Opinion

US Indo-Pacific Strategy and Nepal : Binoj Basnyat

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In a diplomatic maneuvering, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar arrived in Kathmandu on August 21 — three weeks before his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi came to Nepal.

An important meeting of the fifth ministerial-level Nepal-India Joint Commission was held after an interval of three years as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again reiterated his stance on revitalizing the “First Neighbor Policy”.

Foreign Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Ministry (MoFA) Shankar Bairagi received Jaishankar at the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) at a time when reviewing bilateral relations at political level on all issues was appropriate.

On 12th September, the US Embassy in Kathmandu sought clarification from the government of Nepal after Beijing said ‘Nepal disapproves of the Indo-Pacific Strategy’.

Likewise, Foreign Secretary Shanker Das Bairagi and State Minister for Health Surendra Kumar Yadav received State Councilor and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 8th September at the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA). In fact, his trip prioritized on President Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal this October. Three agreements were signed during his visit here.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy, meanwhile, came into debate after Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing stated that “Nepal firmly adheres to the non-alignment policy, disapproves of the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ opposes any attempt to stop the development of China, and believes that China’s development is an opportunity for Nepal, and is willing to learn from China’s successful experience”.

On 12th September, the US Embassy in Kathmandu sought clarification from the government of Nepal after Beijing said ‘Nepal disapproves of the Indo-Pacific Strategy’.

The US Embassy said, “We are seeking a clarification from Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA). We await the Nepali government’s official clarification and we have asked our embassy in Beijing to verify the statement issued there. If true, it is bewildering that we now learn about Nepal’s position from statements issued from Beijing.”

This reaffirms China and the US’s growing interests in Nepal with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Coincidently or intentionally, two events took place in June that has security, political, diplomatic and economic impact in the Indo-Pacific region as well as Nepal. The US Department of Defense publicly released the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report 2019 on 1st of June this year.

This is an expression authenticating its role within a whole of the government National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017 for the Indo-Pacific region. This is a strategic report expounding the US National Defense Strategy 2018 as it applies to the region and points out the function of allies and partners are put into operation with the shared vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

The US commitment to support the vision of its strategic Indonesian partner to become a “global maritime fulcrum” between Indian and the Pacific Oceans, closely cooperate with the UK, France, and Canada to raise the magnitude of bilateral relationships.

The forces under the Department of Defense will put their efforts to upholding principles through preparedness, partnership and the promotion of a networked region.

The IPSR concurred with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) 18th Asia Security Summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M Shanahan during his plenary remarks summarized labeling Asia the ‘Priority Theater’, and explicitly declaring the U.S. enhanced military presence in the region saying: “The Indo-Pacific is the single-most consequential region for America’s future.”

The main points of the strategy report to emphasize Washington’s “free and open Indo-Pacific policy” with freedom of navigation, aviation and trade, adding that the US-supported co-operation mechanisms in which Association of South East Asian Nations played a central role for partnership and build a region for peace, stability, development, and interoperability between the American forces and their partners.

The partnership was divided into different degrees of partnerships such as “Major Defense Partnership” that is clinched with India in 2016.

The US commitment to support the vision of its strategic Indonesian partner to become a “global maritime fulcrum” between Indian and the Pacific Oceans, closely cooperate with the UK, France, and Canada to raise the magnitude of bilateral relationships.

All this indicated and leveraged in creating a “networked security architecture” that amounts to the multilateralism by the US to meet its grand strategic ends.

US-Japan alliance is the cornerstone for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific together with Australia, India, Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. In the dialogue, the heads of government of Australia, India and Japan (QUAD) nations also stressed on sharing the vision of a “free and open Indo Pacific”.

Meanwhile, PM Modi during the Shangri-La Dialogue had said, “The Indo-Pacific area is our lifeline and also the highway for trade and prosperity. This is the key to our shared future in every sense and creates openness, integration and balance”.

Who is the threat for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”? It is, of course, China and its National Security strategic discourse, its political theory, and economic endeavors the BRI and the building of the defense forces. Indo Pacific Strategy can be argued as a strategy to contain China.

The concept has taken on a more normative tinge and is now an integral part of the larger “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”.

The fundamental question is “Will the 21st century see a new Asian order for the shaping of the emerging new global political order?” But to this, the magnitude of the Asian order will occupy a fundamental part.

Indo-Pacific Strategy Concept :

Since 2011, the term “Indo-Pacific” is being used increasingly in the global strategic/geopolitical communication. As a framework, the Indo-Pacific seeks to create a connected multi-polar region that must be governed by commonly agreed international norms, rules and practices.

The US conception of the term “Indo-Pacific” refers to the maritime space stretching from the western coast of India and the Indian Ocean, across the littorals of East Asia to the west coast of the US or the western Pacific Ocean.

The concept inherits much of the groundwork laid by the Barack Obama administration’s “pivot or “rebalance” to Asia, which is now part of the US policy repertoire since it was articulated in November 2017 when former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leveraged the concept in his speech on US-India relationship.

The concept has taken on a more normative tinge and is now an integral part of the larger “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”. It cannot be denied that it is also to contain China from the land by adopting a special relationship with the 14 countries that border China.

Briefly, it is a: i) geostrategic construct, ii) geopolitical referent for the Trump administration’s foreign policy toward Asia–East, Southeast, and South and the Pacific, iii) constitutes a single strategic space, a fact that is ever more apparent in a globalized economy.

The sea lines of communication that link the dynamic economies of East and Southeast Asia to energy suppliers in the Middle East and final markets in Europe and the Americas traverse both bodies of water, iv) geopolitical area that spans a 24 nation’s regional framework, and v) US Army Pacific Command was established in 1 Jan 1947 now after 60 years renamed as the US Indo-Pacific Command in May 2018.

With the aim of the i) Indo-Pacific to remain free and open, ii) the US does not want any country in this region to have to choose or forgo positive economic relations with any partner, iii) different future – a more promising future, one where small nations need not fear larger neighbors and iv) within South Asia, the US is working to operationalize major Defense Partnership with India, while pursuing emerging partnerships with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

The late 20th and the 21st century have witnessed diplomacy, security and politics move hand in hand for economic articulation. Now it is important to understand the geostrategic picture of the region as a whole, and Asia’s evolving security order and its challenges, while China is being circled from both land and sea by the US and its allies.

China can be seen visible with the geopolitical theory — i) the “String of Pearls” and ii) the economic development and political influence through BRI. Even if the BRI covers Eurasia and Central Asia, the six corridors are more significant to the nation-states in the South Asian region with i) the projects that Nepal will encompass ii) the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and iii) Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor (BCIM).

The significant is India’s vital strategic role and is visible time and again stressing on the “Act East Policy”, “Act Far East with Russia” and “Look West Policy”.

At the same time, it engages and develops informal channels with China, the second one taking place in Tamil Nadu this Oct. The unfinished “First neighborhood policy” is striding and the 5th August revoking of Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution will hold a bearing.

India is indicating an inclination to “strategic rebalancing approach”. These trends uphold political, security, diplomatic, economic consequences for Nepal.

To conclude, while the region offers unprecedented opportunity, continues to experience a myriad of security challenges from a range of transnational threats, including terrorism, illicit arms, drug, human, and wildlife trafficking; and piracy, as well as dangerous pathogens, weapons proliferation, and natural disasters.

Multiple terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), operate in countries throughout the region.

To combat these challenges, the US seeks opportunities to broaden and strengthen partnerships with India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Nepal to respond to shared regional challenges as part of the strategy.

The US wants to establish stronger US-India relations and assumes the inclusion of India in a larger strategic design. India and the US also share values, both are democracies and it is reforming their open and capitalist economy. India is a valuable partner for the US as it is also considered a regional counterweight to China.

The global power, middle powers and the rising powers that have interest in competing with China from South Asia will obviously have interests in Nepal. The CPEC and BCIM and Nepal a gateway to India and South Asia is vital to the US.

Of the fourteen nations that border China from land, seven nations are landlocked, including Nepal. When China is repositioning in South Asia, the US, India and their allies will have concerns on the behavior of all the small nations below the Himalayas mainly Nepal, which occupies access to Tibet of China.

The 1974 disarmament of the Khampas by the then Royal Nepalese Army, known as the “Khampa Operation”, needs no elaboration of the continuation of interests in Nepal but now with the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

As Nepal is endeavoring to consolidate the constitution that has major transformations at hand; internal dynamics like political instability, economic downturn, corruption, unstable security situation, inefficient administration, and diplomatic challenges are prominent.

It is a political determination and political will to decide on what Nepal needs. There are three scenarios where the US has engaged, is engaging, and perceived being without an exit strategy.

Firstly, Iraq is left on its own to stabilize after the US invasion in 2003 followed by the final withdrawal in 2011. Secondly, the US and the International troops are in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan known as the graveyards of empires after 18 years of war with “Good Agreement” with the Taliban.

The withdrawal will lead to instability that will have a regional impact and will be left to the six immediate neighboring countries, mainly China, India, Pakistan, and Russia.

It can be argued that the Indo-Pacific Strategy is a document for different US government tools and instruments to prioritize their efforts through guided policy without signatures and agreements with the nation-states but to meet its grand strategy through Allies and promotion of partnership.

Thirdly, Mongolia a landlocked country that borders the competitors of the US — Russia and China — describes the US as the most important third neighbor, global partner with North Atlantic Treaty Organization and has troops together with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a strategic partnership with Russia, China, Japan, India and the US.

Lastly, Nepal has sustained and remained nonaligned and should continue with the existing foreign policy that is guided by seven basic principles: 1) Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, 2) Non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, 3) Respect for mutual equality, 4) Non-aggression and the peaceful settlement of disputes, 5) Cooperation for mutual benefit, 6) Abiding faith in the Charter of the United Nations and 7) Value of world peace.

On China: “Nepal is firmly committed to One-China policy and is also committed not to allow its soil to be used for any inimical activities against China”

On India: “Nepal’s solemn desire to cultivate and foster the cordial and friendly ties with its neighboring countries and reflected in its long-standing position of not allowing its territory to be misused by any elements inimical to India and also expects the same sort of reciprocity and assurances from India.”

It can be argued that the Indo-Pacific Strategy is a document for different US government tools and instruments to prioritize their efforts through guided policy without signatures and agreements with the nation-states but to meet its grand strategy through Allies and promotion of partnership.

It cannot also be claimed that the diplomatic engagement will have political, security and economic allusion. Foreign Minister Gyawali and Defense Minister Ishwor Pokhrel have repeat­edly said that Nepal would not join any alliance or military bloc, which now has been stressed by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, co-chair of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) who was on center of controversy after the Chinese Foreign Ministry came out with a statement and the US Embassy seeking its clarification.

On January 25, Pushpa Kamal Dahal issued a statement saying “intrusion into the internal affairs of Venezuela by the “imperialist US” drew an objection from the Kathmandu-based US Embassy. The Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Joint Military Exercise is a recent affair that carried diplomatic set back is another point of caution.

Principled national transparent inclusive foreign policy or the continuation of the existing policies guiding other instruments and tools of the government is considered necessary to meet the national security policy ends that have relevance to domestic, regional and international security.

Let me end with a question to the executive and the Legislators: “Will the endorsement of the registered bill in the parliament on acceptance of the Millennium Challenge Corporation US $ 500 million signed in Sept 2017 that is arranged as part of the IPS bind the country as partnership to IPS, which contradict the foreign policy and the government statement that is visible from time to time that Nepal will not be part of an Alliance or military pact”?

*Writer Basnyat is a retired Nepali Army Major General and a political and security analyst.

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