The dynamics between Nepal and regional superpowers, China and India point to a much bigger issue that questions the sovereignty of small states.
How China and India engages with Nepal, and how Nepal responds provides great insight into the dynamic relationship between two emerging powers.
Researchers should always be on the lookout for ways that could shed light on the nature of relations between these big powers.
The relationship between both emerging global powers, and how it affects their foreign policy with other states in the region is of extreme importance.
In light of this, Nepal’s situation deserves a closer look.
Not Positive in the Eyes of India
Nepal's Prime Minister, KP Oli who recently paid a five day visit to Beijing, brought fruitful developments for the lesser developed country such as the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding regarding several points, most notably a Lhasa to Kathmandu railway.
This trip which will bring significant developmental benefits to Nepal and geopolitical benefits to China, has not been seen as positive in the eyes of India.
For some in New Delhi, such agreements threaten the old well-established mutual cooperation between India and Nepal.
They do not see this development as a positive bilateral agreement between Nepal and China, but as a direct move away from the hegemonic might of India.
This is definitely not (entirely) the case, contrary to the stance taken in numerous news articles. Nepal is not ‘going into China’s arms’ to defy India.
Instead, Nepal is primarily driven by developmental aspirations. This is understandable as it is one of the poorest countries globally.
Moving away from India
The impetus for Nepal to strive towards moving away from India is also a result of the latter’s failure to be a reliable development partner.
Some even fear that the latter has sometimes had regressive influence on Nepal’s development.
This may have been reflected from New Delhi’s tacit support of an economic blockade of essential supplies in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 2015.
Such instances may have led to Nepal feeling alienated.
The first Indian Prime Minister to visit Nepal in 17 years was Narendra Modi in 2014. This could have potentially have been a strategic mistake made by India.
This is a sign of a much bigger problem on the international relations stage.
Nepal may look to improve relations with other countries, but that is not of inherently malicious intent to India.
The question left therefore is why is Nepal not given the freedom in foreign policy dealings with its other neighbours?
Small countries are not merely ‘fringe nations’
The idea of sovereignty bestows every nation with the same legal status.
Is the Westphalian model which has served as the de-facto mode for analysing International Relations for centuries, applicable to/for all nations, including smaller ones?
Has the model become outdated after four centuries?
If yes, what kind of state system is at play today? Are big powers entitled to the “right” to what they will, including violating sovereignty of other nations?
In this case, the violation of the Westphalian sovereignty has implications on the question of war and peace.
Academics need to be as definite as possible about the evolving frameworks that govern relations between these nations.
India’s expectation of utter neutrality (or worse, unconditional allegiance) from Nepal only aggravates the already complex geopolitics involving China, India, and Nepal.
A new way of looking at international affairs
Nepal and India have a complicated, if not longer and close relationship.
It is a simple fact that no other nation shares the same linguistic, cultural, religious and ethnic similarities with Nepal as India.
Their shared open border also facilitates a huge flow of goods, trade and migration.
Over the frozen passes of the Himalayas, China shares none of India’s similarities as Nepal but can offer competing development resources and assistance.
In the past few years, Nepal has accepted more development and joint infrastructural programs with China.
This has been seen as part of a calculated geopolitical move away from India.
It is, in this context, seemingly impossible to embrace aid from one country without that same embracement being seen as move away from the other.
This, for undeveloped nations is surely unfair, and restrictive.
This points to the limitations of the Westphalian model in analysing this situation.
The traditional way of looking at international relations where every move a nation takes is part of their overarching ideology, may not be applicable for smaller states.
As a model, it is too limiting when it comes to studying the geopolitical moves of smaller nations such as Nepal.
Securing resource needs
Smaller states have a greater need to secure their own resource needs, often at the expense of being able to take a principled geo-political stance regarding foreign direct investment and foreign aid.
However, it would also be wrong to assume that every move by Nepal is simply in response to the need for resources, but it does remain that a realist international framework is too constrictive to adequately describe such events.
The needs of such ‘fringe nations’ are not directly aligned with those of ‘great nations’, and thus different models of IR theory should be applied to analyse them.
It should be worrying to IR researchers that the current paradigm of theories not only fail to sufficiently acknowledge the complexities of the actual world politics, but is also deeply skewed towards the benefit of powerful nations.
The nuances outside of great nations’ relations
To address this limitation, there needs to be a theory that takes the nuances that exist outside of ‘great nations’ into account.
The theory needs to help others understand the developments in world politics since the development of the Westphalian model in 1648. This theoretical model should also cover the constraints of lesser developed nations.
When Nepal jumped on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) bandwagon, it was not as a deliberate shun to India.
It was the acceptance of a hugely beneficial development project that would modernize, if not revolutionize, Nepali transport infrastructure.
BRI has been criticized as a hegemonic power project by China, which may be true in some aspects.
Yet that claim is also obtuse to the very real benefits that BRI brings to nations that join it.
Academics and theorists would do well to understand that turning down a multi-billion dollar development projects to safeguard a poor nation's geostrategic aims would be a foolish luxury.
This is a luxury that many nations cannot afford.
A Wider Phenomenon
In July 1950, the republic of India and Nepal signed a friendship treaty. A key aspect of this treaty was the agreement for both states to respect each other’s sovereignty.
It appears that almost 70 years on, Nepal is still struggling to get the respect that it deserves. This phenomenon is not merely limited to India-Nepali relations.
It also applies to Sino-Nepali relations.
Beyond Nepal, this is part of a wider phenomenon spreading across Southeast Asia as quickly as the hegemonic and economic rise of the two Nations.
The interests of small states
Geopolitical watchers should discern this complicated yet crucial bilateral relations of the 21st century, by analysing Nepal’s relations with these superpowers, and looking out for similar parallels in Asia.
The fundamental question remains -- Are the interests of smaller powers respected?
The respect of sovereignty is a cornerstone of the Westphalian model. Without it, the ‘anarchy’ of international relations cannot be alleviated.
In the long run, a compromised Nepalese sovereignty may have a debilitating impact on its immediate neighbors, as small countries often are the first to be subjected to vagaries of big-power games.