Ukraine's lessons for sandwiched nations like Nepal

There is a geopolitical thread running through the seemingly disparate events in Nepal and Ukraine


It was here in the capital of Romania where the 20th NATO Summit was convened in 2008 at the Palace of the Parliament, the world’s largest civilian administrative building commissioned in 1984 by President Nicolae Ceausescu.

This colossal structure inspired by the socialist realism brutalist architectural style of the Soviet Union was certainly intended to intimidate and inspire awe. But it was actually a symbol of defiance against ‘Soviet imperialism’ and a statement of Romania's independence during the Cold War.

All the construction material used for this massive edifice, deemed the ‘world’s heaviest building’, were locally sourced. Though conceived as a monument of total self-reliance, history of the intervening years perhaps tells a different story.

It was within the walls of this very building in 2008 that NATO member Romania hosted the Bucharest Summit to discuss the future of NATO with leaders such as US President George W Bush and Polish Prime Minister Lech Kaczynski forcefully advocating a Membership Action Plan for the former Soviet states of Georgia and neighbouring Ukraine.

Political scientist John Mearsheimer argues that it was this singular provocation that led to a chain of events over the years including the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008 over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the 2014 annexation of the Crimean region of Ukraine, and now the ongoing Russian invasion of that country.

Russian forces are closing in this weekend on Kiev fighting street-to-street against the Ukrainian military and volunteer militia. For many world leaders this represents the most momentous challenge to the postwar order in Europe in 80 years. Markets have plummeted across the world and there is a palpable sense of uncertainty and crisis globally.

Nearly half a world away from Ukraine is a landlocked Himalayan country also dwarfed by giant neighbours, but with a population more than that of Australia. Nepal is buffeted by its own geopolitical clash between the United States and China over an American infrastructure grant that has significantly polarised opinion, leading to unruly street protests in Kathmandu.

Last week, Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on the Ukraine crisis saying: ‘The recognition of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent entities goes contrary to the provisions of the UN Charter. Nepal opposes any use of force against a sovereign country in any circumstance and believes in peaceful resolution of disputes through diplomacy and dialogue.’

In what way, if any, are these seemingly disparate events in Nepal and Ukraine related? Between the end of World War II in 1945 and 1960, some three dozen new states in Asia and Africa achieved autonomy or independence from their erstwhile European colonial rulers. Though colonialism ended, you cannot properly comprehend contemporary international relations or geopolitics without referring to an empire that harkens back even further than the pre-Cold War period. Indeed, many have pointed out that the current Russian invasion of Ukraine is in fact a reassertion of an imperial mentality.

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Geography as a discipline is subjective and impacted by political trends and power equations of the day. To say, for instance, that the Himalaya of Nepal represents one static point and the Tarai plains constitutes the other static end of that spectrum, is now a likely misrepresentation of current reality.

Such assertions were more viable during the Cold War, power is much more fungible now. The more important question today seems to be: What are the imperial influences that Nepal is currently subjected to? What are the ambiguous aspects of Nepal’s sovereignty?

The Himalayas of Nepal are no doubt as crucial to Nepal as they are to New Delhi and her most populated states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and beyond as a means by which India perceives the cohesion of its naval and land-based power in an era when great power politics has reasserted itself. Hard security considerations within the corridors of Indian officialdom appear to inform this type of understanding.

On the other hand, the Nepal Himalaya has assumed a level of importance to China that in many respects is unprecedented. The Nehru Doctrine that was enunciated at the end of World War II, envisaged the snow-capped peaks to the north of Nepal as a cordon sanitaire for newly established India following the end of British suzerainty.

But from a Chinese historical perspective, it was in fact Nepali aggression of the late 18th century that brought Han troops of the Qing dynasty all the way to the banks of the Betrawati River only 30km north of Kathmandu to fight back a determined and relentless Gorkha assault into Tibet.

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It should not be forgotten therefore that from the vantage point of China, where historical recollection is extensive and is based upon the experiences of various Chinese dynastic empires of the past, it was an aggressive and expansionist Nepali policy of the 18th and 19th centuries that remained the source of acute concern to its security.

Also, in the context of imperial tendencies especially of the great powers gaining increasing traction in the current period, it is necessary to recognise that Nepal has ineluctably been drawn into the vortex of distinct imperial projections. This is the primary defining feature of geopolitics in Nepal today, which is also the primary factor underlying domestic fissures.

Nepal is one of the oldest nation states in modern history, tracing its origins to King Prithvi Narayan Shah who founded the nation in the second half of the 18th century. Heritage is no doubt a source of power and legitimacy.

Nepal is presently confronted by not just two, but three imperial powers in this second decade of the 21st century. Contemporary India has also dug millennia-deep into a rich historical past. The People’s Republic of China reaches back into its past to Confucius, Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, solidifying powerful national sentiments. These national narratives compel Nepal to grapple with hard realities on both its flanks.

In addition there is now the ‘offshore balancer’ in the form of the United States. The historian Bernard Devoto wrote that ‘as both a dream and a fact the American Empire was born before the United States’. To say therefore that the US and the MCC are irrelevant to Nepal is disingenuous and intellectually untenable, an unrealistic proposition that fails to take account of current structural realities that places Nepal decisively at crossroads in the post post-Cold War era with its amplified imperial dynamics.

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So what are the options for Nepal vis-a-vis the MCC that is causing such apparent fallout in the body politic? The choices of a small state are limited. The projection of a decidedly nationalist image is now the norm across the world in many countries, and is in no way endemic to Nepal. But its sustenance is governed and tempered by hard truths: can that country back up its nationalism with tangible facets of power such as economic or military muscle?

Technological advances such as the internet and digital surveillance have decimated hallowed nationalist symbols that were previously utilised with success in Nepal’s past. The currency of power that a county wields has been redefined quite substantially and radically in the current.

So Nepal will need to tread carefully and will ultimately need to accept the assistance offered by way of the MCC, the BRI as well as the many projects that India offers to Nepal including via Indian Ocean initiatives which have been under-appreciated and not sufficiently explored.

What many of Nepal’s diplomatic partners have also apparently failed to recognise is that, as far as the MCC is concerned, the question relates quite directly as well to the large Nepali diaspora in the US which straddles the two countries.

Diasporas represent, in one way or another, an investment that one country has made in another and therefore symbolises ‘stock’ that various constituencies in those countries will seek to enhance— a bureaucratic expansion so to speak with inevitable economic as well as security implications.

What is happening in Nepal today as it relates to the crisis in Ukraine converges on the question of expansion of imperial tendencies which lay dormant following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and during the period that was erroneously thought to represent the ‘end of history’.

Empires are back and future alliances will no longer be simple black and white: Nepal will need to navigate this complicated environment in ways not dissimilar to how the EU does it with an emphasis upon Russia for energy, China for trade and the United States for defence, though obviously not exactly in that combination and permutation.

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

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