Beyond the Rhetoric of Trilateral Cooperation
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Beyond the Rhetoric of TrilateralCooperationPost BasnetPublished online: 03 Oct 2013.
To cite this article: Post Basnet (2013) Beyond the Rhetoric of Trilateral Cooperation, StrategicAnalysis, 37:5, 646-648, DOI: 10.1080/09700161.2013.821275
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09700161.2013.821275
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Strategic Analysis, 2013Vol. 37, No. 5, 646648, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09700161.2013.821275
Beyond the Rhetoric of Trilateral Cooperation
Over the past few years, trilateral economic cooperation and vibrant bridge havebecome buzzwords in Nepals foreign policy discourse, and have also caught thepopular imagination at home in India. These proposals have generated both curiosityand anxiety in Delhis diplomatic and academic circles that are otherwise largely indif-ferent to Nepal. The Chinese diplomats in Delhi also raising the issue with the Indianofficials has added to Indias anxiety all the more. With some notable exceptions (e.g.,C. Raja Mohan, Three to Tango, The Indian Express, 7 May 2013), there is more orless consensus in India that such proposals from Nepal, if received formally, shouldbe rejected outright, although some have prescribed the wait and see approach as thebest policy option for now. Moreover, the proposal has received prominence at a timewhen media reports about Chinese incursion into Ladakh have flummoxed many pol-icymakers in Delhi. While the Indian mandarins now seem to be handling the issuesomewhat prudently, the supposed Chinese forward policy across the Himalayas hasalready set alarm bells ringing, bringing back memories of the uncalled-for Chineseaggression on India in 1962. It is in this contextChinese manoeuvres acrossthe Himalayasthat the rationale behind such plans in the changing dynamics ofIndiaChinaNepal relations should be analysed.
Origin of the concept
The trilateral economic cooperation has its roots in the concept of a vibrant bridgebetween the two powerhouses that comes from Nepals quest for economic growth.Whatever the Chinese intentions, these concepts are nothing new in Nepal, and havecome to the discourse not from the Chinese, but from the Nepalese themselves.
Kathmandu was the principal entry point in trans-Himalayan trade until the middleof the 18th century, and the place saw economic prosperity and flowering of art, cultureand literature. Nepals foreign policy in the second half of the 18th century was directedby its goal to restore this old order disrupted by the conquest of the Kathmandu Valleyby Prithvi Narayan Shah. Nepal wanted a virtual monopoly on the trade between Indiaand Tibet by closing the roads through the east and the west by military campaigns.However, the new regimes foreign policy failed to achieve its goal. Nepal fought twowars with Tibet successfully. But Nepal miscalculated the role of the Chinese, whocame onto the scene quite unexpectedly to rescue Tibet in the second NepalTibet warin 17911793.Thus, Nepals move to control trans-Himalayan trade ended in a fiasco,and the country paid a heavy price for its adventure. But the prospect of reapingbenefits being a vibrant bridge between the northern and the southern neighbour stayedon in its memory.
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Regimes create narratives in their strategy to win popular support and legitimacy.Thus, King Birendra floated the concept of a vibrant bridge in international forumsduring the 1980s, although he did not elaborate on how India and China, given theirlevel of mutual mistrust in the aftermath of the 1962 war, could cooperate with him onthe economic issue. After a lull, the concept, not surprisingly, re-emerged after the endof the violent conflict in Nepal in 2006. The narrative could also serve to highlight themuch-publicised symbol of New Nepal, constructed for mass mobilisation during therevolutionary process.
Prachanda and his trilateral card
The root of the current trilateral discourse, however, goes back to the rhetoric ofMaoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, when he brought up the issue of strategictrilateral cooperation after India played a proactive role, as conceded by former Nepalhands in Delhi, to force him out of government over the controversy surrounding thesacking of Nepal army chief Rookmangud Katawal. By this rhetoric, Dahal tried tokill at least two birds with one stone: first, he cashed in on the deep-seated anti-Indiasentiments in Nepali society, and showcased that he is capable of incurring damage toIndiaNepal relations; and second, he established his credibility and legitimacy as theonly visionary leader of Nepal. Capitalising on the existing contradictions to meet theirstrategic goals is the modus operandi of the Maoist communists. And Dahal seems tobe using the tactics with remarkable success.
China was on the wrong side of history by taking the side of its traditional ally, themonarchy, during the political changes of 2006. So the country responded positivelywhen Dahal, sidelined by India, turned to the northern neighbour for support. It is inter-esting to note that before and during his tenure as prime minister, he called attention toNepals equidistance foreign policy. He also claimed that by visiting China he endedthe tradition of new Nepali prime ministers visiting India first and then other countries,referring to the countrys traditional relationship with the southern neighbour.
After he was forced out of office, and began frequenting meetings of the China andAsia Pacific Exchange and Economic Corporation Foundation (the Chinese NGO thatis to build the Lumbini project), Prachanda began to talk about strategic trilateral part-nership, which ruffled the feathers of many in New Delhi. After some ups and downs,Dahal changed his policy. He changed his stance by embracing the policy of peace andconstitution, neglecting Mohan Baidya Kiran and his line of revolt, and supportingBaburam Bhattarai to become the new prime minister. As Dahals relationship withIndia had already improved considerably, his rhetoric of a strategic trilateral partner-ship also changed, and became one of trilateral economic cooperation. Nevertheless,when he met the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and the minister for externalaffairs Salman Khurshid, he did not talk about anything trilateral at all.
Viability of trilateral cooperation
Finally, Dahal did speak about it at the Indian Ministry for External Affairs think-tank Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA). However, at the same time he did notforget to highlight the longstanding relationship between Nepal and India. So, whenis Dahal going to table such a trilateral cooperation proposal? According to him, suchcooperation is not possible anytime soon, but could be agreed upon in future.
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If the progress by Chinas state-owned Three Gorges on the development of theWest Seti hydro-project is anything to go by, China also does not seem to be enthusedabout investing in Nepal beyond Buddhism and Lumbini, through which it hopes toundermine the authority of the Dalai Lama. China is also increasingly concerned aboutthe protracted political instability in Nepal, and the security implications for the restiveTibet. China therefore sees in Dahal, who is believed to lead Nepal for at least next1520 years, an important political ally to check anti-Tibet activities in Nepal.
India has not yet formally received any such proposal from Nepal, but it is not diffi-cult to guess what Indias response would be. Such an agreement amounts to formallysharing its sphere of influence with China, which would be unacceptable to India. Forits strategic interests, China is likely to expand its cultural, economic and other ties invarious sectors. The Chinese also think India has failed to guarantee peace and stabilityin its own backyard, and so it would go against their security interests to leave