Nepal: Foreign policy dilemma
NEPAL is a Hindu state, which is lying along the southern slopes of the Himalayan mountain ranges. It is a landlocked country, which is strategically located between two much larger countries, India to the east, south, and west and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China to the north. While Nepal’s border with China comprises of difficult mountainous terrain, its border region with India is easy to transport, communication since it is a low, flat plain, called Tara region, with a 10-mile wide and 500 mile long stretch of fertile agricultural land. In 1991 the kingdom established a multi-party parliamentary system. In 2008, the monarchy was dissolved, and Nepal was declared a democratic republic. Nepal’s economy is mainly dependent on foreign assistance. Its main sources of economic assistance have been and are; India, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and other smaller rich western nations. Due to its geographical landlocked position, and an easy access to India than China, Nepal depends on India for trade with the outside world.
Nepals foreign policy making is a dilemma as it is primarily directed by its strategic location between India and China. Generally Nepal has struggled to keep its foreign policy balanced to have equally good relations with both India and China. Simply because of China being a non coercive power, and India’s policies with its South Asian neighbours are hegemonic, Nepal remains subject to India’s exploitation as a client state. India’s political and economic domination of the country is strong. Its political interference in Nepal through covert and overt means is deep to keep it under control. Whenever Nepal wants to neutralise India’s dictates on trade by trying to get closer to non coercive China and other major powers, as a counterweight, on small pretexts India closes Nepal’s trade route thus compelling it to compromise.
For, example, in March 1989, when two trade treaties between India and Nepal were expired, instead of extending the treaties, India had closed 15 of the 17 land entry routes to Nepal for more than three weeks, thus putting Nepal under pressure since it relies on India for all of its petroleum and 35% of its other imports. And India is also the lifeline to Nepal for imports from other nations. As some of the western diplomats had commented at that time, the underlying cause for putting a trade embargo was political and not the expiry of the trade treaties. In fact, in 1988 Nepal had decided to purchase military equipment from China. The Nepalese government had also announced that it was imposing restrictions on Indian residents and business people in Nepal to limit Indian interference. But India, which had treated Nepal as a client state, considered Nepal’s effort to get closer to China as a betrayal. Hence, to punish Nepal, India had closed trade routes. And always Nepal has been kept under threat of trade closure, if it adopts policies against India’s interest
And, by using its widely spread intelligence resources in Nepal and its Hindu settlers in that country, India also engineers, political and social unrest to destabilise Nepal to keep the government under pressure and pliant. For instance, in 2015 India incited the Nepalese people of the border region in Nepal to organise protests on various grounds and it created a good reason for India to clamp economic embargo on Nepal to disrupt trade for the whole country. Because of that embargo Nepalese population suffered a lot who had already suffered from a devastating earthquake.
Hence, Nepal remains a prime target of India’s political interference and coercive policies to keep the country as a client state. However, despite India’s pressure, Nepal seeks to ensure its sovereignty by adopting a diversified foreign policy to build equally good relations with China and other regional countries to avoid overdependence on India. It has become even more careful in view of India’s history in the recent past of even militarily interfering in the internal affairs of neighbouring South Asian states, as was evident from India’s military interventions in Sri Lanka and Maldives.
Since the Nepalese is bold and resilient nation, it continues to defy Indian hegemonic policies and pressures in different possible ways. For instance, recently a huge crowd of protesters marched in Kathmandu and all over Nepal even burning effigies of India’s PM, Modi while vociferously chanting anti-India slogans. Although the Nepalese people are bravely struggling to become free of the Indian imperialism, to withstand India’s hegemony collectively, it is likewise important that all other South Asian countries should reinforce Nepal’s sovereignty by strengthening the role of SAARC and welcoming China to get its regular member as a counterbalance to India.
(Author Muhammad Hanif, retired Lt Col, is former Research Fellow of IPRI, a think-bank based in Islamabad.)