28 July -3 August 2017 #869

Equidistance or asymmetry?

Once more, and for the fourth time as prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba is following the well-established tradition of a new leader in Kathmandu making an obligatory pilgrimage to New Delhi. 

Why this has to be so is rooted in the central dilemma of Nepal’s diplomacy vis-a-vis its neighbours: while a policy of equidistance between the two giants is desirable, the geopolitical reality is that Nepal’s overwhelming economic dependence on India makes those ties asymmetrical. Nepal may want equi-proximity towards its neighbours, but geography puts New Delhi nearer than Beijing.

Read also:

Himalayan rumblings, Guest Editorial

The blockade that followed the earthquake in 2015 was starting to redress the equilibrium in relations with north and south as UML Prime Minister KP Oli leaned over backwards to seek China’s support. But such nationalism has never been sustainable in Kathmandu and sure enough, Oli had to go, to be replaced by a more pliable Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who has allowed the 10-point agreement on trade and transit that his predecessor signed in Beijing to lapse.

Foreign Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara has already been to Delhi to do the spade work for PM Deuba’s visit. He met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to work on the agenda. But we know from the past that no matter what the agenda, it will be the unscripted one-on-one between the two prime ministers behind closed doors that will determine the outcome. Call it the small country syndrome. To give some credibility to equidistance, however, Foreign Minister Mahara is expected to dash off to Beijing before Deuba goes to Delhi.

This is a particularly sensitive time to be making these visits because of the tension building up along the Himalayan arc between Nepal’s two giant neighbours. Some have advised Deuba to postpone both visits, fearing that he may make a gaffe and mess up the equidistance doctrine. Even if Deuba doesn’t sign any agreements in Delhi, there will be efforts to portray the visit as proof that Nepal is siding with India on the Bhutan-China border dispute. Or, if he goes to Beijing soon after, it will raise hackles in Delhi.

If the Doklam dispute escalates, Nepal will feel the aftershocks. Nepali troops serve in the Indian Army and on the frontlines — a deterioration of India-China relations will increase interference by both sides in Nepal’s internal affairs. The last time India and China fought a border war thousands of Nepali soldiers were killed. But it was the skilful diplomacy of King Mahendra that did not allow this to sour relations with China. This time we don’t have leaders with such statesmanship.

Even if the visit goes ahead as planned, we don’t expect much from it. All we can hope for is that it will help repair Nepal-India ties badly bruised by the blockade, and that our prime minister will not do anything to erode and undermine Nepal’s independent foreign policy. 

Read also:

A triangular relationship, Shreejana Shrestha

Disaster geopolitics, Sharad Ghimire and Tom Robertson