Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli (left) chats with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 21, 2018. Photo: AFP / Pool / Greg Baker

At a recent Nepal-India think-tank summit in Kathmandu,  the keynote speaker Ram Madhav, national general secretary of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, suggested that Nepal adopt a “Look South” policy under the broad framework of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Neighborhood First” policy.

Elaborating that Nepal should do away with land-based thinking in favor of ocean-based thinking, Madhav emphasized that the scope of such a policy for Nepal would not be limited to gaining benefits from India but from the Indian Ocean region and beyond. He identified culture, connectivity and commerce as key factors that have maintained strong Indo-Nepali relations throughout history.

The neo-realist theory of international relations holds that it is difficult for small landlocked countries to pursue an independent foreign policy. Nepal can be considered a classic example, as it has historically been caught in a complex geopolitical quagmire between India and China. Because of its geopolitical situation, Nepal seeks to maintain balanced and friendly relations with both of its immediate neighbors, although it adopted a policy of balancing India’s hegemonic intentions by utilizing China during the Cold War era.

The neo-realist theory of international relations holds that it is difficult for small landlocked countries to pursue an independent foreign policy. Nepal can be considered a classic example, as it has historically been caught in a complex geopolitical quagmire between India and China

Traditional Chinese policy has always been to support whichever regime is in power in Nepal so that it does not deviate from its one-China policy and continues to curb anti-China activities by Tibetan refugees. Nepal shares historical, cultural and socio-economic ties with India. Because of an open border, people-to-people ties have been cordial and exemplary.

Despite these facts, India is often seen as interfering in the internal affairs of Nepal and undermining its sovereignty. As a result, bilateral relations have seen several ups and downs.

Madhav’s comments have come at a time when Chinese influence has been gradually increasing over the years in South Asia, leading to Nepal joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India is in the process of re-enhancing its image in Nepal, which got severely dented after it imposed an economic blockade in 2015 in response to Nepal’s independent stance to promulgate its constitution against certain reservations by India.

On the face of it, Madhav’s advice for Nepal to adopt a “Look South” policy appears to be nothing new, as Nepal has always been asymmetrically dependent on India. However, his views seem to be guided by realism and not liberalism.

There has been persistent fear among the Indian establishment that Beijing might snatch away Nepal from New Delhi’s sphere of influence. Such a psychology has been heightened by the fact that China is moving ahead rapidly to establish a trans-Himalayan railway connecting with Nepal, which would invalidate the long-held Nehruvian notion of treating the Himalayas as the natural frontiers of India’s security.

Analyzed from the theoretical perspective of geopolitics, Nepal occupies a pivotal position between the heartland of Tibet in China and the Indo-Gangetic heartland in India. Both heartlands are strategically very important to India and China because of their economic and political values. Therefore, Nepal’s significance to both India and China is very high, leading to a pursuit of primacy.

There is no doubt that because of geographical, historical and cultural proximity, Nepal’s trade and transit options are easier with India than with China. Nepal views its endeavor to participate in the BRI and establish a railway connection with China not as an alternative to the existing arrangements with India but rather as a way of diversifying its trade and transit options. Therefore, “Heading North” does not mean “Not Looking South.”

Critics of the BRI portray it as a form of geo-economic imperialism that puts nations with weak economies into a vicious debt trap. Nepal should make sure that it does not find itself in a such a situation that compromises its national interests. If China really views Nepal from the perspective of its economic interests as the gateway to South Asia, then it should be really generous to Nepal in identifying and implementing projects under the BRI.

The dynamics in world politics are changing rapidly, seeing several reversals in the setup of traditional allies and rivals. The current leaders of India and China are undertaking aggressive efforts in a way that was never seen before for greater economic cooperation and maintenance of peace at their borders.

Being a small and landlocked state, Nepal’s geopolitical situation is such that any conflict in its immediate neighborhood is bound to have impacts on it. Nepal understands the strategic interests and sensitivities of both its neighbors and will never seek the policy of alignment or balancing. At the same time, neither India nor China should make Nepal its playground for fulfilling its strategic interests.

The essence of the “Look South” proposal is a polite way of saying “Do not look North” so that Indian influence in Nepal could be maintained. Nepal’s ties with India are unique and cannot be replicated elsewhere. Friendship with China cannot be at the cost of India and vice-versa.

Although there is no denying the benefits of cooperation with India for Nepal, it is imperative that it looks for suitable development partners that can help it achieve economic prosperity.

Nepal’s foreign policy is guided by the principles of peaceful co-existence and non-alignment. The government of Nepal’s stated policy of “amity with all and enmity with none” should be understood as a pragmatic approach to international relations for a state located in a complex geopolitical environment.

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Gaurab Shumsher Thapa

Gaurab Shumsher Thapa is an analyst and writer on topics related to international relations. He is the president and managing director of the Nepal Forum of International Relations Studies (NEPAL FIRST).

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