Nepal in the Context of US-China Strategic Distrust

Bhaskar Koirala September 05, 2012

The ideas outlined in a recently published monograph titled “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust” appear to deserve a serious and sustained discussion by analysts and policy makers of Nepal planning for the next ten to twenty year timeframe.

Because, as the two authors of the paper Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi argue, the issue of mutual distrust of long-term intentions, or “strategic distrust”, “has become a central concern in US-China relations” and “the problem of lack of trust is becoming more serious”. We may infer that a strategically situated state such as Nepal is undoubtedly affected by the geo-political maneuverings of two of the world’s largest economies.

For the People’s Republic of China it is but natural and obviously desirable to seek a more broad-based engagement with Nepal with which it shares a land boundary of more than a thousand kilometers and historical relations spanning hundreds of years. But in the context of heightening strategic distrust with China, it is worthwhile to analyze in what manner the United States perceives progressively expanding Sino-Nepal relations. This question is especially germane in light of the recent ‘American Pivot to Asia’ and President Barak Obama’s affirmation that the US will play a key leadership role in Asia for decades to come. The question is also relevant in light of the position that the “type of China envisaged by current predominant American official thinking is one that will have a significant impact regionally and globally but will not target its increasing capabilities specially to diminish and disadvantage the United States.”   

The authors of the monograph rightly note that there is no more important bilateral relationship in the world today than that between the United States and China, and “thus its future direction is of enormous importance to each country, the region, and the whole world..[and for] regional and global issues such as non-proliferation and climate change, active US-China cooperation or at least parallel actions makes issues more manageable; having the US and China work at cross purposes makes those issues more difficult, or even impossible, to manage.”

It is fair to ask in what way Nepal conceptualizes the future direction of Sino-US relations and what Nepal shall do to prevent these two states from working at cross-purposes and contradiction within its territory. Nepal can propose a number of different mechanisms to encourage collaboration between the United States and China as two of its key development partners. Doing so would not only help mitigate any potential negative consequences within Nepal arising out of distrust between these two states but would also ensure effective distribution of limited resources to a cash-strapped nation. Incidentally, in the case of Arica, discourse on US-China collaboration is already rather well enunciated.      

 Any perceptive observer would note that Nepal’s key global geostrategic function at this point of history is mainly related to two issues: that which is concerned with the extension of the Tibet railway into Nepalese territory and second, how that extension will facilitate the notion that Nepal is a corridor par excellence to build a meaningful and harmonious Nepal-China-India trilateral relationship that would hold enormous historical significance. Indeed, this “function” has the potential to deliver to Nepal an incredible opportunity to transform itself economically in line with the profound political changes witnessed in the last few years. How will the United States respond to these two issues, particularly in terms of whether it will encourage such developments or not in view of its preoccupations with Tibet?

The question assumes great relevance considering that the United States is still the paramount economic and military power in the world, to which it can be added that it was Nepal’s first bilateral aid donor in 1951 and has continued to provide hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance ever since. However, as many analysts have pointed out and indeed, as Wang Jisi explains in the monograph, “Beijing sees the lack of confidence and competence of the United States on the global stage..[and the] power gap between China and the US has narrowed considerably. ..It is now a question of how many years, rather than how many decades, before China replaces the United States as the largest economy in the world.” As the balance of power between the two most powerful countries in the world is undergoing readjustment, it is sensible for Nepal to contemplate ways in which it can bring the two together rather than drift apart to support its own development and promote regional growth and stability.

A 2006 Congressional Research Service Report for the United States Congress stated in a report that “American foreign policy interests in Nepal seek to prevent the collapse of Nepal which, should it become a failed state, could provide operational or support territory for terrorists.” A great deal has changed in the last six years and Nepal now appears poised to enter a period when it can shift its focus from political to economic transformation. A big part of that economic transformation is surely connected to the intensity with which Nepal pushes forward its under-utilized relationship with China and especially large cross-border infrastructure projects and ultimately, promotion of a Nepal-India-China trilateral relationship. The United States should support both these endeavors and likewise Nepal should seek to involve the US in meaningful and appropriate ways to advance these two critical agendas.

Firstly, Nepal should persuade the United States to use its considerable influence in multilateral and international organizations such as the UN and World Bank to help it seek a more global role for itself by strongly promoting development efforts geared at consolidating the trilateral relationship mentioned above and encouraging the construction of Nepal-China cross-border infrastructure projects that allow Nepal greater access via rail to the most populated country in the world and further afield to Southeast Asia, East Asia, Central Asia and so on. The US could greatly assist with this, for example, by taking the lead at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) by proposing that the current route map of the Trans-Asian Railway Network be updated to include a“proposed segment” linking Kathmandu to not only New Delhi but also Lhasa in the PRC.          


(A glaring omission in this UNESCAP projection of the Trans-Asian Railway Network is the link between India, China and Nepal)

 Secondly, as in the case of Africa where both the United States and China have separately helped African countries to improve their agricultural productivity and facilitation of access to markets but have recently been exploring the possibility of undertaking joint agricultural assistance projects, the same can be done in Nepal. As an example, the USAID’s concerns in agriculturally dependent Nepal which remains food deficit and its recognition that access to markets is also a critical problem, can be addressed by collaborating with Chinese highway and railway expansion projects across the Sino-Nepal border to address the shorter term issue in Nepal of food insecurity and the longer term concerns with expanding access in China for agricultural products from Nepal.  For the United States such efforts would represent a very constructive depiction of its global role.

Finally, since “one central issue in the US-China distrust is about the perceived “power struggle” and “power competition” between the two states in the world, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region”, the authors of the monograph suggest that the US and China create “more comprehensive and effective mechanisms for them to discuss sensitive geostrategic issues in multilateral settings.” Future US support to the evolving India-China-Nepal trilateral relationship and particularly to a future railway linking the three countries, for instance, could possibly be discussed within the existing US-China-India trilateral dialogue.




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