People and Coronavirus

Realignment, Post COVID-19

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Nepal is often found torn between its two powerful neighbors — India and China, literally and metaphorically. The country finds it hard to strike a balance between its allies and even more so when it becomes the battleground.

Nonetheless, Nepal has enjoyed enormous support from China, India and its western allies to combat and fight the coronavirus.

The US, Germany and the two giant neighbors have pledged financial and medical support to Nepal in such difficult times, which is commendable.

However, few recent developments have altered the foreign relation dynamics for Nepal, where geopolitics has played a prominent role.

While India and China both continuously try to ‘expend their influence’ by negating each other’s influence in the South Asian region, the two countries have managed to shake up Nepal’s diplomacy, making it insecure and unstable.

Additionally, China and India have been facing border issues after China tried to obstruct India’s Border Roads Organization activities in the Galwan region.

It is no secret that the giants are interested in Nepal due to its strategic location. Moreover, the US-India relations have tightened over the pandemic, whereas Indo-Sino relations have worsened, despite growing mutual understanding over the years.

India has the opportunity to take advantage of the US-China conflict and lure in foreign investments to relocate from China. However, shifting the industries from China to India while tensions are escalating seems too far-fetched.

Additionally, China and India have been facing border issues after China tried to obstruct India’s Border Roads Organization activities in the Galwan region.

China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, assured that both the countries would resolve the matter bilaterally and that the two countries are ‘each other’s opportunity’.

However, the former Indian Ambassador to China, Nirupama Rao, said “China appears cordial in public statements while in practice they are hard”. When the US President offered to mediate the border dispute, the Chinese interpreted it as an attempt to drive a wedge between Beijing and New Delhi.

China wants to portray the US as an unreliable partner for India by touting the “US first” policy adopted by the Trump administration.

Nevertheless, the pandemic seems like an opportunity for China and India to collaborate on the healthcare front and develop an antidote.

India has a better pharmaceutical industry which China needs to invent the vaccine for. The two giants can collaborate under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) even though India is not a signatory to it.

In the need of the hour, it is best for both the giants to look out for the world. They must keep their competition, to become the world superpower, aside.

The US and its allies want to see greater economic integration between Nepal and India, including connectivity and special economic corridors, to lessen China’s impact.

Similarly, the hostility between the US and China that resembles a cold war has also impacted Nepal. The conflict has been prominent across multiple sectors; the most pronounced being trade and economic ties, conflict in Hong Kong and Taiwan, technology, COVID-19 and financial ties.

The US framed the recent events as an example of China’s new “muscular” policy, which would affect China’s ties with other countries.

This rivalry is forcing China to prioritize political alliances across the globe, which conversely is pressurizing the US to contain China’s attempts to expand the influence.

The US and its allies want to see greater economic integration between Nepal and India, including connectivity and special economic corridors, to lessen China’s impact.

Several scholars have interpreted the US’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) as a counter-measure to China’s BRI. Nepal is a signatory to China’s BRI, which has lost momentum currently as China has shifted its resources towards economic revival after the novel virus took over the country.

In addition, PM KP Oli committed to accept the MCC grant which had earlier divided the political party since some argued the grant to be a part of the broader Indo-Pacific Strategy.

In contrast, others suggested a risk to the cordial ties with China considering the recent US-China conflict.

Nonetheless, President Bidya Devi Bhandari announced two transmission line projects to be built under MCC and PM Oli has asked lawmakers to revise specific clauses that hurt the sovereignty after which both the Houses will also hopefully endorse the US grant.

Some critics stated that Nepal should not deny the USD 500 million endowments at the time of a crisis and must look forward to development.

The 2015 economic blockade imposed by India provided a great opportunity for China to exploit the anti-Indian sentiment of the political elites in Kathmandu and secure its strategic interest, particularly the Tibetan refugees, in Nepal.

Also, BRI’s Nepal-Tibet railway link is far from practical consideration and a threat to India as Chinese influence increases, while the transmission lines will benefit Nepal. Meanwhile, BRI has been facing increasing resistance since the past seven years.

Furthermore, China’s alleged intrusion in Nepal’s domestic politics was condemned. Following intra-party rifts within the ruling government, Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi held a series of meetings with senior party leaders in the first week of May.

Though some denied the interference, Hanqi was meeting with those who were at obvious loggerheads with PM Oli.

Thereafter, Nepali media houses accused China of “micro-managing” Nepal and that China had overstepped its jurisdiction.

China views a stable government and a unified NCP crucial for sustained and trusted relations between the two countries, especially when there are political polarization and realignment that might put China’s achievements since 2015 at risk.

The 2015 economic blockade imposed by India provided a great opportunity for China to exploit the anti-Indian sentiment of the political elites in Kathmandu and secure its strategic interest, particularly the Tibetan refugees, in Nepal.

Therefore, China has been adamant about cultivating cooperative relations with Nepal. Besides, it has tremendously supported Nepal during the crisis and provided medical supplies.

China seeks Nepal’s support against the polarization of COVID-19 after several countries blamed China for intentionally spreading the virus.

Moreover, Nepal’s silence when China accidentally claimed Mt. Everest was not taken well. Except for a Twitter fight, little was done.

Although China soon apologized for the mistake, Nepal did not take up the issue with China. It seems as though NCP is too cautious with China and wants to maintain friendly relations.

When Nepal retaliated and published a new map after India inaugurated the link road, Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, accused Nepal of acting at the behest of ‘someone else’ pointing towards China.

It is no secret that as long as Nepal doesn’t tolerate anti-China activities, both countries will remain in good terms with China.

And with pressure mounting on China to build relations with all the nations, it wouldn’t want to jeopardize relations with its southern neighbor.

Lipulekh and Kalapani, a tri-junction of India-Nepal-China, is a strategic trade and military route for India and China.

The two countries signed the deal to construct a road link in 2015 through Lipulekh which is a disputed territory as Nepal and India, both have claimed it.

When Nepal retaliated and published a new map after India inaugurated the link road, Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, accused Nepal of acting at the behest of ‘someone else’ pointing towards China.

Nepali leaders soon rubbished these rumors. China so far has remained diplomatic and has requested both the countries to resolve the issue bilaterally.

Nevertheless, the Indian media holds China responsible for the Nepal-India border dispute. Some critics said that Nepal’s two giant neighbors agreed on exploiting Nepal’s ‘remote and rugged terrain to their strategic and economic advantage’.

China, meanwhile, explained that the route was merely access for pilgrims which would not affect the trilateral border point between the three countries.

Few have also opined that the move on the border was a mutual understanding between the two giants. “Nepal condemned India’s unilateral action, but what we have to remember is that India would not have dared build the road through the dispute region without Chinese acquiescence,” said a Nepali geopolitical analyst. ‘This was a bilateral action by China and Nepal’.

Above all, the strained relationship between India and Nepal over the border dispute is becoming bitter by the day.

The release of the new map worsened the India-Nepal relationship. Subsequently, PM Oli went as far as blaming India for the spread of the virus in Nepal and called it ‘more lethal’ than that of China or Italy.

Though Nepal regularly attempted to hold a dialogue with the Indian counterpart since November 2019, India was neglecting it.

Finally, on May 29, India responded to the diplomatic note committing to resolving the border issue and reiterated the friendly relation Nepal-India has shared over decades.

Both countries must acknowledge their inter-dependency with each other. However, more is at stake for Nepal than India. Therefore, Nepal must also initiate tripartite foreign policy dialogue involving China, India and itself.

Furthermore, India and Nepal governments have also failed to formulate a border mechanism to rescue the migrants who are stuck on the wrong side of the border.

Nepali migrants are swimming across the Mahakali river in a desperate attempt to reach home. Though the governments have built quarantine facilities, it doesn’t seem sufficient. The government must take action and rescue the Nepali workers from across the border and as well as the world.

However, on the pandemic front, India has donated PCR test kits which will enable Nepal to carry out 30,000 tests.

It has also helped a few Nepalis stranded in other countries by airlifting them along with the Indian nationals.

Similarly, the northern neighbor has also pledged help to Nepal and is regularly supplying medical equipment. Nepal has received support from the US, Germany, and other western countries in the form of both cash and kind.

The world must understand that the virus is the sole enemy as of now. Instead of increasing complications, it will be in the best interest of each country to work together and develop an antidote.

Well, that being said, it is crucial for India to de-escalate tensions with its neighboring countries and look forward to fighting the novel virus collaboratively.

There have been some positive developments in this direction from both sides. Both India and Nepal seem to have toned down their narratives; the Nepal government chose to not present the constitutional amendment proposal for parliamentary debate; India has shown some willingness to solve the issue through diplomatic channels, bilaterally.

Even domestic politics has played a massive role in redefining Nepal’s diplomacy. International relations have a direct link to political elites’ strategy for consolidating domestic political power.

Earlier threats to Oli’s tenure appeared to have been defused after understanding with co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and vice-chair Bam Dev Gautam. Dahal’s position on MCC indicates that he may be closer to China than the US.

In addition to external support, PM Oli has been forced to balance his domestic political needs and natural affinity with China, India and the West.

He was criticized for being unresponsive in the parliament, and the Nepali Congress accused Oli of having lost all moral grounds.

After India was open to negotiation, NC took advantage of the situation and put NCP in a tight spot by deciding to support the constitutional amendment.

PM Oli’s compromise with the western allies and India will depend on his need to survive threats to power, address COVID-19 and deliver prosperity.

The world must understand that the virus is the sole enemy as of now. Instead of increasing complications, it will be in the best interest of each country to work together and develop an antidote.

All the countries must work towards de-escalating tensions while emphasizing on mitigating economic and human loss.

The leaders of the State must also deviate from the “nationalist” and “ultra-nationalist” agendas and make tacking the virus their priority.

While the power realignment in South Asia post-COVID-19 seems obvious, Nepal must not make hasty decisions and comments which can hinder long-term relationships.

Author: Shraddha More

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

This article was first published in Khabarhub.com on June 16, 2020.

https://english.khabarhub.com/2020/16/104809/

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