The approach into Nepal’s Tribhuvan International Airport requires carefully navigating the encompassing mountains, some rising nearly 10,000 feet. At altitude, Kathmandu’s magnificent pagodas, stupas and palaces are lost amidst a maze of haphazard multicolored tenements, the flowering cover of the developing world. Mount Everest, named for the former surveyor general of India, hovers, white in the near distance. As always, China is over the horizon – and in the market.
Upon landing, a large sign advertising the “Made in China” mall greets airport arrivals. Beijing’s Belts and Roads Initiative (BRI) will likely ensure a greater selection of Chinese goods for Nepal’s shoppers. Yet the material concerns of Kathmandu must be weighed against Nepali cultural and spiritual traditions, which are firmly grounded in the soil of the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps nowhere is this dynamic best witnessed than along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River at Pashupatinath Temple, where teenagers gather at dusk, talking on Chinese smartphones, as Hindu and Buddhist holy men perform final rites for the faithful before their ashes join the eternal waters, flowing downward to the Ganges.
It is unclear whether current U.S. foreign policy can properly navigate this complex region. Following the Trump administration’s rollout of its “Indo-Pacific” strategy, we have yet to witness much “Indo” in the president’s statecraft. This despite the fact that India is the largest prize – the greatest swing state – in the new Great Game, the struggle for mastery of Asia. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to provide an opening for increased diplomatic cooperation at the Shangri-La Dialogue. This despite new tensions in U.S.-India relations. With the unexpected cancelation of a high-level summit in Delhi, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy sits in limbo.
Source: Roncevert Almond
Piercing the Himalayas
The Himalayan walls surrounding Kathmandu have formed a barrier to the outside world; in turn, Nepal – where the Indian subcontinent and greater Asia collide – has traditionally played the role of buffer state in South Asia. Nepal has aspiration beyond being a client state or brick in a great power’s cordon sanitaire. Kathmandu’s role as a founding member and seat of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), South Asia’s sole regional organization, demonstrates as much. However, the realities of geography, demographics, and power dictate terms prior to aspirations. This landlocked country of 29 million is largely dependent on India’s infrastructure, economy and market for its prosperity and access to the world.
India’s patronage, however, has recently come into question. In 2015, Delhi initiated an informal blockade of Nepal following the adoption of a new constitution. India interpreted the effort as a form of political “gerrymandering” designed to isolate ethnic minorities living on the open Nepali-Indian borderland, particularly the Madeshis and the Tharu communities, thus threatening stability within India. Beijing responded to Kathmandu’s plea for help by expediting fuel supplies and opening trade routes closed after the devastating earthquake in April 2015. Nepal soon entered into a permanent arrangement for petroleum supplies from China, a transit treaty allowing Nepal access to Chinese ports, and a visa-free travel regime for Chinese tourists. Last year, when India offered to jointly measure Mount Everest, to determine whether the great mountain moved during the 2015 tremors, Nepal demurred.
Can China further capitalize on this momentum? During my recent visit to Nepal, the headlines announced a breakthrough China-Nepal rail link spanning the Himalayas. In Durbar Square, at the heart of Kathmandu, a giant banner promoted the “China Aid Restoration Project” to reconstruct Basantapur Tower, the historic nine-story structure partially-felled by the earthquake. China is now Nepal’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI). For the first time, in April 2017, the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Nepal Army engaged in joint military exercises, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency training (which could be directed toward Tibetan refugees).
The breakdown in Indo-Nepali ties may be a temporary family feud, to borrow from Modi, but Chinese President Xi Jinping’s courtship is seeking to prove that honey is as thick as blood.
Nepal may take as a cautionary note the predicament of its SAARC neighbor Sri Lanka, which reportedly ceded control to China of a strategically placed maritime port, Hambantota, following its default on payments to Beijing. Notably, India attempted to assert a veto over the use of the port by the Chinese military. Sri Lanka has since taken steps to assuage these apprehensions. With Beijing seizing the port, Colombo acutely in debt, and Delhi deeply concerned, the BRI mega-project demonstrates the ongoing competition for influence in the region.
At the very least, Delhi cannot simply rely on history to determine its future in the region. Modi’s recent remarks in Singapore suggest he is taking this lesson to heart.
Modi’s Dialogue at Shangri-La
During his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Modi articulated a vision of a “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific, which may be familiar to observers in Washington, but with important nuances and departures unique to India’s perspective of itself and foreign affairs.
Modi began by establishing first principles with regard to the Indo-Pacific region. He acknowledged that the foundations of the global order are under stress creating uncertainty, new claims, and competition. However, a “return to the age of great power rivalries” would be devastating and unnecessary.
Instead, Modi advocated for cooperation and connectivity: “Only a rules-based, open, balanced and stable trade environment” in the Indo-Pacific can lead to shared prosperity. This means “oceans are open, the seas are secure, countries are connected, the rule of law prevails and the region is stable, nations, small and large, prosper as sovereign countries.” Echoing Nehru at Bandung, the prime minister also argued: “[W]hen nations stand on the side of principles, not behind one power or the other, they earn the respect of the world and a voice in international affairs.”
Second, the prime minister highlighted India’s rising role within and focus on the Indo-Pacific region. In his telling, India seeks a democratic “rules-based international order” that applies “equally to all individually as well as to the global commons” regardless of relative power. In support, Modi cited India’s “Act East” policy of increased engagement through ASEAN-led institutions like the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (the “Plus” includes countries outside of ASEAN), ASEAN Regional Forum, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
This diplomacy builds upon the “common heritage” shared by India and ASEAN, human linkages through religion and culture, art and commerce, language and literature that have withstood the “ebb and flow” of geopolitics. India inspires a human story that is present throughout the region, a tangible influence I witnessed during international yoga day.
Third, the prime minister discreetly, but directly took on the challenge of confronting an increasingly aggressive Chinese foreign policy. In calling for a rules-based order that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity, consent over power, equality over size and strength, and fidelity to dialogue above force, Modi appeared to call into question China’s muscular approach to territorial disputes in the region – from the frontiers of the Himalayas to the contested waters of the Asia-Pacific. In a seeming referral to Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, the Indian leader advocated for the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.
In an implicit criticism of China’s BRI program, Modi noted that infrastructure initiatives must promote trade, not strategic competition; empower nations, as opposed crippling them with debt; and respect norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity. As I noted in these pages, India has been very vocal in its opposition to the BRI’s centerpiece, the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will transit disputed territory in Kashmir, claimed by India, but administered by Pakistan. Most recently, Delhi rejected Beijing’s offer to broker an India-Pakistan dialogue via the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and refused to offer support for CPEC at the annual SCO summit.
The prime minister also highlighted the prominent future for India in world affairs. He predicted a sustained economic growth rate of 7.5 to 8 percent per year, which will further India’s integration in the region. Fueling this growth will be India’s youth bulge – over 800 million strong – whose demands and dreams will shape the future global economy. In contrast, China is facing a looming demographic nightmare: a rapidly aging population coupled with a sustained decline in new entrants into its labor force. Despite, Modi’s express disavowal of power politics, his underlying message to China would be appreciated by strict realists like John Mearsheimer.
Fourth and finally, Modi issued a qualified endorsement of deepening U.S.-India ties. He noted that India’s “global strategic partnership” with the United has overcome past obstacles and assumed new significance in the changing world. India and the United States have grown beyond a relationship forged in crisis, as recorded by Rudra Chaudhuri. During the Obama years, for example, the United States and India launched a new era of cooperation with initiatives like the “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” and deepening ties in critical areas such as defense technology, cybersecurity, outer space, and trade.
At the same time, the prime minister balanced his remarks by referencing his informal summit at Sochi with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the shared desire for a “strong multi-polar world order.” Furthermore, Delhi is seeking to purchase the S-400 long-range antiaircraft missile system from Moscow, a long-time arms supplier for India, which has caused some consternation in Washington. Such action is consistent with what the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission described as India’s adherence to the principle of “strategic autonomy” in its foreign policy.
Additionally, the prime minister issued a warning against “growing protectionism” – most certainly in reference to Mr. Trump’s unilateral trade war (which I have written about extensively in these pages). Modi ruminated: “So, each nation must ask itself: Are its choices building a more united world, or forcing new divisions?” Whether anyone in the White House was listening is not clear.
An Indo-Pacific Strategy in Limbo
President Trump first articulated his Indo-Pacific strategy at the 2017 APEC Summit in Vietnam. At Da Nang, he called for a “free” and “open” region. Since then, the Trump administration has further defined the modifier “free” to include the freedom from coercion through the promotion of sovereignty, as well as achieving “freedom” of governance via anti-corruption, transparency, and fundamental rights. With regard to “open” the White House is referencing the freedom of navigation (open sea lanes and airways), along with open commercial access (open investment, viable infrastructure, and balanced trade). To emphasize this commitment, the Pentagon went through the trouble of renaming U.S. Pacific Command as “U.S. Indo-Pacific Command” or INDOPACOM, a form of foreign policy onomatopoeia.
Irrespective of word games, logically and necessarily, India must play a pivotal role in this thesis. Accordingly, the U.S. State Department pronounced that U.S. strategy is explicitly intended to promote India, a fellow democracy, as the “bookend and anchor the free and open order in the Indo-Pacific region.” Modi’s Shangri-La speech was consistent with this design.
Given the above, it is particularly confusing that the White House has not taken constructive action to firmly place “Indo” within its “Indo-Pacific” strategy. Instead, Trump has prioritized two other foreign policy goals that have served to alienate South Block and, thus, undermine Trump’s Indo-Pacific dream.
First, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has placed India in a precarious position. India has traditionally had good relations with Iran, which serves as an import trading partner and supplier of petroleum, the Indian economy being dependent on fuel imports. Despite Delhi’s protest that it will ignore unilateral sanctions, the far reach of the American financial system coupled with the re-instigation of so-called “secondary” U.S. sanctions will most likely restrict the ability of Indian companies to engage in a broad range of business activities with Iran, including involvement in the energy sector. Even if India received a U.S. exemption or other form of dispensation following Ambassador Nikki Haley’s recent visit with South Block, Trump’s exit from the JCPOA will most certainly curtail Iranian fuel sales; global petroleum prices will rise; and the Indian economy (not to mention the global economy) will be subject to new stress.
Second, and compounding the prior issue, Trump has engaged in an escalating tariff battle with the world’s major economies, including India, China, the European Union, and NAFTA members. This is no small matter for Delhi. The U.S.-India trade relationship has grown to approximately $140 billion in 2017 (up from $116 billion in 2016). After filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization, on June 21, 2018, India retaliated against the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum by raising U.S. import duties. The Indian tariffs, valued at nearly $240 million, target a variety of American goods from motorcycles to almonds (India is the largest purchaser of U.S.-grown almonds). Besides goods and services, people-to-people exchanges are subject to renewed focus as even Indian immigrants are caught up in Trump’s ramped up border control efforts.
Last week the Trump administration abruptly cancelled the July “2+2 Summit” involving U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Reports suggests that Trump’s upcoming meeting with Putin took precedent, but surely a superpower must be expected to handle concurrent missions. Was the friction of the trade war too hot? Regardless, the absence of Washington in South Asia is deafening.
Recently a scheduled Air India flight from Delhi to San Francisco was delayed, as temperatures rose to 44.9 degrees Celsius. The heat was too much to provide lift. It seemed symbolic. In the past decade, the United States and India have done much to make up for what Strobe Talbott once called the “lost half century” of missed opportunities. In the 21st century, the world’s largest democracies have the chance to shape the future, from the borderlands of Nepal to the Indo-Pacific to the world beyond. The question is whether the two powers can ever rise up and summit together. For now, Shangri-La remains as elusive as ever.
Roncevert Ganan Almond is a Partner and Vice-President at The Wicks Group, based in Washington, D.C. He has counseled government authorities in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America on issues of international law. He served as an aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, but is not currently affiliated with any campaign. The views expressed here are strictly his own.