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A dynamite between two rocks

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Nepal can’t afford to base its foreign policy on the insecurity of its neighbors, it must try to put them at ease and benefit from trade and investment.

In 1770, Nepal’s founding king called the country “a yam between two boulders”, a country squeezed between China to the north and British India to the south. More than 240 years later, just before he was elected prime minister of the country, Nepal’s Maoist leader Prachanda paraphrased the king: “Nepal,” he said, “is a dynamite between two rocks.”

Prachanda was trying to get India and China to take him more seriously by playing Nepal’s giant neighbours off against each other. He should have known better. The new Himalayan Great Game is not about getting regional superpowers to fight over you, but to get them to cooperate in lifting you out of poverty. Nepal can’t afford to base its foreign policy on the insecurity of its neighbours, it must try to put them at ease and benefit from trade and investment.

In terms of per capita income, Nepal is the poorest country in Asia. Its economy, ravaged by a decade of war and poor governance, is growing at 3% or less. But it borders two economies with more than a billion people each and both growing in the double digits. All Nepal has to do is hitch its wagon to the two locomotives in its vicinity.

But successive rulers in Kathmandu have found it difficult to resist the temptation to counterbalance the country’s overwhelming economic dependence on India by bending over backwards to cosy up to China politically. Even when there is concrete proof that this policy is counterproductive, they never learn.

China’s main preoccupation in Nepal is not India, but Tibet. It wants stability in Nepal so that the country doesn’t become a springboard for
Tibetan nationalism. In this it is deeply suspicious not of India, but of the United States. After Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping in 1988 reaffirmed the main chain of the Himalayan mountains as the boundary between their spheres of influence, India and China are too preoccupied with their economies to be distracted by a quarrel over Nepal or Bhutan.

India and China may compete globally for resources and influence, but the last thing they need is an unstable Himalaya. China is too busy pouring money into Tibet’s infrastructure and raising living standards so it can lure Tibetans away from the lamas who control Tibetan Buddhism.

India too would not benefit from a chronically unstable Nepal that would delay its plans to jointly harness Nepal’s rivers. Both have a convergence of interest in investing in Nepal’s hydropower, tourism and trade and create jobs for long term stability. And all three countries would benefit from using Nepal as a transit for rail and road links for trade.

Trying to force a proxy war between China and India when both want the same thing is suicidal, but try telling this to politicians in Nepal.
After he resigned from prime ministership in 2009, Prachanda has been to China several times. The message from Chinese officials has always been: Sort it out with India, don’t bother us, we’re busy.

To be sure, there are hawks in the military-intelligence establishments in both New Delhi and Beijing who remember 1962 and benefit from constant tension in bilateral ties. The latest reason for mutual suspicion is an outlandish plan by an obscure Chinese quango to pump money into Lumbini and turn it into a Buddhist theme park. China is obviously strategising to co-opt Tibetan Buddhism in the post-Dalai Lama era. But Sino-Indian economic ties should be strong enough to be affected by these hiccups.

India and China may pretend to shadow box over Nepal from time to time, but neither would like to have the headache of a failed state between them. That would be real dynamite.

This article was part of the Times of INdia’s series on ‘Neighbour’s Envy
Not Really’

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