On a path of de-democratization

End of the ‘tacking’ strategy

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With deeper integration, Nepal may no longer be able to swing freely between India and China as in the past.

Since 1951, when the people overthrew the Ranas, Nepal has used the strategy of ‘tacking’ to sail through the influence exerted by China and India.

For example, in 1956, King Mahendra appointed Tanka Prasad Acharya as the Prime Minister to move closer to China. He was forced to do so again after ousting BP Koirala. Then in 1962, when China fought with India and became aggressive, King Mahendra took a step back and negotiated with India.

An alternative metaphor is that of a pendulum that swings between China and India in accordance with Nepali rulers’ domestic political needs.

The refrain that ‘Nepal is moving into the Chinese camp,’ thus, is not new. Leo Rose, writing in 1971, mentions that pundits in India and the West have used that phrase whenever Nepal has sought closer ties with China. Sometimes, the policy is also known as the ‘China card.’

After Prime Minister KP Oli rose to power on an anti-Indian nationalist plank, the phrase has gained added significance. So is Nepal really moving closer to the Chinese camp?

When Rose wrote the book Nepal: Strategy for Survival in 1971, he argued that the idea of Nepal moving into the Chinese camp was a ‘basic misconception’ because Nepal was economically dependent on India, and this factor, alone, was enough to shape Nepal’s foreign policy decision-making.

However, this time around, the characteristics of globalisation and international relations have changed. Several new developments mean that Nepal could find itself in a position from where flexible foreign policy manoeuvres, such as those in the past, would become difficult. In other words, Nepal could be entering a phase where the tacking policy would become impractical as a foreign policy tool.

The first new development is the process of globalisation itself. Until recently, the process of globalisation has been relatively smooth, with significant convergence on notions of democracy, international standards, and rules-based systems. For example, while flying an aeroplane, the rules and procedures used in Nepal would be the same as those used in the United States. The same is also true for financial transactions, trading systems, and almost all areas concerned with the flows of ideas, goods, and people.

Secondly, it is no longer enough to talk about relations, because such interactions now take place through infrastructures of connectivity. Once such infrastructures and systems are created, it is no longer feasible to change things at will, or swing like a pendulum.

One example is that of the Nepal-India petroleum pipeline. Once such an infrastructure is created, it has its own economic, strategic, and diplomatic dynamics. Another infrastructure could be the terrestrial fibre-optic cable connecting Nepal with China or the potential Nepal-China railway. Once the railway is constructed, it would require long-term Chinese presence; Nepal would need to work on a long term cooperative partnership with China to fulfil the financing modalities and sustain commercial viability.

Currently, China is promoting the Belt and Road Initiative as its flagship diplomatic approach that emphasises connectivity at multiple levels, including infrastructure and facilities, economic and trade cooperation, production capacity and investment cooperation, and financial cooperation. Such connectivity is supported by cooperative mechanisms and the integration of common standards. It is also giving rise to a potential global bloc with shared common values.

The most important, however, is the constraint on globalisation imposed by the rise of deep technology—technology that gets embedded into components of our everyday life, shapes our identity, and affects our security—and the level of mistrust between western democracies and China.

In a recent opinion article in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman describes the implications of such ‘deep technologies’ on international trade relations. As long as China was producing toys, it was considered harmless. But once it started producing hi-tech products that form the core of our governance and social infrastructure and could be used to tap into our society’s intelligence, they can pose a national security threat.

As a result of this level of mistrust, the internet is becoming the ‘splinternet’—a term adopted by The Economist—and a new type of cold war is emerging around the use of technological infrastructure. Given China’s indifference to values of democracy and human rights, and its adoption of socialism with Chinese characteristics, closer integration with a China-led global bloc could have significant implications for democracy and freedom around the globe.

After Prime Minister KP Oli’s rise to power, Nepal has been unable to chart a balanced course amidst the countervailing winds of influence from China and India. While India does continue to have deep leverage, given Nepal’s economic dependence and India’s penetrations, China has slowly begun to create deep political, infrastructural and technological connectivities. This process has been facilitated by corruption, rents and financial gains enjoyed by Nepali political elites and contractors.

Despite pressure from India and the western countries, adoption of deep technology and integration of infrastructural, trade, security, and financial connectivity may create a systemic and technological dependence on China from which Nepal may be unable to wean itself as easily as in the past. This is also true for Nepal’s integration with India and the West.

Once upon a time, Nepal’s foreign policy worried about absorption by India or China, now it should worry about maintaining independence in the face of deeper integration, whether it is with China, or India.

Author: Ajaya Bhadra Khanal

This article first appeared on The Kathmandu Post on August 26, 2019.

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