Strategic importance of Nepal and South Asia is increasing

Madhu Raman Acharya

Former Foreign Secretary, Nepal

There is a strategic competition in South Asia of which Nepal constitutes an important part. We know that the international scene is in a state of flux, as new post-American world is only emerging. The shapes of things to come are unknown. But there is a strong strategic shift towards Asia and shift of balance of power towards the developing countries. The strategic importance of South Asia and that of Nepal is increasing, with the rise of India and China as economic, military and political powers in the world.

The moving of US strategic pivot to Asia Pacific region (or rebalancing policy), the strategic partnership between the US and India, and increasing Chinese presence in the region have shown how South Asia has become important in global strategic space. Now India’s commitment to improve relations with countries in South Asia as initiated by Prime Minister Modi is also likely to count in increasing South Asia’s strategic significance.

The regional and international interest in Nepal is on the rise. This owes to Nepal’s strategic location between India and China, potential of Nepal’s being a transit economy between them, and the abundance of natural resources especially the hydropower invoking the interests of foreign investors two of the world’s important economies. In Nepal, there is an unseen strategic competition among neighbours and big powers in the country. There is a certain degree of overlap and competition over strategic space in Nepal between India, China and the United States.

There is also strategic convergence between India and China. Though India and China compete on strategic space in the region, they have similar positions in most of the global issues, including on climate change, the doctrine of “responsibility to protect”, preference of UN role in solving global threats to peace and security, greater say for ‘developing countries in multilateral financial institutions (hence formation of BRICS). They have converging stake on the continuation and promotion of trading and economic relations, which is growing. They have similar positions in the WTO, including in the Doha Development Agenda. Both do not like big power activism in solving international problems. This convergence provides an opportunity for Nepal, including for benefiting from the economic prowess of both India and China, especially developing value chains and backward and forward linkages to their economies.

There is a strategic void in the country. Nepal does not have an actively thinking strategic community of its own. So the country’s strategic decisions are left to those who occupy the government at the time. There is very little consultation with the academia and the think-tanks on the strategic thought or policies. The lame National Security Council is relatively weak in developing a strategic thinking. In fact, we can even say that Nepal does not have a national strategic policy of which a draft was prepared but remains to be adopted. Among other things, the draft seeks to cover such areas of national interest as maintaining country’ independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty, national unity, economic security, social harmony, political stability, religious tolerance, national development, information security, public security human security, and environmental security. In absence of a national security strategy, each security agency, including the country’s army is devising its policies and strategies on its own. Without such policy at hand, protection of national interest becomes an exercise in a vacuum. Nepal should adopt a national security strategy at the earliest. It must be noted that Nepal’s national security interests will only be met by a good combination of foreign policy, political and diplomatic process and adoption of economic choices available to it.

Nepal’s military doctrine is still evolving. It is commonly understood Nepal cannot afford to build capability to fight against any of its big neighbours in the event of being attacked. Nepal’s army draws its military doctrine primarily aimed at maintaining a capability to defend and deter any hostility against Nepal’s security interests and Nepal’s territorial integrity. Though not spelled clearly, the security doctrine of the country includes refraining from any hostile of offensive acts without being provoked, not allowing the Nepalese soil against the security interests of neighbouring and friendly countries, and rejection of stationing of any foreign troops in its soil. The army has devised its command and control structure, weaponry, cadres, tactics, training, resources, and rules of engagement to meet this doctrinal objective. It is under this doctrine that the Nepalese army has been participating in the UN peacekeeping operations abroad and disaster relief operations, counter-insurgency operations and development activities at home. The army has developed preparedness for convention and unconventional security threats, both external and internal.

The national army of a country plays the most important role in protection of vital national interests. The army is a vital instrument for the national defence, security, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. It is in Nepal’s interest to maintain a well- equipped and professionally trained army to readily defend the country’ vital interests. Since Nepal cannot build comprehensive security forces including the navy and air force, it can aim to develop competitive edge on certain areas of expertise such as trouble-shooting commandoes, peacekeeping forces, disaster response capacities, and high altitude readiness.

In the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, it was agreed that there would be democratization of the army. Article 144(3) of the Interim Constitution also provides for preparing and enforcing a detailed action plan for the democratization of the Nepal Army. Though not defined clearly, it could include concepts such as civilian control and oversight of the army, inclusion in the cadres, and reforms in the army along the democratic principles of transparency and accountability, and respect for human rights. Some of these measures have already been in place, such as the constitutional provision over the cabinet control of the army and parliamentary oversight. But there is some degree of confusion in absence of clear cut demarcation as to what constitutes democratization.

The army is still dominated by one group of people. According to the official website of the Nepal Army, 43.5% of Nepal army positions are held by Chhetris, who account for 16.60% of population. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, some ethnic groups like the Newars (6.41%), Magars (7.38%), Tamang (5.56%), and Rai (2.50%) are represented according to their proportion of population. But it is Madhesis and women who are under-represented. After the 2006 amendment in the Army Act, 45% of positions are reserved, which are allocated to women (20%), Janajati (32%), Madheshi (28%), Dalit (15%), and remote regions (5%). Inclusiveness in the army is a strong parameter of building a nationally cohesive army, which is in the interest of national security and unity.

Also important is the improvement in civil-military relations. National interest cannot be protected without a strong collaboration and good relations between the country’s civil and military components.

# Third part of the paper presented at seminar on “Defending National Interest in Emerging Internal, Regional and International Challenges”, organized by the Institute of Foreign Affairs (Kathmandu, 9 September 2014). Thanks Mr. Acharya and the organiser: Ed. 


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