The September 8, 2019 visit of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to Kathmandu has revived debates on landlocked Nepal’s approach to the evolving ‘Indo-Pacific’ geopolitical formulation that has come to be the new battleground for regional superpower assertions by the United States and China. At the end of Wang Yi’s Nepal visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing issued a statement saying “Nepal firmly adheres to the non-alignment policy, disapproves of the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’, opposes any attempt to stop the development of China, and believes that China’s development is an opportunity for Nepal, and is willing to learn from China’s successful experience.”
This was bound to attract a sharp response from the Trump administration in the US, which has been the most powerful proponent of the Indo-Pacific formulation. Indeed, on May 30, 2018, the Trump administration had renamed its U.S. Pacific Command as US Indo-Pacific Command. On June 1, 2019, US Department of Defense released its first edition of Indo-Pacific Strategy Report 2019 where Patrick Shanahan, Acting Secretary of Defense, reiterates how the US remains “a Pacific nation… linked to our Indo-Pacific neighbors through unbearable bonds of shared history, culture, commerce, and values” and how China “seeks to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations.” This 50-page report mentions China as many as 91 times reflecting Trump administrations’ Indo-Pacific vision being so preoccupied with Beijing. Patrick Shanahan had expressed a similar sentiment at his Shangri La Dialogue 2019 speech in Singapore that saw several other leaders echoing him in underlining the significance of the Indo-Pacific.
No doubt, Beijing’s assertion about Nepal so-called ‘disapproval’ of Indo-Pacific was responded to by the US embassy in Kathmandu. Last week, it publicly sought official clarification from the government of Nepal saying, “We are seeking a clarification from Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA). We wait the Nepali government’s official clarification, and we have asked our embassy in Beijing to verify the statement issued there. If true, it is bewildering that we now learn about Nepal’s position from statements issues from Beijing.” No doubt the US has been worried about China’s expanding footprint through its Belt and Road Initiative where Nepal has come to be its major beneficiary. But, while Nepal remains intensely engaged in China’s BRI, it had also in September 2017 accepted $500 million grant under the Millennium Challenge Corporation which is a component of US Indo-Pacific Strategy.
What explains both US and China cultivating Kathmandu and what has landlocked Nepal to do with the Indo-Pacific maritime discourses? Breaking India’s monopoly, China under BRI has not just revived its extensive connectivity projects of power, rail and road linking Nepal to its Tibetan Autonomous Region, it now provides Kathmandu access to four of its ports – Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang, and Zhanjiang – making Nepal a stakeholder in peace and stability in both Bay of Bengal as also the South China Sea and therefore in the larger Indo-Pacific. Nepalese elite sees China having made them ‘land-linked’ country and its Indo-Pacific perspectives are likely to be guided by Beijing, instead of either New Delhi or Washington DC.
This changing tenor could be partly seen in response of the former prime minister and co-chair of ruling Nepal Communist Party, Pushpa Kamal Dahal to the US embassy’s query about the statement from Beijing. He denied it saying “There was no official government reaction from the US or China” and that “Nepal won’t join any military alliance be it the [US-led] IPS [Indo-Pacific Strategy] or [India-led] BIMSTEC [Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation].” Of course, neither the US nor India has been building a military alliance with Nepal, yet both have been trying to bring in military cooperation into BIMSTEC and IPS.
What does this episode tell India’s policymaking community? As for India, China’s engagement with South Asia has seen the old BCIM Economic Corridor giving way to China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has entered its second phase of development. Over and above these two corridors, April 2018 had seen foreign minister Wang Yi in Beijing making proposals for a China-Nepal-India Economic Corridor to his counterparts Sushma Swaraj and Pradeep Gyawali. While Nepalese foreign minister had immediately expressed Nepal’s readiness to accept this proposal, India has still been examining its fine lines for a formal response which could see China short-circuiting it into a China-Nepal Economic Corridor.
As for China, just like Pakistan is special for its sharing boundaries with restive Xinjiang, Nepal also remains special for its long border with the restive Tibet. While China may have its compulsions, India also cannot afford to see Nepal replicating Pakistan to make one more strategic-axis to further circumscribe India’s policy options in its own periphery. New Delhi has to evolve a clearer vision of its own policies on both ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Indo-Pacific’ in order to cultivate its neighbors from that vantage point. So far, India has continued with a hedging strategy, balancing between its external partnerships with powers like the US and France as also showing sensitivity to the core interests of regional stakeholders, especially China.
So, while New Delhi has repeatedly reiterated the need for ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, it has also repeatedly stayed away from militarizing the Quadrilateral of Democracies or let it become an exclusive club. Indeed, India has insisted on engaging both Russia and China into Indo-Pacific parleys and has actually incorporated this into the agenda of its annual Maritime Dialogue with Beijing. However, Beijing does not seem having reciprocated to this magnanimity. Therefore, while broad-basing its inclusive approach in the Indo-Pacific from eastern shores of Africa to the western shores of America, India’s diplomacy has to keep a tab and carefully calibrate its South Asian neighbors’ changing tunes to the emerging discourse on the Indo-Pacific geopolitics.
*** The author is professor at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi *
. Kamal Dev Bhattarai, “Nepal’s predicament: stuck between the indo-Pacific and BRI”, South Asian Voices, March 19, 2019, https://southasianvoices.org/nepal-predicament-between-indo-pacific-bri/