has very open about his criticism of India.
Just as this example points out, it becomes evident that the Prachanda administration is not going to adopt a very aggressive policy towards India, and is willing to improve ties with India. This belief become even more apparent when Prachanda himself admitted that he would break away from his decisive and militant communist past and become more moderate in his policies towards the neighbourhood.
Hence, though the Prachanda administration indeed shared historical and ideological links (of communism) with China, Nepal may adopt a foreign policy that prefers Beijing. However, India would still have some space where it could play out its foreign policy and improve relations with Nepal and earn the trust of the Prachanda government.
A significant breakthrough for India in this light may come in the form of financing infrastructural projects in Nepal. While India is currently financing such projects, a bulwark of the shares of these projects lies with China, which also includes the recently established airport Pokhara International Airport, which saw a disastrous plane crash only a few days back (Chaudhury, 2022). While the Government has been thoroughly investigating this issue, the criticism the Prachanda government received post the crash both domestically and internationally might provoke Nepal to improve ties with India, which the latter could use for undertaking crucial projects in the Himalayan nation.
Then, what kind of foreign policy would Nepal adopt post-elections? Some predictions can be made. First, Nepal's foreign policy would remain favourable to China, while at the same time not alienating India. Second, Nepal would be open to dialogues with India on both countries' border issues, and one can hence expect the opening of bilateral dialogue. Third, Nepal would want to take advantage of its strength as an important player for both India and China and would want to break free from its 'mediator' image. Last, we might witness Nepal gaining confidence from its significance for both countries, which it might use in improving its relations with other countries in South Asia.
So what implications one might ask, do these possible policy alternatives have for both India and China? For China, either case scenario offers a win-win situation. As mentioned above, China was credited for the merging of two rival communist blocs during the Maoist insurgency, and most importantly, shared communist ideas with Prachanda's government. In all case-scenario, China is likely to dominate its relations with Nepal. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the Nepal-China relationship will transform into a similar China-Sri Lanka relationship, where Sri Lanka has been known to fall prey to China's debt trap diplomacy. Here, Nepal's resistance to China's influence would greatly shape their future relations.
India does have some hope if Nepal does decide to resist the Chinese pressure. In this scenario then, India can emerge as a more reliable and friendly alternative to China, and boost its investments in Nepal. India has already taken the task to set up airports in the country (Singh, 2022). On the flip side, if Nepal decides to develop a more rewarding relationship with China, in that scenario, New Delhi would be at a great loss, since it might lose one of its most cherished allies in that case.
In short, the history of Nepal's latest Prime Minister Prachanda's rise to power will long affect the future of the Himalayan nation, and even shape the geopolitics of South Asia. It is only a matter of time before we know whether Prachanda's policies are a 'win-win' situation for all, or whether his foreign policy will satiate the dreams of the Chinese dragon. Amidst a sensitive time in world politics where tensions over Russia-Ukraine and Taiwan loom high, a more cooperative and equal relationship between countries of South Asia is pertinent. Moreover, India hosting this year's G20 summit is proof of South Asia's rising influence in world politics. How the policies of Prachanda's government put him at the forefront of the Asian theatre remains to be seen.
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