Changing security dynamics and Nepal-China relations

Rajan Bhattarai

Political Analyst, Nepal

Security is a very important issue not only for a state to survive and develop but for all human beings to live and grow in the mother earth they need security. However, there is no agreement on defining the concept of security among the academics and analysts. The general meaning of security is defined as freedom from threats. But there is no common meaning of threats; threats could be different from person to person and region to region. Therefore, it is right to say that the meaning of security is in fact, in the eye of a beholder. There are numerous theoretical frameworks for security. The concept of security has always been changing as per the changed context. Threat perceptions have never been static. The perceptions of security and insecurity arise in each state and individual as per the existing context as well as development of surrounding environments.

The whole gamut of security thinking was focused on ensuring the security of an allegedly insecure state. Nation states are the basic building blocks of the international system with unlimited sovereignty and the primary function of a nation state is to survive and enhance its power in an anarchical and conflictual international system. Competition between states to maximize one’s interests, often at the expense of others, and the development of the state’s capability (military and otherwise) to ensure security are the basic features of Realists. The source of the Realists School of thought was the Westphalian ideas of the nation-state. In the realist conceptions of security, the clear referent point is the state. The Neo-realists see the system as dominant and argue that security anywhere is derived from the system’s anarchic nature. The Neo-realists also make the state the referent point and stress fragility and comparative infancy of the Third World state. There has been dissatisfaction with the traditional ideas, about security at least, since the end of the World War in 1945, and the analysis of its causes that followed. Security is about protecting people as individuals and in groups, and this protection should be not only against war and other forms of unstructured violence but also against hunger, disease, terrorism and drugs. So, even in the 1960s, security came to be associated with development, which could have a better effect on one’s feeling of security than simply continuing to acquire arms.

The concept of Human Security evolved at a time when the world had been experiencing marked shift from bipolar to unipolar system with the end of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War has not only resulted in many non-traditional security issues becoming a focus in international relations, but it has also set the stage for a comprehensive re-evaluation of the world concept of security. It reflects itself in changing threat perceptions and also changing attitudes to the nature of security. The demise of the Cold War has clearly played a large part in the emergence of growing prominence of ‘non- traditional’ or ‘unconventional’ security issues, as they are often also termed.

The concept of non-traditional security threats issue became more prominent after the publication of the Human

Development Report in 1994, an annual publication of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). According to this report, the concept of security “has for too long been interpreted narrowly: as security of the territory from external aggression, or as protection of national interest in foreign policy or as global security from the threat of nuclear holocaust.... Forgotten were the legitimate concerns of ordinary people who sought security in their lives”. This broader theme and idea of security have gradually drawn a large number of scholars and institutions across the world to examine the empirical and operational validity in a range of issues including that of human security, energy security, environment security and food security.

The end of the Cold War has on the one hand significantly decreased external threats to the nation states; on the other hand; the world has been confronted with a series of intra-state violent conflicts of various origins and large-scale atrocities. It suffices to mention that of the 103 wars since the end of the Cold War, ninety-seven have been fought within rather than between states’ (Preston and Hubert 2000). The geneses of these conflicts were varied and the effects in the society have been enormous. It not only poses challenges to the particular society or state but the whole region as well. The

hallmark of these issues is that they are in most cases transnational or trans-regional and are detrimental to the stability and peace of the region.

As both the internal and external context of Nepal has gone through significant changes since Nepali state was founded in the mid-eighteen century, the perceptions of threats to the existence and sustainability of this state has also been changing. Since the time of its unification up to the latest part of the last century, the dominant security perceptions in Nepal have been the military centric. As it is defined as the traditional security perception the central view of which is to protect the territory and as long as geographical territory is secured, everything is secure within the boundary. In Nepali context, then national security concept was defined as early as during the unification period by its founding father then King Prithivi Narayan Shah. And this has been a central focused security issue for ruling elites and regarded as still relevant. It is also because of Nepal’s geographical location.

Located exactly in the middle of two largest Asian countries, China and India, and being a landlocked state, issues of national security have always been the major concern for Nepal since its unification by King Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1769. Nepal’s foreign and security policy evolved against the backdrop of concurrent threats posed by the British East India Company from the South. Even after the emergence of India as an independent country and China as a People’s Republic, Nepal’s security threat perception did not alter significantly in the past seven decades. Though various factors including its location, size, public psyche can be counted towards Nepal’s maintenance of traditional threats perception, the single most important factor that determines its threats perception was the conflictual relationship between India and China after 1962 war.

Being in the middle of two largest Asian countries and its open border with India has had enormous impacts on its security and strategic perceptions. The great strategist of the time late King Prithivi Narayan Shah described Nepal’s geo-strategy as a ‘yam between two boulders’. While describing this, the late king was very much aware of Nepal’s geographical location, its size and its two immediate neighbors. He further elaborated that Nepal should keep good neighborly relations with both of its neighbors and should not ally itself with one against the other. Such description of Prithivi Narayan Shah’s has been reflected on many writers in China, India and Nepal who described that anything that dictates Nepal’s security policy is its geographical position.

The British colonial rulers of India sought to keep Nepal in the Indian sphere of influence and regarded the Himalaya as a second frontier under the widely practiced ‘Himalayan frontier policy’. Due to its strategic importance for its defense from China, the British did everything they could to transform Nepal into a friendly buffer state between China and British possessions in India. After the end of British rule in India, the post colonial government of India also took note of Nepal’s strategic importance and quickly signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship covering all aspects of Nepal- India relations including defense and security related issues in 1950 followed by a letter of exchange. Likewise, Nepal and India had concluded an Arms Assistance Agreement in 1965 under which India undertook to supply arms, ammunition, and equipment for the entire Nepalese Army. China was also concerned about the security and stability of Nepal and took several measures. Diplomatic relations between the two countries was established in 1955 and five years after in April 1960 a bilateral Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed during the first democratically elected Prime Minister B. P. Koirala’s visit to China.

The imposition of authoritarian rule in 1960 after overthrowing of the first elected government, the then King Mahendra had used quite smartly Nepal’s geopolitical vulnerability to consolidate his domestic power. More specifically, the border war between India and China in 1962 and subsequent deterioration in their bilateral relations further provided ground for him to assert the issue of national security and quell the popular uprising against his undemocratic step and demand for freedom and justice. The regime projected the King and the whole institution of monarchy as the symbol of national unity and any threat to the institution would ultimately mean a threat to the security of the nation. Although it does not mean that Nepal never faced threats to its security in the modern time, as in the early years of 1970s Nepal had faced two serious threat concerning its national security when the US backed armed group of Tibetan refugees known as ‘Khampa rebels’ in 1971 launched armed insurgency in the northern border of Nepal. Likewise, another event that raised serious security concern on Nepal when India forcibly annexed an independent Himalayan country Sikkim in 1974 and it was also a neighboring country of Nepal. Both of these events caused concern to our national security environment. However, again it was still not a direct attack in the country’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty.

Though the country has not faced any direct attacks from the external powers including from its immediate neighbors, has however, become more vulnerable and its sustainability has been questioned in recent years. It is because of its failure in managing its internal order and inability to promote much needed social, cultural and economic development in the country. Its failure to provide good governance, protect citizens’ basic rights and fulfill their basic needs drove the country into chaos and instability. The people’s increasing aspirations and successive governments’ failure to meet the expectations of general masses has precipitated violent conflicts, internal displacement, environmental crisis etc. Furthermore, the increasing ethnicity, language and religion based conflict could represent other sources of insecurity. Nepal is fast falling victim to this problem, unless appropriate interventions are made to assure adequate space to all disadvantaged communities of our national life. Therefore, the security threat perception of Nepal has been changing due to the growing vulnerability and internal disorder rather than insecurity from external factors.

In the past two decades, the security perception of Nepal vis-à-vis India and China has shown some significant deviation from the typical traditional military based threats to more diverse threats emanating from range of non-traditional, non-military components. These emerging changes in the perception of the nature and trends of threats could be largely attributed to both internal dynamics and external atmosphere. Internally, Nepal has gone through a major change in its political structures in the last two decades. The 1990’s democratic transition has generated enormous amount of political consciousness and social awareness among the Nepalese people. The freedom of speech, right to organize and the flourishing media have played significant role for the empowerment of the general public. People have become more attentive to their rights and issues that relate to their day-to-day lives. Problems like political instability, failure to maintain law and order, social discrimination, development disparity, lack of inclusiveness, failure of institutional delivery and inefficient governing system have generated enormous concerns. In the past decades successive governments’ failure to address these problems has been instrumental in the rise of ultra-left forces and other terrorist and criminal groups to consolidate and expand their strengths and activities. This has caused armed conflicts for 10 years (1996 to 2006), which has left the country in a state of chaos, instability and violence.

During the decade-long insurgency in the country, more than 13,000 people lost their lives, tens of thousands of them have been injured and a large number of people have been displaced from their native places precipitating an internal refugee crisis. People’s desire for peace and democracy resulted in a massive uprising in April 2006 which forced the King to surrender power to the political parties and reinstate the earlier dissolved parliament. This has also led to the holding of elections to the Constituent Assembly in April 2008 and declaration of Federal Democratic Republic Nepal. The government formed after the CA election is under tremendous pressure to free its people from the clutches of violence and secure their basic needs such as sufficient food, shelters, education, health care, human rights, political stability and security.

Similarly, the last 10 years of conflictual situation has triggered many other social and environmental crises in Nepal. For instance, due to the escalation of violence in the rural areas forced migration has been taking place and this has precipitated a large number of internal refugees, particularly in the mid and far western hill districts as well as in the mid-Terai regions. Similarly, the out country migration has also become a common phenomenon and hundreds of young people are leaving the country to seek jobs. The current crisis in Nepal has not only eroded social capital but has also adversely affected

Community relationships, undermining indigenous forms of social networks. The State has not been able to reduce poverty, control the exploitation of the disadvantaged community by those in power, prevent environmental degradation and generate employment opportunity for the large number of people. Nepal’s vulnerabilities and its weakening positions today have not come from external factors. Although at a certain level external roles cannot be denied, research findings, however, show that the threats that Nepal today has been facing are more internally grown.

Violent conflict in the past ten years and the existence of a large number of armed groups in the Terai region has induced internal displacement. It is estimated by various organizations that up to 200,000 people have been internally displaced during the period of armed conflict. Due to the increasing insecurity and threat posed by the armed groups, people fled their own native villages, sought refuge either in the district headquarters or in the major cities like Kathmandu, Nepalgunj, Pokhara and Biratnagar. Though there is no availability of the exact figure, it is estimated that quite a large number of people particularly from the Mid-west and Far-west regions were displaced.

Because of a large number of internally displaced persons, the country is faced with a variety of social problems such as deteriorating law and order due to their increasing involvement  in the criminal activities, increasing conflicts between the local community and the internally displaced refugees for access to resources as well as employment opportunities in the country.

Employing terror tactics to assert their own political and social agendas by the extremist groups has become quite common in Nepal these days. The last 10 years of Maoists ‘People’s War’ ended after the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in November 2006 between the Government of Nepal and the CPN (Maoists).

Environmental insecurity is another serious threat that Nepal has been facing today. The fast degradation of shared rivers, frequently outburst of glacier lakes and increasing landslides and floods due to the torrential rain falls in the middle mountains are some of the issues with which Nepal is faced today on the environmental front. Furthermore, the growing urbanization and growth of unplanned city centres have created serious threats to the health of the urban people. A report published by Asian Development Bank has stated that the capital city Kathmandu has become one of the most polluted cities in Asia in recent years.

With these changing internal and international and regional atmosphere, Nepal has found many of its traditional security threats diluted and many more new non-traditional security threats have become pronounced. The changing nature and trends of threats perception in Nepal could be seen in some of the recently published literatures in Nepal. Restoring peace and maintaining political stability is the major concern for the people of Nepal today. The changing internal dynamics and the external nature and trends of threats perception in Nepal need to be analyzed in a broader framework of non-traditional security discourse. This will help to find out how humanitarian issues have constructed ‘securitization’ processes and military and state interests including external threats are increasingly being ‘desecuritized’ or less prioritized in Nepali context these days.

As China is celebrating its 60th founding anniversary of the People’s Republic of China this year, during the past six decades China has not only achieved astounding economic success but also expanded its roles and influences in international politics. It has successfully resolved all the problems with its neighbors including Nepal on boundary and other related issues. Nepal and China have been enjoying very cordial and harmonious relations based on equality, mutual respect and understanding since the establishment of relations in 1955. There is a good political understanding at the highest level and it has been enhanced by regular bilateral level visits and dialogues at various levels. China has been providing assistance in a number of areas in Nepal, particularly for infrastructure development, health, education etc. Bilateral trade has been expanding and Chinese investment in Nepal is also increasing. People to people relations have also been widened and expanded during this period.

Today, China’s major concern in Nepal is the security of China’s autonomous region of Tibet. There are possibilities of Nepal’s land being used against China. Preventing Nepal’s land to be used against China by the undesirable elements is the main objective for both countries. There are a number of bilateral level mechanisms and both countries have agreed to mobilize them effectively to control such activities. The government of Nepal has time and again assured that it would not allow its soil to be used against the interest of any of its friendly countries, particularly its closest neighbors. Peaceful, stable and prosperous Nepal is in the interest of both Nepal and China. As an emerging power, China requires stability and peaceful neighborhood environment. Any disturbances in Nepal would be detrimental to the interest of China as well. Therefore, identifying security threats and dealing with it as per the requirements is the topmost priority of the government which would greatly contribute to strengthening our security environment.

# An article penned by the author, advisor, foreign affairs to Nepal PM, and published in the “Friendship”-a Journal of Nepal-China Studies”, in its October, 2009 issue. The article is still relevant and thus presented in the larger interest of the readers (who want to study Nepal-China relations in depth) both within and without: The original title of this article has been changed. Thanks the author and the Friendship Journal. Ed.   

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