Preparing for the clash of empires

China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe with Prime Minister Oli on Sunday in Baluwatar. Photo: RAJAN KAFLE

Nepal has become one of the locations in Asia in which three large powers will increasingly intersect and collide in the coming years. ChinaIndia and the United States, and their respective friends, can be expected to enhance their Nepal portfolios in the near future.

The utility of this role that Nepal may play, depends on a number of factors but is primarily related to the extent the country is able to assert its own independent identity -- not as a measure to challenge more powerful countries, but to ensure that those powerful countries that wish to work with us are not undercutting, or let us say sabotaging, one other.

It is important for Nepal, now more than ever before in its recent history, to cultivate relationships and friendships with as many countries around the world as possible.

This will not only help to accelerate development in the country, but would be a great opportunity for Nepal to contribute some public goods into the international system, too. But what kind of public goods?

There will be a need down the line for countries like Nepal to help maintain peace and stability in what is likely to be a more turbulent and raucous period of world history in the coming decades.

Some theories in international relations predict that China will seek a premier — some would call it a ‘hegemonic’ — role in Asia in the near future. The same theories also look at what might be the role of India in the decades to come, as it will have not only the largest population in the world, but its youngest demographic bloc too.

How is that likely to impact the course of events in Asia? How is that likely to play out in a country like Nepal, which is sandwiched between these two giants? In what direction will the United States wish to see Nepal move? Is that going to conflict with or converge with the preferences coming out of Beijing and New Delhi?

Some of these questions already require serious assessment. Good governance has not been something that comes naturally to Nepal’s rulers. The main concern of the Nepali people appears to be not what is the model or structure of governance the country has, but the results (or lack thereof) that emerge as a result. A country’s foreign policy is merely an expression of its core domestic politics.

We are now at a stage where the centre of gravity of global power is shifting back to Asia. The start of the industrial revolution in Britain had a negative impact on Nepal. It heralded the decline of Asia, and the mastery over Asia and its colonial conquest by western prowess. Asian countries had till this time not just been culturally and politically advanced, but also flexed their economic muscle.

The art and culture in Nepal during the Malla period did not just stay in Kathmandu Valley, but crossed the Himalaya to China, Korea and Japan. These Asian countries at that time were at the zenith of their power, politically and economically.

We are now at the tail end of that process that began in the 18th century with industrialisation in the Western Hemisphere, and the pendulum is starting to swing back to the East.

What should Nepal’s position and role be in this transition? The country requires serious stewardship and a total commitment to a morally anchored politics. Political theory tells us that morality can never be consistent with power, and the quest for power will always triumph.

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

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