The India, US, Nepal, China quadrangle

Nepal’s Communist Party leaders must take note of two events that unfolded in India this week: the roaring welcome to US President Donald Trump and the ongoing communal riots in Delhi’s northeastern suburb.

That the Narendra Modi government was able to put up a great two-day show to woo Trump, who repeatedly praised Modi and said “America loves India” has been somewhat overshadowed by the violence that has claimed over 20 lives in Delhi.

The two events depict contrasting pictures: one of a new emerging India eager to engage with superpowers, even taking lead in issues of international concern. And the other of an India engulfed in violence between some Hindus and Muslims. The ruling BJP and Modi, supported by the right-wing groups like RSS and VHP, find themselves in the vortex of this violence.

Trump reached India on Monday and along with Modi addressed the ‘Namaste Trump’ rally in Ahmedabad’s Motera Stadium, the largest cricket stadium in the world, attended by over 100,000 people. The two presented their visions for the next phase of Indo-US strategic partnership.

Although the much-awaited trade deal did not happen, the two sides pulled together a $3billion military deal, sought commitments to fight terrorism, narco-terrorism and organised crime and signed three MoUs in the health and oil sectors. Trump even discussed the importance of a secure 5G network in India, ahead of trials involving China’s Huawei which he said must be “a tool for freedom, progress, prosperity, not a conduit for suppression and censorship”.

Important for Nepal to note is their dialogue in security cooperation. Besides reiterating that the two countries will work to combat “radical Islamic terrorism” which will dearly affect the functioning of SAARC, Trump praised the military cooperation and said that the US and India, along with Japan and Australia, should work together for security of the Indo-Pacific region as the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) grouping.

The diplomatic and military arrangements of the Quad are widely viewed as a response to the rapidly increasing economic and military power of China in the region. Sandwiched and landlocked between India and China, Nepal will have to balance its relations between China and a US-backed India.

As it is, a $500 million US-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) deal to improve Nepal’s connectivity is in limbo because of opposition from a faction of the ruling Communist Party that sees it as a part of the American Indo-Pacific Strategy. Parliamentary ratification of the project has been delayed.

The MCC is viewed with much interest by India’s civil society and academia lately, and is seen as a direct counter to China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Sections of the Nepali establishment views India as an obstructionist power, and are trying to develop closer ties with China.

But India is finding more grounds of convergence with the US, which now views South Asia as a vital part of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Smaller countries in India’s periphery are bound to be trapped in this rivalry. With pressing domestic concerns at home over opposition to the Constitution Amendment Act (CAA) India may play silent and quiet diplomacy leaving the US and China to compete for influence in India’s neighborhood.

Trump and Modi are said to have discussed developments in South Asia at length during this visit, meaning they will collaborate and closely consult each other on regional matters. Nepal must gear up to deal with a more forceful America in the near future even when it is already grappling with a dominant China.

It is in India’s advantage if the US temporarily fills the vacuum in Nepal, which New Delhi feels is its traditional sphere of influence. So, the foreign policy challenge for Nepal will not be to balance between India and China so much anymore, but getting into meaningful dialogue with China and the US to protect its national interest.

India considers the US as its ‘natural ally’. The Modi-Trump equation seen in Gujarat and Delhi this week speaks volumes of their friendship and desire to foster closer ties between the world’s oldest and largest democracies. Even in midst of communal riots in Delhi, Trump stated at a press conference “it is up to India” to deal with the CAA matter, quickly adding that Modi is committed to “religious freedom in India.”

Most analysts conclude that if Trump is re-elected in November elections, India’s relations with the United States could be further strengthened.

The author is a Nepali journalist and researcher based in New Delhi.

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