The UCPN (Maoist) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal had floated the idea of “Triangular relations” involving Nepal, India, and China, soon after his return from a visit to China as Federal Nepal’s first Prime Minister. The idea died along with his exit from the office of the Prime Minister. Interestingly, a few articles, somewhat close to his idea of the need for promoting “Tri-lateral cooperation” have of late appeared in the print media. It is argued that given the prospect of tremendous benefits from such engagements, the trilateral cooperation idea deserves at least a “theoretical and philosophical treatment.” The proposition is certainly eye-catching and titillating, intellectually. While there may be no apparent harm in pursuing it, a few points, however, need to be borne in mind before taking the initiatives for engaging our neighbors for meaningful cooperation.
If only Nepal could succeed in taking on board two of the emerging economic superpowers purely for enhanced economic and trade engagements, that would have been one of her greatest diplomatic feats! Hence, examination of such an idea becomes equally imperative from the diplomatic standpoint. In pursuit of such an engagement or cooperation, a dispassionate enquiry into some of the harsh realities that characterize and guide countries’ foreign policy would be in order. As countries gain strength in economic, military, and political spheres, they may find it necessary to fine-tune their existing domestic and foreign policy paradigms. There may be a perceptible shift in emphasis on the tone and tenure of foreign policy.
A country’s foreign policy requires fine-tuning from time to time to remain abreast of contemporary changes occurring at home and abroad. But such changes happen without prejudice to, and within the bound of, certain core national interests. Modern-day China, or India, for example, may have made many such fine-tunings in their foreign policy as were demanded by the growth of their economic, political and military clouts. Yet, if one takes a close look, both have retained certain core traditional values that characterize and define their civilization and way of life.
For example, the major underpinnings of India’s foreign policy continue to be more or less the same as were laid down by its founding fathers. The architect of Indian foreign policy, late Jawaharlal Nehru, considered that the great Himalayas on its north acted as a “natural sentinel” for the defense of his country. Although a sizeable percentage of those Himalayas fell in Nepal, Nehru deliberately ignored that reality out of the strategic necessity of India’s supreme national interest. That strategic thinking developed by Nehru continues to guide India to date when it comes to dealing with Nepal.
It is sad that Nepal seems quite oblivious to such strategic thinking. The incumbent Prime Minister seems hell bent on demolishing everything of the past without any consideration to their merits, as has been his wont. Some time ago, he went so far as to propose the replacement of the traditional “Yam theory” with what he terms “Bridge Diplomacy”. But he failed to offer any plausible or convincing logic behind the irrelevance of the time-tested Yam theory that has remained a cornerstone of Nepal’s foreign policy for more than two centuries. His proposal had no explanation of whether Nepal has enough national resilience to act as a bridge durable enough to withstand the weight that these two gigantic neighbors may bring to bear on her, if she were to offer herself as a bridge between them. True, contemporary international and national realities have necessitated the redefinition of Nepali foreign policy. But such changes have to occur without demolishing the core principles of our foreign policy, especially those that have withstood the test of time. Any fine-tuning exercise on foreign policy must be undertaken with the elements of “continuity and change” in mind, and the primacy of the element of continuity must be preserved at all cost.
Examining the shared concerns in light of the foreign policy imperatives above is therefore necessary. It is true that shared concerns often bring countries to work together. But even then, it is often seen that countries enjoying more comparative advantages call the shots. Such engagements may get off the ground only if the terms and conditions set by powerful countries are agreed to. In many cases, such terms and conditions do try, in a veiled way, to advance their national interests.
Nepal-India relations serve to illustrate that shared culture, geography, tradition, and values alone do not help promote meaningful and win-win bilateral cooperation, or lead to a healthy and productive relationship. Attempts made so far at different levels—between the two governments, between the people of the two nations, and between businesses of the two nations – have failed to result in any beneficial and meaningful cooperation.
The two countries have failed to transform our relations to one of cooperation and mutual benefit, be it in the sector of economy, trade, infrastructure, tourism or hydropower generation. The failure of meaningful engagement could be largely attributed to the unacceptable terms and conditions imposed covertly and overtly by India purely for the advancement of its own supreme national interest.
Let us now consider Nepal-China bilateral engagements. Unlike with India, our bilateral relations with China are uni-dimensional. Tibet is China’s foremost concern in Nepal. It wants to ensure that Nepal respects China’s sensitivity towards Tibet, just as much as India expects Nepal to respect its security concerns in the Himalayas. In recent times, China is also seemingly uncomfortable over what it considers “India and some western countries-induced ethnic federalism” in the hilly regions of Nepal. Nepal has thus far failed to assuage the apprehension that “tribal nationalism” in the hilly regions is not at all anti-Tibet. Then again, our relations so far are purely at the inter-governmental level. China still lacks a vibrant press, articulate I/NGOs, intellectual community, and civil society organizations.
Therefore, engaging China at the Track two levels is perhaps wishful thinking, at least for now. Moreover, our bilateral economic relations are relatively new. Compared to India, China is still our distant neighbor. Though interactions have increased considerably between the two countries of late, these have not become deep enough for us to know each other fully. For example, we have yet to know as much about China as a bilateral trade partner as we do about India. When our economic interface with China begins to deepen in the days ahead, we may discover China’s real face in terms of how it defends and pushes its vital trade and economic interests. Therefore, understanding China fully as our bilateral trade and economic partner should be our first preoccupation.
At this point in time, therefore, we would do well to think deeply before venturing into a trilateral engagement or cooperation initiative with our two mammoth and competing neighbors. This is, however, not to suggest that this idea should be dropped altogether. While academic and philosophical discourse on it must continue, we must concurrently consider ways for augmenting our existing national capacity, political maturity, and institutional competence. We then have to identify what our supreme national interests are. The next logical step would be to forge national consensus on them. Then the same have to be enshrined in our future constitution. Such steps are absolutely essential to eradicate the inconsistencies and ambivalence that have bedeviled our foreign policy. We can then examine the cost and benefits of such engagements from the standpoint of our identified supreme national interests. It would only be prudent and practical for us to forge bilateral or trilateral cooperation with our neighbors based on such evaluations.
The author is former chief of protocol, Ministry of Foreign Affairs