As a war looms large between India and China over Doklam, maintaining neutrality is the best thing that Nepal can do to be spared their war.
--BY SHANT SHARMA
All of you reading this article perhaps already know what the Doklam dispute is and what is happening there. But to those who do not know, let me tell the story in brief.
Doklam is an area with a plateau and a valley, lying between China's Chumbi Valley to the north, Bhutan's Ha Valley to the east and India's Sikkim State to the west. Doklam has been depicted as a part of Bhutan in the Bhutanese maps, but it is also claimed by China. The dispute remains unresolved even after 24 rounds of border negotiations between Bhutan and China. The area is of strategic importance to all three countries.
This June, a military standoff occurred between China and India as China attempted to extend a road on the Doklam plateau southwards near the Doka La pass, prompting Indian troops to move in to prevent the Chinese road project. India claimed to have acted on behalf of Bhutan with which it has a 'special relationship'. Bhutan has already formally objected to China's road construction in the disputed area.
The focus of this article, however, is not what the Doklam crisis is but what Nepal should do to save itself if the situation turns ugly. And all signs so far suggest that it will get ugly.
Although Nepal has made it clear that it will stay neutral in this latest India-China standoff, and that it wants this issue resolved peacefully, we have to prepare ourselves for a war between our two big neighbours. Hoping for a peaceful solution is what we should be doing, but at the same time we should make sure that if a war breaks out, we really remain neutral and the war does not extend to our territory. You may say this is far-fetched, and even if a war breaks out, it will be limited to Doklam and we will not be visibly affected, just like we were not during the 1962 Indo-China war. But as things stand, we cannot be assured. We also need to understand that things have changed drastically since the 1960s.
In the 1960s, China was a victim of an international demonization campaign for reasserting its control over Tibet. It had at the time few friends in the world, and it had been fighting since the 1930s: first against the Japanese, then a civil war after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and then it was involved in the Korean War. So the 1962 war with India was, from the Chinese perspective, best limited to the border as it did not want others to be involved in case the war extended beyond the border.
Similarly, India was not in the position to fight a long war for many reasons. It had been a little more than a decade since its independence from Britain and it had a host of domestic issues to take care of. Similarly, the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru viewed himself as an internationalist and portrayed himself as a friend to the Chinese. The war then was the result of a series of miscalculations on the part of India and China: a result of domestic pressure and international political climate, and each country’s relation with the two superpowers, namely, the US and the USSR. Also, neither felt that one was trying to control global reach and power projection of the other, and hence the war was limited to the disputed territories.
Also let us not forget both India and China at the time were too poor to fight a protracted war.
But things have changed drastically in the past 55 years. And today, both India and China are major military and economic powerhouses. The leaders in both countries are now nationalist, compared to their “internationalist” predecessors, and both now want to project their reach and power regionally and globally. India feels that to limit China globally it needs to be involved in Southeast Asia and come strong in the Indian Ocean and South Asia. China feels that India’s growing military alliance with Japan and the US, and its involvement in Southeast Asia and its efforts to establish itself as a dominant power in South Asia, run counter to its interests. Therefore, it will be unwise for the world in general and Nepal in particular to view Doklam from the 1960 angle. God forbid, if a war breaks out there, it will be long and ugly and could even spread to our territory - and beyond.
Just as India and China were very different 55 years ago, Nepal, too, was very different back then. The recently introduced Panchayat system had been successful in conveying to India not to become too influential in Nepal, or we might say, the system was a nationalist reaction to India’s growing influence in Nepal's domestic politics. Just as it maintained a healthy skepticism and distance from India, it did the same with China. But today, in the name of equidistance and equiproximity, we have allowed both India and China to interfere in our domestic politics. And let’s not forget that the center of gravity of the present conflict is not far from Nepal. We face a real threat, of either India or China or both using our territory to attack each other.
In this situation, while it sounds good and logical to say we will remain neutral, that will not be enough. We have to take serious steps now to preserve our “neutrality”. First and foremost we need to deploy our military in the borders with both countries as a way to convey to them that we will not allow their military convoys to pass through our territory. Despite all this, if either of the countries tries to forcefully enter our territory, we need to make sure we have enough diplomatic support from other countries to condemn such a move. So our embassies abroad need to immediately start lobbying for our interests.
The second step will be to request both countries, diplomatically and politically, to spare us their war. For this, we need to convince both India and China that we are not acting in the interest of its adversary. This translates to purging both countries’ influence in our domestic politics by becoming very assertive in safeguarding our national interests. This also means limiting our dealings with both countries to ambassadorial level and postponing any high-level visit to and from Nepal, suspending military diplomacy or any arms purchase deal and temporarily halting any road construction or connectivity deals with both. Only this will send a clear message that we are committed to neutrality, and it will hopefully spare us their war.
That is the best we can do to assure that we are not taking a side. But let us still hope that the present conflict between two of our good friends can be resolved peacefully.