There was a time when Nepal just had to worry about balancing its giant northern and southern neighbours, but the world is now multi-polar and getting to be a much more complicated place.
As his tour of Europe showed, Donald Trump has reset relationships, frayed post-war alliances, and upset many apple carts. There has been a tectonic shift in geostrategic ties in the region, which means smaller countries like Nepal have to be much more supple and sure-footed in foreign policy and economic diplomacy.
One of the clearest indications yet of the current shift is the Trump administration renaming its Pacific Command into Indo-Pacific Command. It builds on President Obama’s Asian ‘pivot’ and ‘rebalance’, and designating India as a Major Defence Partner. But Trump has gone one step further by combining America’s strategic assets in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Then there has been a revival of the Quad Alliance involving the U.S., Japan, Australia and India which offers countries in the region alternative quality infrastructure to Beijing’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as the option of a security umbrella. Last year, Japan, U.S. and India held the Malabar 2017 joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean.
These developments are proof that America’s allies in the region are nervous about China’s global economic clout, and also want to counter its expanding military presence in the two oceans. Once feeling isolated by the BRI, India has now found solidarity with the US and Japan to provide Central and South Asian countries with a substitute for connectivity projects.
At a recent conference in Singapore organised by the Hawaii-based East-West Centre, US Deputy Secretary of State Walter Douglas said: “Things have changed on the ground, trade and investment is expanding rapidly, and there is the rise of India and its desire to play a larger regional role. The Trump administration’s decision reflects that. However, this is an Indo-Pacific strategy, not an India-Pacific one. It goes beyond India to the other countries in the region.”
Although many in the region may see China as a hegemon, Beijing itself considers itself increasingly encircled by America’s allies, and interprets the Indo-Pacific strategy as a way to constrain its rise. Which is why the BRI is China’s way to push its geo-economic agenda through infrastrucutre and connectivity by land, sea and air.
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The US is still the dominant player militarily and economically in the region, and the world is struggling to adapt to Trump’s new rules: not paying anymore for the defence of rich allies, raising tariffs, stemming immigration.
“We have to deal with this new reality. We used to ask the Americans to do the heavy-lifting in the past, and then criticised them for doing just that. Trump wants more burden-sharing, he wants the region to do more and pick up the slack, and that suits India fine,” said C Raja Mohan, the newly-appointed Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, a think tank at the National University of Singapore.
A US-India strategic alliance could also mean that Washington will be outsourcing even more of its South Asian policy to New Delhi, and allow it to play the regional cop.
In ASEAN, the Indo-Pacific strategy is gaining traction among member states spooked about Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea islands dispute.
“No ASEAN country wants to be forced to choose between the US and China, trade wars have no place in the region,” Zakir Hussain, Foreign Editor of The Straits Times in Singapore told the conference.
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There are misgivings about falling into a debt trap in some countries where China has provided huge loans for large infrastructure projects. Sri Lanka had to negotiate a long-term lease on a Chinese-built port project because it couldn’t afford to pay back the loan. There are similar murmurings in Laos, Pakistan and Burma.
The US strategy is to provide an alternative to smaller Asian states to China’s BRI through financing for transparent and no-strings-attached infrastructure projects. When he was still US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson actually cited the example of the $500million Millennium Challenge Corporation project in Nepal to upgrade electricity transmission and transportation as an example of America putting its money where its mouth is.
For its part, Japan is also trying to counter Chinese inroads in Central and South Asia by channelling its official development aid for high-quality infrastructure projects as a part of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy to counter the BRI.
Shutaro Sano of the National Defence Academy of Japan writes: ‘Japan needs to balance its policies towards Central Asia and China in a very sensitive manner with India in mind. this is important because Tokyo is now willing to cooperate under certain conditions, with China’s … Belt and Road Initiative.’
What is the message for Nepal from all this? Because of our location between India and China, we have to be even more careful to keep a geostrategic balance between the two giants. Luckily, despite their rivalry and frontier disputes, India and China do not want to inflame their Himalayan border. They need Nepal to be a stable buffer state.
However, we have seen from recent history that when push comes to shove the North and South will not do much to guarantee the protection of democracy, pluralism and press freedom. However powerful our neighbours may be, Nepal cannot afford to turn its back on the rest of the world.
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