Yuba Nath Lamsal
Geography is a crucial factor in determining the foreign policy of a country. However, geography is not the lone factor in shaping the foreign and strategic policy of any country. Other factors, too, have a key role to play although geographical compulsions are of a permanent nature. At times, other factors change the conditions dictated by geography.
Geo-politics is the term that denotes the inter-relationship of geography with other factors that determines the relationship between states. The geo-political setting and conditions changed in the world after the end of the Cold War. The enemies of the yesteryears have become bosom friends whereas yesterday’s allies have turned arch rivals. This has been particularly visible in our own neighbourhood. India and the United States were at two different poles during the Cold War era, but they have now become strategic partners and are cooperating with one another on various fronts.
Pakistan was a close and a trusted ally of the United States, and Washington devised its South Asia policy with Pakistan at its centre. In other words, Pakistan was the most important strategic partner of the United States in South Asia during the Cold War. But the situation changed drastically after the Soviet Union was forced to pull its troops out of Afghanistan. The recent years have shown that Pakistan is no longer Washington’s priority in South Asia and it is washing its hands off Islamabad. India now occupies this place, and the United States has forged strategic, military and economic partnerships with India.
In the international campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, China, too, cooperated with its ideological foe, the United States, whereas Beijing not only maintained a distance from Moscow but also fought a proxy war in Vietnam and Cambodia. Once arch foes, Beijing and Moscow, have now vowed to work more closely and cooperate with one another on several pressing international issues.
These are some of the instances that changed international politics and the power equation that have also brought about change in the strategic and foreign policy of many countries in the world, especially in Asia. The powerful and strategically better positioned countries may have more options on the foreign policy front, but poor and weak countries have limited options. But small and weak countries, too, can take benefit from the changing geopolitics and international situation.
So far as Nepal is concerned, its foreign policy priorities and options are limited. This is a landlocked country surrounded by two giants - China and India. These two countries are so big in terms of physical, population, economic and military size that Nepal by no means can match them. Nepal can never compete with them nor can it afford to antagonise any of these two neighbours. It would also be unwise to play one neighbour against the other. Thus, the wisdom of Nepal lies in having balanced relations with these two neighbours and winning their trust so that we can extract maximum benefit for our development.
In principle, our foreign policy is guided by the ideals of non-alignment characterised by the five principles of peaceful existence, which is in vogue globally. Being a landlocked country surrounded by China and India, Nepal’s foreign and strategic policy has remained a ‘strategy for survival’, which, to a large extent, is correct. Based on the survival strategy, Nepal adopted the policy of ‘equi-distance’ or ‘ equi-proximity’ with its two giant neighbours.
The policy of equi-distance was first mooted by Prithivi Narayan Shah more than 242 years ago, which is the basis of our relations with the two neighbours. Equi-distance is a military doctrine but not the basis of foreign policy. During Prithivi Narayan Shah’s period, the policy of equi-distance was appropriate as Nepal was embarking on its unification campaign. China in the north and the British in the south were imperial forces that were trying to spread their influence and presence far and wide in Asia. The British already had its strong presence around the world.
The British colonial power had gobbled up Indian states one after another through various tactics and pressure, including the use of force and the policy of divide and rule and the doctrine of laps. The defence of Nepalese territory from external aggression was the sole priority of the state, and the military doctrine was the basis for defending the interest of the country. Against that background, the military doctrine of equi-distance paid off well for Nepal.
Nepal’s expansionist campaign came to an end after the signing of the Sugauli Treaty in 1816, which confined Nepal within the present borders. This marked the end of Nepal’s military adventure and adopted the British appeasement policy to safeguard its independent political identity. During this period, Nepal’s foreign policy as such hardly existed. Nepal’s policy, instead, remained purely British-India centric, which continued until 1951.
The 1951 political change toppled the century-old Rana oligarchy and ushered in a multi-party political system. It departed from the old policy and diversified its international relationship. However, fortunately or unfortunately, Nepal continued with the same military doctrine as a foreign policy basis, especially in dealing with the two immediate neighbours. The military doctrine cannot be the basis of its foreign policy in the present era. A more pragmatic and mature foreign policy to cope with the 21st century’s reality needs to be devised.
Balancing the relationship between India and China is in the interest of Nepal. But Nepal has not been able to maintain this perfect balance at times in the past, which has cost us heavily at different points of history. The regimes and rulers in the past often pitted one neighbour against the other. But they miserably failed and their regime and rule collapsed.
In the past, Nepal, despite being landlocked, was virtually India-locked because of the Himalayan barrier in the north. The transportation, communication, trade and other opportunities were relatively less available in the north. Thus, Nepal was heavily dependent on its southern neighbour on trade and transit. Nepal has not been free from this compulsion even today.
But things are easing fast because Tibet is becoming an opening point for Nepal. This has definitely provided greater opportunity for Nepal economically and strategically. China has invested heavily in the development of Tibet. Its results are more visible now. Tibet has seen great change, and it is being slowly transformed from an impoverished society into a modern, industrialised and prosperous region of China. It is already connected with the rest of China by railway, and the railway connectivity is being extended up to the border with Nepal. This is expected to create great opportunity for Nepal.
More than that, China is already an economic superpower. China’s influence as a soft power image is spreading far and wide in the world. China is also emerging as a big investor in the world. Beijing has money, know-how and human resource to make its presence felt globally. Even the Western developed and industrialised countries are pinning hopes on China to help them recover from their worst economic recession.
China and India are also coming closer and cooperating with one another. The bilateral trade between China and India is growing by leaps and bounds. Located as it is between these two countries, Nepal is a bridge that connects these two Asian giants. This is a changed geo-political scenario which would benefit Nepal immensely if we are able to properly make use of this situation.
Gone are the days of dominating other countries though military power. Now it is the economy that rules the roost in the world. In the bilateral and multilateral relations as well, economic issues have far exceeded the military and political imperatives.
Trilateral strategic partnership
Against this background, Nepal, too, needs to shed the old hangover of the military doctrine of equi-distance and the concept of a yam between two huge boulders in its foreign policy. Nepal must adopt a more mature and pragmatic foreign policy based on mutual benefit and interest when dealing with its two immediate neighbours.
The concept of a ‘trilateral strategic partnership’ among Nepal, India and China has been mooted recently for which Nepal needs to take the initiative. This would not only serve the immediate and long-term strategic and economic interest of Nepal but also enable us to cope with the challenges of the 21st century.