Nepal: A hotspot of great power rivalry

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A book review of ‘Strategic Himalayas:
Republican Nepal and External Powers’
authored by Dr. Nihar Nayak

Reviewed by Deepak Gajurel,
Political Scientist, Tribhuvan University, Nepal

The International power equation has fundamentally shifted since the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union as super power. In the context of great power activities, both overt as well as covert, in the Himalayan Asia (South Asia plus China), this region has become a hotspot for the rivalry among world powers. Nepal, as a small and weak nation, In particular, has been turned into a playground for competing powers, regional and extra-regional.

Though numerous literatures are found on Nepal’s foreign policy and her relations with India, China and other global powers, there was a vacuum felt of strategic analyses based on realpolitik, and ground reality analysis.

With a bang, among South Asian intelligentsia, here comes ‘Strategic Himalayas: Republican Nepal and External Powers.’ A book by strategic expert Dr. Nihar R. Nayak, Associate Fellow with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, India, ‘Strategic Himalayas’ gives a vivid picture of Nepal’s growing importance in the strategic radars of world powers, and their neck-breaking escalating rivalry in this Himalayan nation.

While Nepal is in the process of drafting a new constitution, the country ‘…is visited by chronic political instability which has made it further vulnerable to external manipulations,’ Dr. Nayak in this book correctly puts forward the ground reality of Nepal politics, which has, since last eight years, been hanging in limbo. The nation’s quest for political stability is becoming more and more alluring with no hope in sight, as least in the foreseeable future. In this background, the book analyses the role played by external powers in Nepal’s domestic and external policies.

StrategicHimalaya_Nihar NayakThe book is based on intense researches on power shifts occurring in international theaters, and impacts thereof, in this Himalayan region in general, and on Nepal, in particular. The author is mostly concentrated on the long-term backlashes on India’s national interests, in case Nepal continues to be unstable, and extra-regional powers, including China, intensify their activities in Nepal, which, in turn, could downsize India’s so called ‘sphere of influence’ here.

Strategic analyses of Nepal’s vulnerability, in terms of big power rivalry, and its potential consequences in South Asia region have been dealt with in this book. At places, Dr. Nayak figures out that India’s traditional ‘sphere of influence’ in Nepal has been challenged by rising China’s expanding influences in other South Asian nations and beyond.

‘Strategic Himalayas’ gives an overall understanding of internal and external dynamics of Nepal.

As a regional power having ‘default’ sphere of influence in the region south of the Himalayas, India’s relations with its smaller neighbors was ‘taken for granted’ by the rulers in New Delhi since the country’s birth in 1947. And, to some extent, this policy was successful in the eyes of the Indian policy makers. However, the scenario has now begun to take turn. Indian ‘independent’ experts have since sometime back been raising concerns about ‘China’s inroad’ into Nepal.

Echoing similar concern, Dr. Nayak, in his hook states, ‘… bonhomie continued when both Nepal and Pakistan played a major role in inviting China to be an observer at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit at Dhaka in 2005, perhaps as a response to India’s move to bring in Afghanistan as a member. This triangular alliance—Nepal, Pakistan and China —in India’s backyard made India quite uncomfortable … ‘

‘China’s Tibet policy is essentially driven by strategic considerations and periphery security. Nepal’s northern border being an easy gateway to Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), increases China’s worries that political instability in Nepal could lead to enhanced anti-China activities in Nepal. This also increases the possibility of the Tibetan separatists entering the TAR using Nepal’s northern border,’ the author adds.

The author: Dr.Nihar Nayak
The author: Dr.Nihar Nayak

‘Strategic Himalayas’ dwells extensively on the regime change in Nepal and the role India played for. The author also explains on to why India changed its long-held ‘two pillar’ policy for Nepal.

‘… India had adhered to ‘two pillar’ theory which to some extent did not make other major powers insecure. But the differences between India, China and the US widened in 2006 as India restored democracy in Nepal by bringing the Maoists on board. The differences between these major powers on some global issues had an impact in this region too.’ the book reads.

Dr. Nayak in his analysis reflects China’s threat, perceived or real, in ‘China’s growing penetration’ into Nepal, and says, ‘…This policy shift of India made China uncomfortable due to the abolition of monarchy and the US for mainstreaming the Maoists. This also brought divisions amongst Indian policy makers. There was a dominant section in the Indian establishment that considered the monarchy as being a stable political power centre. As a result, India continued its official twin pillar policy of multiparty democracy and constitutional monarchy until the restoration of Parliament by King Gyanendra on 24 April 2006.’

The author raises several pertinent questions that, in essence, focus on India’s security concerns when it comes to New Delhi’s role in Kathmandu politics vis a vis Beijing’s, and of the lone superpower, the United States, thus:

‘Is Nepal going to face a new round of strategic competition in the Himalayas? Does the policy of equidistance reintroduced by the Maoist government (2008-09) impact China’s Nepal policy in any manner? What will be China’s policy towards the radical faction within the Maoists in Nepal? Has there been any visible change in China’s relationship with Nepal after the abolition of the monarchy? Given the geographic barriers, can China play a decisive role in Nepal? Will the renewed Chinese interest in Nepal affect India’s relationship with Nepal in the future? How does the US look at the political transition in Nepal? Does the US look at Nepal as a possible partner in its long-term strategy to tackle a rising China? What is the strategic relevance of Nepal for major European countries? Do major European countries synchronize their Nepal policy with the US policy towards sub-Himalayan region? How will China and India manage their economic interdependence and strategic competition in the region? How will India balance the Chinese and US presence in Nepal? What is the role of Pakistan in Nepal in post-conflict period? Does Nepal figure in Pakistan’s look east policy to counter-balance India’s look west policy? How will Nepal deal with the competing strategies of the major powers—regional and extra-regional?’

On dealing these concerns, with extensive research through primary as well as secondary sources of information, Dr. Nayak draws a clear picture in which Nepal figures prominent, for the stability of South Asia region, in general, and for the security of India, in particular.

Broadly, ‘Strategic Himalayas’ can be taken as a ‘research project report’ which vividly offers ‘ground reality’ of the realpolitik at work, covertly and overtly, in the Himalayan Asia region.

‘Strategic Himalayas’ is divided into eight chapters.

The book, as is the practice in book writing, begins with an introduction to geopolitical scenario of the region, while the subsequent chapters deal with Nepal’s foreign policy challenges, and India’s strategy to protect its sphere of influence here.

The author puts added stress on China’s growing engagement in this Himalayan nation, and the role of the United States in Nepal. Other chapters explore the Europeans’ and Pakistan’s role that could be adversely affect India’s interests in this volatile region.

Though ‘Strategic Himalayas’ addresses many significant questions, it misses to dig into some crucial questions, such as: What triggered China’s accelerated inroads into Nepal?; What compelled Indian policy makers change two pillar policy towards Nepal?; Was there some kinds of inept decision making in the power corridors of New Delhi?; Or was there a lack of vision in Indian political leaders and foreign policy advisors, when it comes to dealing with smaller neighbors?; What long-term impacts would be on India’s security, if current political imbroglio continues in this Himalayan nation for some time to come?

Strategic Himalayas contains a total of 212+19 pages.

The book is priced Indian Rs. 995

The ‘Strategic Himalayas’ is published by IDSA, New Delhi, in 2014

Book reviewer Deepak Gajurel can be reached at:
deepakgajurel@gmail.com