From Mt Everest to the Indian Ocean

The visit to Kathmandu by Indian Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Mukund Naravane this week is an opportunity for Nepal to move on from an acrimonious period in its relationship with India, as well as reassess India’s position in global geopolitical realignments.

It is also worth considering some underlying factors that appear to trigger endless challenges leading to unhealthy irritants in bilateral relations between Nepal and India. 

One of the questions that deserves more attention is Nepal’s perception of India, and how that factors into good or bad calculus affecting Kathmandu’s foreign policy approach towards New Delhi. 

Nepal’s worldview of modern, independent India was formed during the post World-War II era, and was immediately overshadowed by the onset of the Cold War and the subsequent division of the world into essentially two distinct blocs (three if you take the non-aligned movement seriously). 

Not only was the world carved up ideologically, but this polarisation carried geographical implications, the Berlin Wall being the most obvious example. There were many such walls at the time.  

During the Cold War, India was defined and confined as largely a South Asian regional power, artificially detached from the larger Eurasian landmass of which it actually forms an organic and fundamental part. 

Nepal’s perception of India today has not changed. It is still significantly impacted by these Cold War sensitivities, and this may be impairing Kathmandu’s ability to fashion a more coherent India policy. 

General Naravane’s three-day visit to Kathmandu starting 4 November can therefore provide an occasion, at the very least, to reflect upon how exactly Nepal figures in India‘s contemporary regional and global orientations.

To imagine India as merely confined within a South Asian landscape is no longer appropriate, and requires a conceptual review. Substantive official engagements with India in the coming days should feature broad discussions of evolving trends that indicate a once-in-a-generation shift in the international politics of the region.          

Among other things, we have to take into account that the Indian Ocean region that India more or less sits astride, is rapidly transforming into one of the most strategic areas of the world, one which is likely to exert significant impact on littoral states, and even further inland into the Himalaya.

Nepal’s landlocked location between India and China is significant in the emerging new geopolitical alignments following the BECA pact between the United States and India last week. Rising tension between India and China along their Himalayan border therefore carries added geo-strategic importance.

Nepal’s Himalayan terrain has an average elevation of 3,265m, the highest average of any country in the world. The average height of Switzerland is 1,350m, while China is at 1,839m. India is only 621m. In other words, Nepal literally sits at the roof of the world, and with the climate crisis plus a changing global strategic balance, what happens here does have a relation with the Indian Ocean.

One of the narratives that official policy in Nepal seems to have missed is trying to understand how this Himalayan state’s interests, and even evolution, is intertwined with what is going on in the southern ocean. 

It would take a stretch of the imagination to consider this question since Nepal itself was pigeonholed during the Cold War with certain worldviews, and these are deeply entrenched here, too, as a consequence. When Nepalis look south, all we see are endless plains stretching right up to the horizon. 

Perhaps because we do not have a sea, when it comes to India the Nepali mind never really looked much beyond the immediate environs of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (and Bollywood).  

Though large numbers of Nepalis have worked and domiciled for generations in India’s costal states of Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, policy makers in Nepal have yet to tap into this important trove of knowledge and experience of its own citizenry to better understand the coastal features of the Indian polity. 

India’s recent strategic horizontal movement in the Indian Ocean region, combined with new emphasis on Washington’s Indo-Pacific concept, is creating an entirely new discourse in international politics. Nepal would do well to grasp this new trend, and formulate its foreign policy accordingly.  

Even if we fail to take into account the extraordinary transformation taking place in the Indian Ocean, it does not mean that we will not be impacted by those changes. Virtually all of Nepal’s petro-energy requirements as well as much of its third-country trade traverses the Indian Ocean.

Some 80% of the world’s current maritime oil trade flows across the Indian Ocean and its chokepoints, which is why this maritime region is pivotal and of great consequence. 

Among states, military-to-military relations are gaining increasing importance as traditional diplomacy is even more entangled with security than before. Analysts such as Robert Kaplan see ‘comparative anarchy’ during this amorphous interregnum after the Cold War in which the world has yet to settle into a stable global order. 

Military institutions, which by definition have better historical memory and which are thus more conservative by nature, are well placed to gently goad foreign policy in a desirable direction. 

Which is why one of the topics of discussion between the Nepal Army and the Indian Army during General Naravane’s stay in Kathmandu this week ought to be the Indian Ocean. Not just in terms of how it is fast becoming a focus of the QUAD or the Indo-Pacific strategy — topics Nepal should be abreast of though not consumed by — but rather to understand in a longer term perspective the economic, ecological and environmental interrelationship between Nepal vis-a-vis the Indian Ocean. 

This would be especially important for the Nepal Army as it would considerably expand the military’s ability to assess future threats to the country’s national security.           

Bhaskar Koirala is the Director of the Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies.

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