India-Nepal ties: New Delhi must show strategic patience, ramp up regional integration game to thwart China’s influence

Instead of indicating any steep deterioration in bilateral ties, as has been speculated by the media, India’s continuing difficulties with Nepal are symptoms of a deeper affliction — the widening gap between Delhi’s ambition and achievements.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is reaching out to countries, recasting old friendships, intensifying engagement with great powers, balancing great-power relationships and trying to deepen its bond with its neighbours. The energetic diplomacy is aimed at increasing India’s global footprint as a rising power.

India also understands that pursuing a ‘leading-power’ status from being a balancing power will involve shouldering more regional and global responsibilities, as former foreign secretary S Jaishankar had pointed out in Singapore in his 2015 Fullerton Lecture.

But often, India’s economic, geopolitical and foreign policy objectives fall prey to bureaucratic inertia, chronic capacity constraints and/or domestic distractions. Consequently, its ambition of becoming a regional leader and global player is thwarted. No amount of hand-wringing can change this reality.

Narendra Modi and KP Sharma Oli meeting on the sidelines on the BIMSTEC summit. Image courtesy: Twitter/@MEAIndia

Narendra Modi and KP Sharma Oli meeting on the sidelines on the BIMSTEC summit. Image courtesy: Twitter/@MEAIndia

The weight of this reality was brought home recently when it emerged that India has privately communicated its disappointment to Nepal for pulling out of the joint military exercise of BIMSTEC — the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. India felt, quite legitimately, that Nepal’s last-minute withdrawal despite prior commitment has caused it major embarrassment.

The exercise, involving all BIMSTEC nations except Nepal and Thailand, began on Monday. Focused on tactical-level counter-terror operations, the military exercise sought to move the bloc’s needle of engagement from regional trade and connectivity to security issues. Therein hangs a tale.

India has provided no official response to the development. Quoting an official, the Hindustan Times has reported: “The Indian position is that this was something in the works for a while. Nepal had agreed. A planning meeting was held much earlier. PM Modi mentioned it in his speech in Kathmandu in front of everyone on 30 August. And suddenly, the Nepal government pulled out. It put everyone, including India, in an embarrassing position.”

To Nepal prime minister KP Oli’s explanation that he was forced by domestic political compulsions, India apparently conveyed that this was unbecoming of a “strong government”, the report added.

According to media reports in Nepal, Oli had asked the army leadership to cancel its participation in the inaugural BIMSTEC exercise just a day before the squad was leaving for Pune, ostensibly under heavy pressure from “various quarters, including influential leaders from the ruling Nepal Communist Party.” Nepal’s abstinence was also noted by the Chinese media.

The pressure was apparently to maintain Nepal’s equidistance from neighbours and preserve its ‘autonomous’ foreign policy. Yubaraj Ghimire writes in The Indian Express that Oli was “warned” by the ruling and Opposition parties that participating in the BIMSTEC military exercise would “go against the country’s history of following a policy of keeping equal distance from its neighbours, without ever being part of a regional bloc militarily”. This might seem a legitimate goal for a nation landlocked between two great powers.

It is interesting, therefore, to note that Nepal will go ahead with its joint military drill with China, the Sagarmatha Friendship-2, which will commence on 17 September in Chengdu. The focus of the exercise, according to a report in The Times of India, will be on counter-terror operations.

In the recently concluded fourth edition of BIMSTEC, where it played the host, Nepal raised the issue of SAARC. The summit remains in limbo due to India’s reluctance to engage with any multilateral platform that also involves Pakistan to reinforce Islamabad’s diplomatic isolation. But India’s position on SAARC — where it seeks to marginalise its western neighbour — is woolly, given that it recently performed a joint military drill with Pakistan in Russia as part of an event of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

If Nepal’s decision to pull out of the BIMSTEC exercise and raise the SAARC issue are seen as “provocative” in India, Oli is certainly not trying to give an impression that he is worried about India’s sensibilities. On Thursday, Nepal finalised a transit agreement with China that will allow Kathmandu to access the Chinese ports of Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang and other dry ports, which is expected to reduce its dependence on India. Till now, Nepal’s trade was routed chiefly through Kolkata. New Delhi has also given Nepal access to Vishakhapatnam.

Geeta Mohan reports in India Today that the Transit and Transportation Agreement — signed between China and Nepal in 2016 after India’s controversial economic blockade — allows many concessions to Nepal in the form of allowance to choose viable routes, addition of more ports and dry ports and permit for trucks with Nepali number plates to drive till Shigatse — a prefecture-level city in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China — to pick up goods.

These decisions by Oli, widely seen as a pro-China leader, have raised New Delhis hackles. India’s worries are legitimate. It boasts of civilisational ties with Nepal, remains integrated with its gods, geography, culture, economy, army and people, and considers the Himalayan kingdom an occupant of its exclusive sphere of influence. Nepal’s geo-strategic location holds immense importance for India’s security architecture. It observes China’s moves to scale up engagement with Nepal with suspicion and is anxious about Chinese interference in Nepal’s political system, which it interprets as an effort to reduce its political and strategic influence.

It is important for India to understand that China’s influence over Nepal has grown not simply because the Nepalese are still angry with India for the economic blockade. That was a crucial foreign policy misstep and may even affect some Nepalese decision-making, but it is simplistic to think of Nepal’s gravitation towards China and the broad contours of its foreign policy as a sovereign nation as a “derivative” of that event.

Nepal, like any other South Asian nation hungry for investment, connectivity and infrastructure, sees in China an opportunity to achieve its domestic objectives. The desire to balance India’s hegemony is a subsidiary of that policy.

During his recent visit to Beijing, Oli said: “We believe that Nepal can serve as a bridge between our two neighbours. In fact, we want to move from the state of a land-locked to a land-linked country through the development of adequate cross border connectivity. Our friendship with both neighbours places us in an advantageous position to realise this goal.”

BIMSTEC leaders pose for a group photo during the summit in Kathmandu on 31 August. AFP

BIMSTEC leaders pose for a group photo during the summit in Kathmandu on 31 August. AFP

The Nepal-India relationship still remains mutually exclusive. Amid the noise, it is easy to overlook the reality that India still holds enormous leverage over Nepal. As Brookings India fellow Dhruva Jaishankar wrote earlier this year in The Print: “Nepal still enjoys an open border with India, and over a million (possibly many more) Nepalis work in India without requiring permits. Seven regiments of Nepali citizens — Gorkhas — are part of the Indian Army, and the Indian government still pays pensions to some 1,27,000 Nepali veterans. These are not functions that China can replicate.”

Where India runs into trouble is acting on its commitments, execution of projects and lack of a grand strategy that creates space for China to exploit. Given China’s willingness to translate economic heft into geopolitical and geo-strategic influence, it shouldn’t surprise India that its continued failure on this front has resulted in New Delhi ceding space in the neighourhood and obstructing its own goal of acquiring regional leadership.

To quote Harsh Pant in The Diplomat: “Sino-Nepal economic ties have grown dramatically over the last few years. At $79.26 million, China is Nepal’s biggest foreign investor, accounting for 58 percent of foreign direct investment in the second half of last year, more than twice that of India’s $36.63 million. As India failed to deliver on its commitments in time, Nepal gravitated towards China. This has been especially the case in the hydropower sector, where Chinese companies have made great strides in the last few years.”

India needs to show strategic patience on Nepal. It must know that politics is temporal, but geography is permanent. For all the transit protocols that Kathmandu signs with Beijing, the nearest Chinese port is located 2,600 kilometres from its border. “Nepal must develop proper infrastructure for smooth access to Chinese ports. Without this, simply opening of ports will not be useful,” an exporter of woolen carpets was quoted as saying in The Indian Express.

In light of this reality, India must scale up its development and connectivity initiatives in the region and start delivering on its commitments. It must also resist the temptation of expressing lofty goals and mighty ambitions at multilateral fora such as BBIN or BIMSTEC only to fall flat on its face and lose strategic heft. A good place to display its leadership qualities in the integration process in South Asia would be the BBIN (Bhutan, India and Nepal), whose members are also part of the larger BIMSTEC grouping.

As Observer Research Foundation president Samir Saran writes: “Nepal, vital to South Asian stability, stands to benefit the most from the BBIN and BIMSTEC connectivity projects. It secures access to its nearest ports and would be able to export Nepalese goods even beyond the region. The example of Nepal goes to show that if India can get the vehicles to move across borders, the reliance on Chinese-built ports and infrastructure will reduce; and India can then replicate such initiatives with other BIMSTEC states such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand.”

To do that, however, India must take responsibility of empowering the multilateral forums and commit more money and human resources. And in so doing, New Delhi must “instill in the organisation a normative vision for a cooperative, multilateral regional order that is based on existing rules and principles of liberalism, not on unilateralism”, as Carnegie fellow Constantino Xavier writes in his paper Bridging the Bay of Bengal: Toward a Stronger BIMSTEC.

Securing security and geopolitical interests, safeguarding spheres of influence and reclaiming regional leadership will need sustained attention, planning and execution. Unless these areas are addressed, India may find its role diminished in its own backyard.

Updated Date: Sep 11, 2018 22:39 PM

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