The idea of China-India-Nepal trilateral cooperation appears to be gaining traction and a level of acceptance that was not the case even a few years ago. While proposed cooperation between the three countries obviously requires a detailed, even technical, articulation of what such cooperation will entail, a more theoretical and philosophical treatment of the matter is also very much in order.
The process whereby two of the largest countries in Asia both in terms of physical size and population—namely China and India—combine with a much smaller state such as Nepal to advance an agenda of trilateral cooperation would be unprecedented. China-India-Nepal trilateral cooperation would represent an entirely new current in contemporary international relations and would provide an exceptional platform to promote regional peace, stability and growth.
Much of the discourse on China-India relations presents these two countries in essence as inevitable future strategic competitors in Asia, if not globally. Mainstream discourse is a reflection of reality, but not necessarily always on the spot. The famous French philosopher Michael Foucault turned this logic around by arguing that discourse is also able to create reality. These two positions are not mutually exclusive of course—they tend to reinforce each other. The process is fungible.
A milieu may be gradually crystallizing in certain quarters wherein there is a greater acceptance of the notion that China and India can cooperate in South Asia within a trilateral framework that includes a country such as Nepal that by most measures has been impacted more by Indian influence than Chinese. Likewise, there appears to be a slow but steady gyration of a discourse that will in fact facilitate and contribute to that process.
A lot of discussion has centered on the notion of a resurgence of Asia. Resurgence can be conceived in many different ways, but for the sake of simplicity it can be construed in terms of confidence. As with human beings, states that are inherently confident are more willing to reach out, to experiment, to engage and to partake in complexities and subtleties in a controlled fashion, knowing that doing so would generate inevitable and substantial rewards. Not zero-sum rewards, but mutual rewards that outweigh rewards derived from more isolated actions or maneuverings.
Most analysts would agree that India does not enjoy parity with China in terms of economic performance or military power. China is poised to overtake the US as the top economy of the world in the next 15 years or so. The confidence this gives rise to is palpable across many different sections of Chinese society. But India is beginning to demonstrate tremendous confidence too that springs from a rich and deep well that is Indian history and civilization, which combines with an impressive performance by India in the last two decades or so when she has massively altered the contours of her economic and social life.
CHINA-INDIA-NEPAL TRILATERAL COOPERATION
The trilateral cooperation would represent a new current in international relations and provide a platform to promote regional stability and growth.
This confidence of India is reflected in the willingness on her part to explore the meanings and dimensions of China-India-Nepal trilateral cooperation. This is an incredible development because since the formation of the modern Indian state, the northern frontiers of Nepal or the Himalayas have been perceived by the Indian establishment as a sort of magnificent protective barrier for India. China-India-Nepal trilateral cooperation would necessitate the relaxation of such a conception. This would indicate a truly seminal shift in the Indian worldview and likewise in her confidence to engage in such a process.
China too has opened up a great deal and liberalized her thinking, much more than it is credited with. For China to open up more effusively on the northern frontiers of Nepali territory abutting the Tibet Autonomous Region is not a simple exercise. China will have to do so as trilateral cooperation between itself and India and Nepal matures. The issue of Tibet however is a sensitive one for China, and one which leaves her open to sustained and unreasonable attacks by external forces. The willingness of China to engage in a trilateral project also represents a marked shift in her worldview and in her overall level of confidence.
Nepal is likewise moving away from a foreign policy paradigm that stressed “equidistance” from New Delhi and Beijing—an admittedly vague position that perhaps aroused a feeling that Nepal was going to balance China and India, but certainly not keep the two on the same page. A wholesome embrace of a trilateral framework by Nepal on the other hand would appear to indicate a desire to bring these two giant neighbors together within the Nepali theater in a transparent and mutually constructive manner. This augurs well for the promotion of stability and growth in the region, and perhaps harkens back to the other famous paradigm of Nepali foreign policy, namely that Nepal should be a “zone of peace”.
Finally, let us turn to imagining certain concrete prospects that could likely arise out of China-India-Nepal trilateral cooperation. The most prominent, ambitious and promising of these would have to be a railway line connecting these three states. Given that just India and China combined account for about 37 percent of the total world population, a transportation line dissecting the Himalaya in Nepal would provide a ground link that would in theory stitch together a huge volume of people and present numerous opportunities for commercial activities across the board, especially in agriculture and tourism.
The most extraordinary facet of such a development would be the possibilities that are generated to enhance cultural exchange and understanding between distinct civilizations that date back several millennia, and which collectively occupy such a vast section of the Asian landmass. The repercussions of this on world history would be nothing short of phenomenal.
Though perceptible shifts in geopolitical thinking are emerging in all three countries as it pertains to the wisdom of proposed trilateral cooperation which itself perhaps emanates from a much grander process related to the movement away from a (brief) post Cold-War Pax-Americana to a sort of Metternich balance-of-power era in which alignments and relationships may be more overlapping and counter-intuitive, it must be acknowledged that the idea of any trilateral arrangement will surely give rise to varied reservations from all sides concerned.
For instance, a well-known Indian analyst expressed apprehensions about cross-border infrastructure, especially railway connectivity, in the context of trilateral cooperation. However, during a recent visit to the Tibet Autonomous Region, I was told by an official at the Trade and Commerce Department that there is tremendous scope for the absorption of agricultural products— among other goods—from South Asia into the TAR, and from my own estimation into the entire Western sector of China from Chongqing to Urumqi.
So ,while security issues are of course extremely important, serious consideration must also be given to how, for example, the Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and West Bengal can be commercially connected through Nepal with the entire western part of China. Such a possibility is laden with the potential to foster common economic prosperity and overall socio-economic development.
The author is Director, Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies, www.niiss.org.np. Views expressed are those of the author. NIISS will shortly host a China-India-Nepal Trilateral Forum in Kathmandu.