By Dr Rajendra Bahadur Shrestha
At present, two strategic ideas known to the world as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) promoted by China and Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) sponsored by the US have grasped the attention of scholars, strategists, diplomats and international policy analysts.
Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
BRI was introduced in 2013 as a dream project of China designed to expand connectivity through infrastructure projects along the contours of historical Silk Road and Maritime Silk Rout to help develop cross-border commercial hubs as the foundation of economic prosperity of BRI partner countries. So far, BRI has not revealed any strategic or security baggage which the recipients of infrastructure funds may be required to carry as a cost of economic and humanitarian benefits of the projects. It is based on China’s experience of utilizing historical knowledge in creating wealth and enriching civilizational values kept alive in the cultural memories of the people. BRI represents an attempt to recreate the glorious history of trans-border trade, network of connectivity and interaction of civilizations.
President Xi Jinping has a vision of globalized economic growth through connectivity, promotion of free market and sharing of scientific and theological innovations. Through BRI, China wants to re-connect the world and create global wealth sharing prosperity through fair and rule-based trade practices and other forms of economic collaboration.
Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS)
Like China, the US has also come forward with a new competing ideology represented by Indo-Pacific Strategy. Despite attempts by US leaders to project it as an alternative vision for economic growth for South Asian and Asia-pacific region, it has been hardly able to conceal its strategic and security overtones attached to it.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy was devised by Trump Administration in 2017 (although initiated in 2006/07 during Obama Administration as Asia-Pacific Strategy) to address the priorities brought about by China’s emerging economic and strategic capabilities and concomitant rise of India as both economic and military power. Amid consensus opinion about the eastward shift of economic gravity following the rise of China and India as global economic superpowers, the US has also readjusted its strategic focus on Asia and the Pacific region.
This area hosts strategic sea lanes- Strait of Hormuz and Strait of Malacca which constitute vital sea route controlling major commercial and energy lifelines of China, Japan, India and the US. This is also the region through which the US suspects transaction of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) taking place among Iran, North Korea and Syria.
The security perception of the US is highlighted also by the fact that China has made huge investment to build deep sea ports along the rim of Indian Ocean from Gwadar in Pakistan through Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh to Hambantota in Sri Lanka which are referred to as ‘String of Pearls’. The USA interprets the ‘String of Pearls’ as a euphemism for a strategic alliance of China for the domination of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Over the past decades, the USA has created mechanism called Proliferation of Security Initiative arguably to deal with the perceived or real challenges posed by the rise of China. There is growing conflict of interest between the two powers in South China Sea coupled with deepening hostility in the gulf region and increasing divergence in views on domestic conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Venezuela. This shows that both powers are in a constant need to look over the shoulder of other as they move along to fulfill their alternative visions for creating a better world order.
The US has offered a dominating role to India in Indo-Pacific Strategy which seems to have attracted latter’s attention because of its potential for serving as a platform to showcase its new found economic and military prowess. India’s willingness to be a part of the ‘Quad’ consisting of other three countries Japan, Australia, and the USA shows that there is more to Indo-Pacific Strategy than that meets the eyes.
India’s Act East Policy and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visualization of ‘security and growth for the entire region’ (SAGAR) also reveals a discrete alignment in the strategic prospectuses of India and the USA.
Nepal and other smaller countries of South Asia are facing difficulty in charting out an independent course of national development safeguarding their sovereignty and independence. An unspoken pressure is being brought to bear on them for choosing either BRI or Indo-Pacific Strategy to meet their aspiration for political stability and economic prosperity.
Nepal has been receiving hints of disapproval from the US about its endorsement of BRI in 2017. Washington made an overture to Nepal to play a ‘central role in free and open Indo-Pacific’ in December last year. Nepal’s Foreign Minister however, declined to be part of the strategy during his visit to Washington for reason of Nepal being committed to the principle of non-alignment. The matter should have ended there. But in February this year, Deputy Secretary of State for Defense for South and South-East Asia Joe Felter expressed displeasure of the US by saying that BRI projects should “serve the interest of Nepal not just China”. Likewise, another visiting dignitary from US David J Ranz, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia has been reported saying that the assistance package of $500 million earmarked by the US for Nepal under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), was part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. His remark clearly hints that Nepal will be construed to have embraced Indo-Pacific Strategy if it chooses to use the MCC fund, if it declines to accept the fund it will be understood as being part of China-led BRI.
The unfolding political and strategic imperatives of Asia are putting smaller countries of South Asia including Nepal between a devil and a deep sea. Their diplomatic craft is under intense scrutiny and the world is watching how these countries, especially Nepal, will wiggle its way out of the two apparently intractable choices.
How Nepal should Handle the Situation Diplomatically?
In most cases, diplomatic questions sound tricky but offer multiple choices. If we try to solve the question through the binary view of either BRI or Indo-Pacific Strategy we may antagonize one power at the cost of growing cozy with other.
It is, therefore, time to re-define our perception of both BRI and Indo-Pacific Strategy because both are knocking our door for entry and seeking our role. The best course for us may arguably be to explore ways to dissociate ourselves from the security obligations of the projects and accept economic cooperation from both.
The new government of Nepal Communist Party Chairman (NCP) led by KP Oli is facing foreign policy challenges as it strives to fulfill development aspirations of the people while balancing relations with major powers like India, China, and the United States.
Against this backdrop, Nepal should not be siding with one or the other and learn to act more assertively in its relations with Nepal’s interest at the center. Nepal’s geo-political and strategic locational advantage as well as the leadership role at the SAARC and membership of regional organizations such as BIMSTEC, BBIN, provides much leverage to play an effective role in the region.
FM Gwayali has recently been emphasizing that all engagements of Nepal should be focused on mutually beneficial economic and development cooperation. As far as the military cooperation is concerned, Nepal has made it clear that it is ready for bilateral military drill with friendly countries, but not ready for any regional military grouping. Nepal’s FP focus must be in promoting sustainable economic development through the practice of soft power diplomacy
Nepal should not treat BRI and Indo-Pacific Strategy as mutually exclusive opportunities to advancing connectivity and other infrastructure projects to benefit from both. If Nepal is well connected nationally and internationally, it will boost its economic growth by becoming a vibrant bridge between the two major and fastest growing economies of the world, India and China.
The new FP document (I was a member of high level task force at MoFA) of Nepal provides guidelines for effective implementation along this line. With improved institutional capacity at MoFA and the government’s strong resolve, Nepal should prepare to take advantage from both the opportunities. It is high time to prove the world that Nepal can handle the delicate diplomatic situations like this to ensure its national interest through pro-active and practical diplomacy.
(The writer is the president of the International Center for Sustainable Development and Diplomacy (ICSDD) and former president of the Nepal Council of World Affair (NCWA) He can be reached at: <[email protected]>)