The issue of significance is whether Nepal can maintain the tricky balance between the strong powers or not ?
Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal, Delhi. There is a wave of high tide in Nepal over the expected visit of Chinese President after the second informal summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram this month. If the visit happens, it will be a maiden trip for Xi and the first after a gap of 23 years by any Chinese President. However, there is also a feeling of insecurity and tension for the Nepalese as the two strong neighbors join hands in India. Nepal’s foreign policy had advocated equidistance policy in the past, but ever since the two powers are on a cooperative frame of mind, the Nepalese diplomacy seems to call for equi-proximity with both the neighbours. With talks of Indo-Pacific surrounding the region and the USA coaxing the Nepalese to join the bandwagon, there is a greater consciousness for the Nepalese government to play an important role in the changing geopolitics of the region and make a mark of its assertive approach among the small powers club.
The issue of significance is whether Nepal can maintain the tricky balance between the strong powers or not ? What role Nepal can play in contributing to the peace in the region? Whether or not the older diplomacy of small power being submissive actor to all major powers and finding solace in multilateral forums persist to guide Nepal’s future? Last but not the least, whether or not the Nepalese government that has already boarded the Chinese BRI train will be able to deliver something in return to maintain closer ties with China without annoying the other major powers, especially the United States of America? These are all crucial issues that Nepal will need to address before the Chinese President actually touches the sacred land.
Ideological Camps: A Tussle of Liberal democracy v/s Communism
Eric Xun Li, a Shanghai based venture capitalist and a founder of Chengwai capital along with being a council member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, way back in 2013 delivered a TED talk titled “A Tale of Two Political Systems”. In his provocative talk, he challenged the notion of multi-party democracy that seems to be a normal outcome of progression of all societies. He highlighted the argument of democratic societies that “all human societies develop in a linear progression towards a singular end. All societies, regardless of culture, be it Christian, Muslim, Confucian, must progress from traditional societies in which groups are the basic units, to modern societies in which atomized individuals are the sovereign units, and all these individuals are, by definition, rational, and they all want one thing – the vote.”
In his submission, he narrated the Communist story that “all human societies develop in linear progression, beginning with primitive society, then slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and finally end up with communism. Sooner or later, all of humanity, regardless of culture, language, nationality, will arrive at this final stage (Communism) of political and social development.” The arguments were based on the economic success model China portrays to the world, with the achievements in lifting millions of people out of poverty. This successful model with a single party rule for decades is said to have the eyes set for many countries who want to adopt the development model without considering the rationality and feasibility of implementation under diverse national conditions. Nepal, is no exception to it.
Nepal’s ruling party Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has taken control with an overwhelming majority in an electoral democratic process, however, wants to replicate the China model, though the model itself is in for a greater change. The current leader President Xi Jinping has changed the course of reforms that were behind the success and has revived the life-long tenure for one paramount leader. NCP, with Prime Minister K.P Sharma Oli at its helm, wants to emulate the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) style and governance system in Nepal with the rhetoric that the model will help reduce absolute poverty, result in double-digit economic growth, and let Nepal become a middle-income country by 2030.
In order to achieve this, Nepal wants to learn and get support from China for which preparation to welcome Xi are underway. To give a grand welcome to the Chinese Emperor Xi Jinping, for whom the actual dates of visit are yet not confirmed, there were a series of preparations to showcase the affinity Nepal has for the Chinese government, in specific the convergence of ideologies the ruling NCP has with the CCP. For a visit of Chinese President, Nepalese had made great efforts since 2016, but there has been disappointments at all fronts. This time, the NCP has shown full-fledged solidarity to the “Xi thought” with a series of political discussions and MoU signed that will also train NCP cadres on CCP ideology in China. In essence, even though the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi states that China is not exporting its ideology to other countries, but it seems Nepal has embraced it.
However, this ideological affiliation has two set goals from Chinese point of view: One, China is looking for a reliable friend in the region, especially among the small powers that can counter the US led narrative of ‘China threat’ and promote Xi’s vision of ‘community of common destiny’. Two, till date, Nepal has strong affiliation with the Mao cult; while China has marched way ahead of those normative behavior in the society. Xi now wants to establish his “thought” as an unparalleled ideology guiding global communism. Even though not many in China or in Nepal would be able to comprehend the essence of this “thought”, yet it will establish a new kind of “socialism” suited for the “new era” of disruptive transformation in the world order. Hence, Nepal with the present rule of the communist regime fits the aspirations of China that can change global perceptions about China.
Clash of Identity Perceptions
For China, Nepal only figures in its ‘peripheral diplomacy’ and not as under ‘neighbourhood diplomacy’. This identity perception of China regarding Nepal emanates from the Nepal-Tibet historical relations as well as the ‘Suzerain State’ relationship of Nepal with the Qing Emperor. This very identity of Nepal for the Chinese mind overlaps with the Chinese concept of ‘extended sovereignty’, although China fully realizes the contemporary relations between India and Nepal. Yet, the historical perception of China can only be de-rooted provided Nepal strongly plays its geographical advantageous role; rather than becoming subservient to the ideological umbrella of the CCP.
For Nepal, however, its present identity is rift with confusing ideologies. The democratic system is in strong opposition to any autocratic rule. The value based system of governance that Nepal has established through years of turmoil would not be easy to change, considering the hopes of the masses for a “Samridh Nepal, Sukhi Nepali’ rhetoric reverberates nationalist sentiments pushing away all external forces including China. Under such circumstances, it will be difficult for Nepalese government to transform the original ‘Hindu State’ into a ‘Communist State’.
In addition, the already vocal voices of certain marginalized communities of Nepal along with the huge presence of ethnic and migrant Tibetans, who are supported by the Americans, the adoption of communism as the state ideology will not be feasible without invoking another revolution in Nepal. Hence, NCP tussles to build people’s perception around the geo-economic advantages of regional power i.e. China, for its development agenda.
US-China Proxy War in Nepal
Since US has been strongly promoting free and open Indo Pacific construct, in which the other neighbor India with calls for inclusiveness is also a partner, Nepal will have to make tricky choices. India, under the SAARC multilateral setup was an advocate of fair and just system. The rationality of it is now evoked in other multilateral arrangements like the BIMSTEC, BBIN etc. If Nepal chooses to go counter to US and Indian paradigms, it will have little options to advocate strong voice in regional and global platforms. Nepal is though keen on finding alternative arrangement that can cater to its infrastructure development plans and boost the economic growth. The recently launched ‘Nepal Investment Summit 2019’ and ‘Visit Nepal 2020’ are initiatives to boost the foreign investment in Nepal without being overtly and excessively dependent on one country. Yet, the very nature of its cultural and ethnic diversity poses challenges for Nepal and brings other major players for a key role in its domestic affairs that suits to protect their core interests.
The large presence of Tibetans, estimated to be officially more than 20,000, attracts both US and China to focus on Nepal. With the open trade war between US and China, Nepal has become both a land of proxy war and a country to forge alliance (including military alliance) in the larger geopolitical game plan. Tibetans in Nepal are surely a great security concern for the Chinese and a bargaining chip over China’s human rights record for the US. But the proximity advantage that China enjoys in Nepal plays a crucial role. Over the years, China has gradually made in-roads in almost all walks of Nepalese life, changing the very core nature of Nepali businesses. With cultural promotion and Buddhist religious harmony to dumping over production of goods, Nepal for China is not just a transit route to other countries, but a state where the power capacities of US and China can be tested. The current visit of President Xi is expected to be held under this background and Nepal’s break from non-aligned position to forming alliance with any one side will be counter productive. Nepal can neither ignore the US led Indo Pacific nor fully embrace the alliance of communist camp, but the high table of China will await to watch Nepal’s offer.
By:- Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal, Assistant Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.