Nepal’s inevitable geopolitical dilemma

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The Supreme Court’s verdict stating the reinstatement of the parliament on February 23 was internationally applauded. The verdict came after PM Oli decided to dissolve the parliament unconstitutionally in December and called for fresh elections. The judiciary body’s verdict will also likely push Oli under a no-confidence vote. Nepal’s political instability comes at a time when its two giant neighbours’ rivalry is increasingly straining.

Furthermore, Oli’s allegiance, during his tenure, was with China and he ruined decades-long relations with India. Oli was famous for promoting Chinese investments along numerous sectors and decreasing dependence over India. Therefore, the current political atmosphere of Nepal could be of interest to India. However, India has adopted a ‘wait and watch’ policy for Nepal and has not interfered in the domestic politics.

Moreover, India’s reluctance to discuss the border issues with Nepal after improving relations and a series of meetings is worrisome. Even though Nepal expected that the border dispute will be reviewed during the Sixth Joint Commission Meeting, the only decision made was one million doses of vaccine from India in the form of a grant. Indian PM Modi went as far as not allowing Nepali Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali to call on him during Gyawali’s visit to Delhi. Many argue that India took a step back in resolving disputes after Nepal’s political instability emerged. Modi’s rejection to meet with Gyawali could be an indication of India opposing to Oli’s unconstitutional dissolution of the house and therefore wanted to maintain distance with Oli and his ministers. However, according to Lok Raj Baral, this argument doesn’t hold ground since firstly, paying a courtesy call wouldn’t hurt and secondly, Gyawali still managed to meet with the Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh.

Professor Lok Raj Baral has further added that Indo-Nepal relations cannot be viewed in isolation since China has a huge part to play in the current geopolitical sphere. He even hinted that if the Biden administration is keen, the administration can play a part in resolving China-India relations. This will pave way for a more conducive environment and will be in the best interest of Nepal as well. However, that being said, Nepal must prioritise resolving issues with India on the border front and reduce geopolitical tensions by also lessening the function of foreign powers.

Similarly, China-Nepal relations have also not been at its best. China is visibly displeased about the current political situation of Nepal. This may have caused for some tension in trade between the two countries. With only the Rasuwagadhi border fully operational for trade, around 1,500 containers are stuck on the other side of the border for months. Minister for Industry, Commerce and Supplies Lekh Raj Bhatta described the situation as an ‘undeclared blockade’ by China. With the permission of only allowing 5% of cargo movement daily, the revenue collection at the customs office has also been proportionately affected. Business representatives and traders have heavily suffered losses due to the stranded containers and damage of goods over a year. The ‘blockade’ could be to express displeasure at the party-split (NCP) and is attached to a political agenda.

In addition, PM Oli’s loosening influence in his party and in the parliament after the split of the ruling party in two factions has compelled China to explore for a new leader. The northern block’s attention as shifted to Prachanda as the new Prime Minister even if that implies ‘dispensing’ PM Oli. Prachanda is of strategic interest to China due to his role against the USA’s Millennium Challenge Corporation which China views as a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy and a threat to China’s BRI.

In terms of India’s expectations from the Nepal, India is interested in seeing a more democratic government but most importantly, the government should be friendly towards India, unlike the NCP. The Western powers’ interest also align with that of India’s. However, including foreign players in the politics will only complicate Nepal’s political process rather than providing some sort of stability.

Amid the political uncertainty is the vaccine politicization globally which might have indirect impacts on Nepal. India and China have both committed to provide vaccines to its neighbours under their neighbourhood prioritization policy to increase their influence. This has caused for the nations to rush and get their vaccines approved. Therefore, the vaccine has become a tool for diplomacy and exerting influence. This competition will have severe long-term repercussions on the economy and health of the poor nations which receive these vaccines in the form of a grant and cannot afford to buy them. Similarly, Nepal also relies on these grants and might convert Nepal into a testing lab. The poor countries are much at risk for becoming a political victim.

Furthermore, another repercussion of the vaccine diplomacy as stated by Jagadish Prasad Bista is that the rich countries have bought/ ordered their vaccines which will put poor countries much behind on the list to receive cure for the COVID-19. Demands from underdeveloped countries would be disregarded for a few years even though these countries will be made testing labs. Mr Bista further analysed that the restrictions in the supply chain management and border restriction were a result of political issues rather than actual health considerations while questioning the ‘true realm of globalisation’.

In conclusion, Nepal’s geopolitical stance is very delicate right now and must stead very carefully in resolving its issues with the neighbours. Bringing in another government will not solve Nepal’s issues but a change from within the roots is required. Furthermore, while dealing with external powers, the leaders must most certainly not forget the non-aligned foreign policy and repeat the mistakes PM Oli made— by upsetting both its neighbours, India and China.

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