India-Nepal-Bangladesh trilateral cooperation: A key initiative to counter China in South Asia

27 November, 2017

International Affairs

Nepal is at a very significant juncture. The provincial and parliamentary elections in the Himalayan democracy on November 26 and December 7 will decide the future journey of the country which has seen very little political stability since the centuries-old monarchy on its soil was abolished.

Nepal’s elections are also significant from the perspective of its foreign policy, of which its economic policy is a key component. A section of Nepal’s observers feel that Kathmandu’s policy-makers have achieved little in the foreign policy domain by adopting see-saw policies vis-à-vis India and China and the lack of a basic policy stance has harmed its credibility, something the fresh elections should address.

But, does Nepal have much option to craft a foreign policy which one can term as more objective and not biased, either in favour of India or China? The fact that China today has shown a bigger intent to influence South Asia to limit India’s clout has made things more challenging for countries like Nepal. China’s investment in Nepal has skyrocketed in recent times and even the Americans have turned a bigger focus on the South Asian country, perhaps to match Beijing’s efforts. Even a country like Bangladesh has shown interest to invest in Nepal, primarily in the power sector to feed its own engine of development. And it is not that Dhaka has expressed a keenness to consolidate relation with Kathmandu for the first time.

Nepal and Bangladesh have been good friends; India needs to facilitate them more

The two countries have a sound relation pertaining to trade and transit and air connectivity since 1976 and in 2015, when Nepal and India had seen tense moments in their relationship over Kathmandu’s new constitution and there were serious obstacles for the Nepalese economy, Dhaka had come forward to invite Nepal to use its airport and ports.

The two countries although have no common border but it has never deterred them from going ahead with building better economic relations. And India’s attitude towards the bilateralism of two small neighbours using its land has been an encouraging one. In 2010, during Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, a joint communiqué was issued by PM Hasina and her then Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh whereby Nepal and Bhutan were assured of getting access to ports in Bangladesh. A comprehensive plan of using water and rail connectivity has been drawn up to facilitate integration of the sub-regional quadrangle in South Asia comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) that was formed in 1998. India has not only allowed road connection between its borders with Nepal and Bangladesh to help the neighbours, it has also been pushing hard the BBIN motor vehicle agreement despite a few hindrances. One cannot ignore the fact that political and economic integration of sub-regional South Asia is still miles away because of several pressing problems but the fact that a number of countries in the region are focusing on improving their own bilateral stances to reap a multilateral benefit at a larger level is undoubtedly an encouraging sign.

Nepal needs to have a comprehensive plan to explore new angles in foreign policy-making

Returning to Nepal’s political transition and its connection with the foreign policy decisions that it might take in the days to come, tackling an ambitious China is something it would have to deal tactfully. Kathmandu showed pragmatism by reaching out to China’s Belt and Road Initiative but it also has the responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t enter into a debt trap laid by the Chinese, something they do often to lure smaller allies to corner bigger challengers. Nepal’s policy-makers will also need to explore the possibilities that are created by its bilateral relation with other South Asian countries like India and Bangladesh.

International relations are about creating spaces through diplomatic manoeuvring. Nepal can’t really allow itself to be run over by the gradually intensifying trade and diplomatic rivalry between India and China in South Asia and try to deal all sides, irrespective of their sizes, with pragmatism. In fact, its third option of nurturing and exploring relations with countries like Bangladesh with which it has no common border could give a fresh direction to its policy-makers.

Nepal-Bangladesh relation also an opportunity for India

For India, Nepal’s growing relation with Bangladesh is also an opportunity. It did right by allowing the two countries to have transit through its land and should continue to display more such generosity to convince the smaller neighbours that it is no bullying big brother. The BBIN motor agreement is a small yet potent counterclaim to China’s BRI and India needs to come up with more such initiatives to back Nepal and Bangladesh, two countries the Chinese have been aiming to influence strongly, in terms of economy, trade and connectivity. New Delhi cannot do much as far as the political developments in Nepal and Bangladesh are concerned. But it can always do a lot in the economic sphere to counter China’s fast growing clout in the region.