Between China and India: Nepal in a volatile region


By Gopal Thapa

Our foreign policy vis-à-vis China and India
must be informed by the exigencies of strategic realities

The man who ‘unified’ modern Nepal, Prithvi Narayan Shah, called the country a ‘yam between two boulders’. The British in India considered it a buffer zone between China and India. Now,   some foreign policy experts in Nepal see a need to replace the ‘yam theory’ with a new concept of ‘bridge diplomacy’. The yam theory, they contend, was propounded at a time when the shadow of British rule in India loomed large. Kingdoms in India were being swallowed up one by one. Towards the north, imperial China was no less formidable, but the threat from the south was stark and immediate. Newly created Nepal and its territorial integrity had to be preserved in a delicate and dexterous manner, under the circumstances. The yam theory exposed the vulnerability of Nepal and stressed more on defensive preparedness in the face of possible aggression from the south or north. Thus, the famous saying of Prithvi Narayan Shah, “Jaai katak nagarnu, jhiki katak garnu”, meaning use your weapons only in defence.

Buffer between neighbors

Many believe that the buffer zone concept was created and applied by the British in India to possibly contain mighty China from gaining foothold in the south through Nepal. The yam theory, which underlined the importance of a balanced approach to relations with both neighbors, was not totally ignored by the first Rana prime minister, Jung Bahadur. Astute Jung Bahadur saw the growing power of the British in India and was smart enough to immediately forge a kind of special relations with them. Thus, he was able to avert the territorial ambitions of the British from invading Nepal and secondly, he also ensured a century-long hereditary prime ministership for his family. He was also successful in recovering some of Nepal’s lost territories. This is a feat no subsequent rulers could achieve. But the hereditary prime minister’s position with absolute power did a lot of damage to the country. For over a century, Nepal remained wallowing in poverty, ignorance, and darkness.

Nepal-India relations have since continued to be quite unique in character and scope. They are neither informed by the yam theory nor by a policy of equidistance. For the last six decades, the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship remains the only document governing our bilateral relations. Late king Birendra had tried to propound a new foreign policy, based on his ‘Zone of Peace’, which India found unpalatable. This concept died along with the demise of the Panchayat.

With China, our relations have largely been guided by Panchasheel, the Non-Aligned Movement and the UN Charter. Though engagement has increased in various fields in the last few years, both countries feel very strongly about the need for fine-tuning and updating our relations.  Unfortunately, little has been undertaken in terms of refining and re-defining relations, both with India and China, since the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1990.

Bridge diplomacy

The concept of a ‘bridge’ seeks to discard the notion of vulnerability inherent in the yam theory. The buffer-zone concept is also considered untenable in the aftermath of the emergence of China and India as economic Asian superpowers. The proponents of the bridge concept believe that economic imperatives have made a compelling case for both China and India to come closer. The new leadership in India and China seems increasingly drawn toward each other for constructive engagements in economic and strategic issues. Some believe that when economic engagements begin to bear fruit, they help generate trust and confidence, thereby paving the way for tackling other issues of strategic and security importance. They contend that given the best of relations that Nepal enjoys with both neighbours, it is advised that she utilise this opportunity by acting as a bridge to connect the two countries. Trilateral cooperation among the three with Nepal at the core is what they suggest.

Many experts, however, tend to differ from the way bridge diplomacy advocates have interpreted changes. Embarking on bridge diplomacy is not as easy as is being contemplated. While it may have its own merit, many foreign policy experts advise caution for several reasons. First, there is a need to understand that consistency, continuity, and credibility are the main underpinnings of the foreign policy of any country. Change may also be a part, but changes must always be made with due consideration to the above three critical elements. Nepal’s strategic location and low level of socio-economic development always makes it vulnerable to external influence, if not direct aggression. Moreover, at this point in time, when the country is roiling under political instability and an interminable transition, the country’s vulnerability to external influence is at an all-time high.

One may or may not agree that no Indian political party will dare make drastic changes to the fundamental underpinnings of its foreign policy. But Indian foreign policy will continue to consider Nepal as its backyard and treat it a buffer zone between India and China, as long as India can forge credible strategic trust with China. So, when India refuses to give up those foreign policy elements that we consider irrelevant, why should we show such an eagerness to abandon the yam theory, without first thoroughly examining the pros and cons? We must bear in mind that deeper economic engagement may reveal avenues for discussion to dispel existing distrust, but they alone are not going to resolve vital strategic issues as we would like them to.  

In a volatile region

Border issues between India and China continue and this is the reason the two countries may take decades to move closer to establishing surefooted strategic trust. Similarly, the current bonhomie between China and India should not be construed as heralding a new departure in their relations, for China will continue to consider Pakistan, India’s archrival, as a long-time and most dependable ally in South Asia. Even between Nepal and India, there is a continued lack of strategic trust, mainly because of the many border issues that remain unresolved to this day.

Hence, those who advocate the irrelevance of the yam theory and are eager to leap into bridge diplomacy may need to pause and think through the lurking danger. This would be like reviling Prithvi Narayan Shah as an expansionist, like the demolishing of his statue by some over exuberant radical greenhorns, only to regret their action now. As a matter of fact, the major preoccupation of our long-term foreign policy vis-à-vis China and India must be informed by the exigencies of emerging economic and strategic realities. Balancing our political and strategic relations with those of trade and economics in such a way that we are able to win the confidence of both neighbours is obviously the greatest foreign policy challenge for us. Only a foreign policy influenced by strong national unity, powered by informed knowledge and intellectual prowess, and above all, nurtured by a deep feeling of patriotism can help us navigate our way safely out of those challenges. Therefore, in our attempt at bridge diplomacy, we must not lose sight of the yam theory, which should always remain at the core of our foreign policy, given that international relations often tend to take unpredictable turns in a region as volatile as South Asia.

Thapa is a former chief of protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs