Recently, Chinese president Xi Jinping made his state visit to Nepal. During the visit, China and Nepal signed twenty agreements from connectivity to security and Beijing promised around $500 million in economic grants to Nepal. Further, China reinstated its commitment to build the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network, which includes linking China to Kathmandu through Himalayan railways. Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, on his part, reassured his Chinese counterpart by showing his support for the “Belt and Road Initiative” and promised that he will never allow any forces to engage in anti-China activities from Nepali soil. This ongoing Nepalese intimacy with China may raise some eyebrows in Washington. Earlier this year, during a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, Nepali foreign minister Pradeep Gyanwali had walked away from the U.S. proposal of playing a “central-role in free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” The recent Nepalese intimacy with China may send signals to Washington that Nepal is choosing China over the United States, convincing some in Washington to rethink the ongoing American financial support to Nepal. American policymakers, instead of becoming myopic and asking Nepal to pick between the U.S. or China, should rather focus on how Nepal, with its strategic geopolitical location, can assist the United States in securing their long-term strategic interests in the region and build the bridges between Washington, Beijing and New Delhi.
How Can Nepal Assist the U.S. in the Region?
As the Trump administration has recognized, Nepal can indeed play a crucial part in securing American interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Nepal sits in-between India and China, two very important countries for the United States, with which the United States has a love-hate relationship. India and China are not good rivals for the United States since the United States often needs to collaborate with both to secure common interests. Nor are they good allies since it cannot trust both in many areas. For instance, both the United States and India need to collaborate to counter any threats in the Indian Ocean through which it has been estimated that around seventy percent of global oil shipments pass on their way from the Middle East to the Pacific. However, no matter how important India is for the United States, there is a limit to which the United States can get intimate with India, and the example of Pakistan is a case in point. As long as the United States stays involved in Afghanistan, it will need Pakistani support either for containing the Taliban or making peace with them. So, the Pentagon will continue to provide various military aid to Pakistan, a country that has had tumultuous relations with India since its partition in 1947.
China, on the other hand, is America’s largest trading partner, with annual trade exceeding $737 billion. Further, the United States needs China's assistance with solving climate problems and addressing North Korea’s nuclear threat to the United States. However, the ongoing tension in the South China Sea has created standoffs between the militaries of both countries in recent years. Thus, a deeper engagement with Nepal may provide a buffer zone for the United States in the region that may enhance Washington’s ability to negotiate with both Beijing and New Delhi. Further, as a politically neutral country, Nepal’s deeper engagement with the United States may enable Nepal to play the role of mediator in the future to deescalate any tensions in the region, a role similar to that played by European neutral states at the height of the Cold War.
Let’s not forget the contribution of European neutral states at the height of the Cold War in promoting political détente between NATO and the Soviet Union. Neutral states like Finland and Sweden took the initiative to bring both NATO and the Soviet Union together for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and to negotiate Confidence and Security-Building Measures which many scholars argue reduced the risk of war and encouraged reforms in the Soviet bloc. Thus, for securing sustainable peace and security of our time as well, we need states which are politically neutral and geographically relevant to contribute to promoting dialogue and Nepal in the Indo-Pacific region can play that role.
Why Nepal Walked Away from the Indo-Pacific Region?
The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is problematic because it seeks to balance the rise of China by asking countries that are within China’s orbit to rally behind Washington. Many states that can freshly breathe the agony of the Cold War in the region will hesitate to take sides between Washington and Beijing, and Nepal is no exception. For its own long-term national interest, Nepal needs to reassure Beijing that it will not allow any activity on its soil that may undermine China’s national security. Thus, to protect its own interests, Nepal cannot afford to choose between the United States and China. However, if Washington would instead expand its engagement with Nepal while respecting Nepal’s political neutrality, Nepal will be in a position to assist the United States by bringing the powerhouses of the regions to negotiating tables, should any tensions arise in the region that could quickly escalate to a nuclear nightmare. A far-sighted American foreign policy should focus on finding states like Finland and Sweden in the Indo-Pacific region that can play a role in de-escalating possible conflict between great powers. A well thought out American foreign policy should not adopt a winner-takes-all approach which asks countries in the region to take sides. Rather, it should focus on creating an international environment that would be favorable for long-term interests of the U.S., of the world, and of the “long-peace.”
Sumesh Shiwakoty is a commentator on Nepali affairs. He frequently writes for The Diplomat, Asia Times and The Kathmandu Post. Previously, he worked with the World Policy Institute in New York and has received a research grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.