The course of Sino-Nepal relations is likely to enter a new historical phase in the aftermath of the US exit from Afghanistan, and the signing of the ‘Aukus’ security pact this week between Australia, the UK and the US.
The associated decline in the importance of global terrorism is a defining feature of international politics. But there is also a sharper emphasis on great power rivalry, primarily in the context of China’s expanding role globally, specifically in Eurasia.
The United States has now determined the Indo-Pacific as its core area of interest in this new period. How and to what extent the fundamentals of Sino-Nepal relations will be impacted by this structural change in geopolitics is yet to be determined.
Neither the lessons of the Cold War nor the period of globalisation that followed, will serve as an infallible basis upon which to extrapolate about the future contours of bilateral relations between Nepal and China.
What is now emerging as the principal fault line in international politics after the Global War on Terror is the question of hegemony in Asia. Is the US prepared to tolerate a potential peer competitor that gains increasing primacy in Asia, and steadily erodes its options and maneuverability in Asia, including in capitals like Kathmandu?
The vociferous and cacophonous debates in Nepal concerning the MCC, for instance, should be understood within this broader framework instead of deferring to an intellectually convenient position of arguing that bilateral relations (whether Sino-Nepal, Indo-Nepal or US-Nepal) exist in an airtight vacuum.
If there are any lessons to be learnt from the history of the Cold War or the period of globalisation that followed, it is that the bilateral relations between any two countries do not operate in a bubble.
However, history does serve as an indispensable point of departure for any analysis that seeks to prognosticate the nature of Sino-Nepal relations in the coming near future. Some five months prior to the the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks that prompted the US invasion of Afghanistan, tensions were rising between Washington and Beijing as the George W Bush administration labelled China as a ‘strategic competitor’.
That was, of course, in marked contrast to his predecessor Bill Clinton’s policy of forging a strategic partnership with China, embodied most explicitly in the US Congress passing legislation to grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China and the US Senate’s vote to give China permanent most-favoured-nation status, both in 2000. This paved the way for China’s eventual accession to the WTO in 2001.
George W Bush was laser-focused on shifting attention away from what was perceived as Clinton’s flawed and benign approach vis-à-vis Beijing, towards what was deemed as an emerging “near-peer” threat from China.
But after the twin towers in New York were brought down by al-Qaeda operatives, this radically, abruptly, and almost completely, shifted US attention to West Asia. Washington first attacked al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan to decimate the fulcrum of radical international terrorism. Events in Iraq, Libya and Syria would soon follow.
Some analysts have argued that had the 9/11 attacks not reoriented US attention, the likelihood of China’s path towards great power status would have been considerably impaired, even curtailed. The logic is that the US would have shifted in its defence and economic posture towards China much earlier than when it actually did towards the end of the first term of the Obama presidency.
Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ in 2012 and the ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’, conceptualised by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was advanced vigorously by the Trump administration, and is being given continuity by President Joe Biden.
In 2001 when the ‘Global War on Terror’ was launched, China had just been admitted to the WTO and was weakly linked to the world economy. Twenty years later, China has become the largest economy in the world measured in purchasing power parity terms, and is substantially interwoven within the global economy. It is now the largest export destination for 33 countries, and the largest source of imports for 65 countries.
Did Washington’s inordinate concentration on Afghanistan accelerate China’s rise and significantly enhance its position in Asia today? The argument is counter-factual, and denies China, the Chinese people and the Communist Party of China, agency in chartering an adept grand strategy.
As a young student in 2006 on a visiting scholar program in Beijing, I witnessed amorphous discussions on ‘China-SAARC relations’. Fast forward 15 years, and there has been a revolution in the landscape of China-South Asia ties encompassing every conceivable infrastructure program from oil pipelines to gas fields, seaports, highways, mega hydroelectric projects, ambitious railway proposals. Euphemisms such as ‘string of pearls’ have even entered the popular lexicon.
And it is precisely due to this Chinese strategy to consistently expand its relations over the last two decades with not just Nepal but virtually all South Asian states, that has made alarm bells go off in Washington.
This has led the United States to double down on politico-economic (even the military QUAD) initiatives in the Indo-Pacific. It is no coincidence that US Vice President Kamala Harris visited several countries in Asia just a week before the 31 August 2021 deadline set by the Biden administration for US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.
The purpose of her trip, according to senior White House officials, was to demonstrate that “America is back [and that] the administration is making clear that we have an enduring commitment to this region, that we are part of the Indo-Pacific and in this region to stay.
This new ‘post-Afghanistan’ era with the American ‘Rebalance to Asia’ and a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ is already having a considerable impact on the course of Sino-Nepal relations.
Bhaskar Koirala is the Director of the Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies.