Indo-Pacific strategy: A big opportunity for Nepal

Dr. Anil Sigdel

(**This article was originally published in the major vernacular Nepalkhabar.com on December 31, 2018 and the following is the English version of that article **)

The United States’ State department’s readout on the meeting between the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali highlights Nepal’s “central role” in the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific vision, which naturally raises questions in Nepal and elsewhere about the meaning and implications of this for Nepal.

The Indo-Pacific strategy is not entirely new. The US has been a dominant maritime power in Asia for decades. In recent years, it started to refer to the larger Asian region from the Pacific to some part of Indian ocean as the Asia-Pacific region. And now with India’s increasing regional role and ambition, and deepening US-India defense partnership, the Trump administration recognized the importance of India’s role and in its national security strategy for the first time used the term “Indo-Pacific.” Different parties, from Australia to India and others, claim to have coined this term, but overall it is understood that it was originally Japan’s initiative to create a larger regional architecture to counter China’s active global outreach, and now the US takes the lead for that.

The Indo-Pacific region, concept, and framework is not yet fully defined, and the US is still working on to develop content to the Indo-Pacific with partners such as Japan, Australia, India and others to further develop partnership under the Indo-Pacific framework. As understood so far, it is a vast area covering entire Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean up to the eastern coast of Africa, and includes land that surrounds these two oceans. Since Nepal lies on the rim of the Bay of Bengal, a north eastern corner of the Indian Ocean, which connects South Asia with Southeast Asia by land, it is being seen as an important nation in the Indo-Pacific region. In the context of India’s Look East and Act East policy, Nepal has gained further value in all this.

The Indo-Pacific has two parts: one is strategic or security side, and the other is the economic side. While the security side is still unclear and there are several disagreements on this among major countries that support Indo-Pacific; there is a possibility of a quasi-military alliance such as QUAD, or a quadrilateral grouping that includes US, India, Japan and Australia, but no significant progress is taking place in its negotiations. At present, there is a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability in Washington itself under President Trump. But on the economic side these countries converge and have already introduced several economic initiatives in a single, bilateral and tri-lateral formats.

The US is going to establish soon the International Development Finance Corporation(IDFC) which will re-strengthen its old Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) with the Congress funding of 60 billion US dollars, and allows the IDFC to even buy equities unlike the OPIC which can pose a solid challenge to Chinese investment around the world. For the most part, this mechanism will focus on Africa, as the Trump administration has also introduced its Africa initiative. Similarly, India and Japan have introduced Asia-Africa growth corridor, and Japan-Australia-US have announced further investment in the Pacific region, and so on. Even in the US policymakers are re-considering its one-dimensional military power approach – the architect of “Asia pivot” policy under the Obama administration, Kurt Campbell recently said in an interaction program in Washington that if the US wants to convincingly engage with its partners in Asia, it has to go beyond its solely military interests to other non-military aspects as well, such as, aid and development, and diplomacy. Because in Asia, countries also want to work and get the benefits from their partnership with China.

As far as Nepal is concerned, the US’s emphasis on Nepal’s role in the Indo-Pacific is an opportunity for Nepal as it is an unprecedented window for Nepal that can lift Nepal from its geographical constraint of being pressed between India and China which it has always sought. In Nepal’s case, its geopolitical conditions are different from countries which are in military alliance or similar groupings, therefore, it is not entirely relevant for Nepal.; Nepal does not face any direct threat for its sovereignty in the neighborhood. It is also not logical to argue that any military-type alliance would lead Nepal to the same fate as Afghanistan’s. The critical strategic location value of Afghanistan, its history and social, pollical and cultural structure is totally different from those of Nepal.

Nevertheless, Nepal can benefit tremendously from the economic side of the Indo-Pacific. With a little bit of imagination and increased investment in country’s diplomacy, Nepal government can work on taking the lead in the region and beyond benefiting from the US partnership, and increasing its own regional weight and diplomatic clout, which otherwise has always been depressed under India’s which is the elephant in the room.  Rather than just limiting ourselves in the traditional way of receiving aid money whenever given and accepting the patronage, political engagement of this level will give us a chance to increase Nepal’s diplomatic clout. Any Nepali diplomat or individual engaged in the sector knows that Nepal is invisible in the international diplomatic and strategic arena. It is almost impossible to get time form high level official unless they want us to come to listen to their advice or receive grants in their terms.

Thinking about these global initiatives merely in ideological terms will not help Nepal. Nepal signed China’s BRI, which does not mean that Nepal is being part of China’s global hegemonic ambition or China’s take on the US leadership. Similarly, signing into the Indo-Pacific does not mean that Nepal is being used to uphold US hegemony or its containment strategy vis-à-vis China. It will also be incorrect to claim that Nepal is of the biggest strategic value for the US in the region, as the power relations are shifting, Sri Lanka is emerging as equally important nation, if not the most important South Asian and Indian Ocean nation, and the US has made very clear in recent days how much emphasis it is willing to give to the nation. In the US there is definitely a confusion about the fact that why Nepal or other smaller nations do not get along with India. And regarding India, the US still lacks a deep understanding about what is India and its behavior in the neighborhood. The US-India relationship itself is very new.

I myself asked the principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, whether the US and India are planning to twist arms of Nepal and other South Asian nations, in the answer she clearly said that the US will not support any policy that would undermine the sovereignty of these countries, and emphasize that the US and Nepal should build partnership upon its own deep ties, therefore the Indo-Pacific is an opportunity for Nepal.

Besides, the US policy on South Asia is not solely about aligning with India’s interests and helping India, the US interest is also to make sure that India and China will come too close, in which Nepal has a space to maneuver. While China itself is increasingly worried about the Western resistance of BRI and America’s anti-China policies, Nepal fully relying on potential help from China will not be wise. The US- led rules and regulations for financial and trade policies and dollars as the main international currency will continue, thus Nepal simply cannot ignore the US leadership. Therefore, Oli government’s policy to engage with all its partners for Nepal’s best interest is a right policy, and the Indo-Pacific can help Oli government to show some tangible benefits.

And the argument that by being part of the Indo-Pacific, we are further constrained under India’s dominance is not entirely relevant. The Indo-Pacific is clearly an opportunity if carefully taken and worked out. For instance, if the US is set to found a regional institution for Indo-Pacific or China for its BRI, Kathmandu can offer to host them, which will increase Nepal’s stature.  And why not? Nepal has the ability and has had very good relationship with China and has managed its relations in South Asia very well except some hiccups in its relationship with India which are attributed to India itself than Nepal. Nepal’s independent role in South Asia vis-à-vis India will not annoy China as much as it would to India, but the US’s Indo-Pacific partnership will certainly enable Nepal this time to convince India.

Image: Google Map

Dr. Anil Sigdel is the director at Nepal Matters for America in Washington DC, and the Member Secretary of Nepal Policy Institute (NPI) under the Non-Residential Nepali Association (NRNA), a partner think tank of Nepal government. Dr. Sigdel holds  a PhD and a Master degree in International Relations.

Also read: United States and the Need for a New Block in South Asia – Real Clear Defense by Anil Sigdel

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