BY M. R. JOSSE
NEW YORK, NY: As winter morphs into spring significant transformations have concurrently been occurring in the politico-diplomatic sphere, both here and in Nepal.
At home, of course, the big news seems to revolve around the perception that the newly installed prime minister K.P. Sharma Oli has become overly ‘powerful’. Without doubt, this is due in part to the fact that he garnered more than a three-fourth majority while facing a confidence vote in parliament, one that shoved the main Opposition, Nepali Congress party, to the ignominious status of securing less than 25 percent of seats.
Among other clues suggestive of political potency: Oli’s constituting a cabinet without a deputy prime minister; of inducting another UML politico his number two in cabinet, with the key defence portfolio; and of making another party colleague the foreign minister, despite much earlier speculation that the position might go to Madeshi neta, Upendra Yadav.
While the Maoist camp seems to have been placated by the induction of Ram Bahadur Thapa as home minister, I thought it notable that though some Madeshis were inducted into Oli’s team, their representation is not strikingly noteworthy: perhaps another metric of political strength, given the conventional view that, by an large, the more the Madeshi representation in cabinet the greater the prospects of garnering India’s support!
Incidentally, Indian ‘Nepal expert’ C.S. Chandrashekaran seems to be manifestly perturbed by Oli’s political prowess, assuming that it would be especially welcomed by a China towards whom he would, ipso facto, lean.
Interestingly, this pundit lauded the post-confidence vote speech in parliament by NC’s Gagan Thapa wherein Thapa hoped that Oli would not become as authoritarian as Singapore’s late premier Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad.
One does not have to root for authoritarianism to argue that if Oli can achieve half of what Yew and Mohammad did, in terms of development and shoring up international prestige for their respective countries, he will go down in history as an outstanding, perhaps even peerless, national leader.
Referring to Oli’s ‘powerful’ political standing today, against the backdrop of the below-the-surface geopolitical tussle over Nepal between India and China, it may be germane to take note of two other developments.
The first is contained in a write-up by Saikat Datta in Asia Times wherein the author refers to the dire warning by Vice-chief of Indian Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Sarath Chand, to parliament’s standing defence committee claiming that the deep budgetary cuts have severely eroded its capability to fight a war – the “most strident criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s security policy” that comes “at a time when India faces dual challenges from China and Pakistan.”
The other revelatory piece of writing appears in The Wire by Devirupa Mitra where she quotes Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale’s candid statement to parliament’s standing committee on external affairs admitting that the capacity of the Chinese to build infrastructure projects in South Asia is far greater than India’s capacity, both financially and technically, to do so.
Against the backcloth painted above, it will be hugely edifying, one, to monitor the trajectory of New Delhi’s Nepal policy in the Oli era and, two, how India, under Modi, seeks to tackle the dual challenges posed by China and Pakistan, referred to in the Asia Times.
While on the theme of Sino-Indian relations, let me now refer to a prominent story in the New York Times (March 16, 2018) by Max Fisher and Audrey Carlson based on answers by a panel of American experts on how they perceive power has shifted in Asia in the past five years.
Under the heading, ‘How the rise of China is challenging longtime American dominance in Asia’, the authors highlight a clutch of insightful observations/predictions, even referring to the emergence of a “Chinese-American” world.
But, before getting there, I should perhaps point out a few aspects that pertain to India in the NYT story. They are: the “Quad” is Japan’s initiative in building an informal and implicit anti-China alliance which includes India, Australia and the United States; that it “remains mostly aspirational and its members so far exert only a fraction of China’s economic and military influence in the region”; and, lastly, “while India is taking a harder line against China, it is less practiced in regional alliance building and has fallen behind.”
Such an assessment is apparently gathering currency. Thus, in an article in Asia Times by David P. Goldman, the author states, inter alia, that the Trump administration has “little patience for a Europe that can’t manage to spend the NATO-mandated minimum of 2% GDP on defense, and little interest in grand schemes to counter Chinese influence in partnership with Japan and India.”
In summary, here are some highlights: *The U.S.’s military capabilities still dominate in Asia. But China has started to wield military power and economic leverage to reorder the region, putting longtime American allies like the Philippines and Indonesia closer. (Nepal is shown as veering towards China.),
*Every Asian country now trades more with China, often by a factor of two to one, an imbalance that is only growing as China’s economic growth outpaces that of the U.S.
*But another metric of great power influence – arms sales – shows the U.S.’s enduring reach.
*Many of the 20 countries caught between Beijing and Washington face an impossible choice between Chinese wealth and American security.
*These countries don’t want to choose sides, says Tanvi Madan, an Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution.
*So they are not. Instead, most are preparing strategies to draw maximum benefits from both sides, minimize risks and preserve their independence. (This seems a great idea for Nepal, in the context of her relationships with China and India.)
Having reached the word-limit of this column, I leave commenting on the upcoming Trump-Kim summit and the exit of Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, for the future.