14 MIN READ
An Interview with Former Army chief Gaurav Rana about Nepal’s Challenges in Diplomacy
The year was 2012. Gaurav Shumsher Rana, then-Chief of Army Staff (CoAS), had just returned from Sydney, where army chiefs from 27 countries had gathered at the invitation of the US Army’s Pacific Command and the Australian Defence Force. Among the topics discussed was the as-yet-unnamed Indo-Pacific region: the idea that the Pacific and Indian Oceans could be considered a single unit in the evolving global security architecture.
The 2011-2012 period was an important one in the annals of US-Australia defense cooperation and indeed for the evolving security architecture in the entire Asia-Pacific; the Pacific Command was subsequently renamed 'Indo-Pacific Command' by the Trump Administration in May 30, 2018. The rise of China was very much on everyone’s mind. US President Barack Obama was nearing the end of his first term and his overall posture toward Asia was beginning to evolve. In his trip to Asia — Honolulu (headquarters of Indo-Pacific Command), Australia, and Indonesia — in November 2011, he explained his idea of the ‘Asia pivot’ at great length.
For Nepal, the year 2012 was important for an entirely different reason. On May 27, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved without having promulgated a new constitution, a scenario not foreseen by the interim constitution. The opposition wanted Baburam Bhattarai to step down as prime minister to make way for an interim election government; Bhattarai, for his part, insisted that it would be entirely within constitutional limits to hold the election while he still remained in office.
It was at this time that CoAS Rana gifted three books to Prime Minister Bhattarai. Two books were by the geopolitical thinker Robert Kaplan — Monsoon and The Revenge of Geography — and the third by Gurucharan Das, The Difficulty of Being Good.
“I wanted my prime minister to be aware of what was happening in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean,” Rana reminisced with me over long interviews at his Babar Mahal residence that extended over the months of January and February. “There was talk of bringing together two oceans as a single unit [for strategic purposes].” A free-wheeling and pleasant conversationalist, the former Army chief often found it difficult to remain focused on the topic at hand: geopolitics and Nepal’s security challenges.
“I decided to gift him [Bhattarai] the books also because I found him to be a very keen student of world history,” Rana recalled. “As Army chief, I accompanied him on several visits to the districts. Even on short helicopter flights, he would quickly take out a book and start reading. I can’t say that about many other top leaders I have traveled with, especially those from the Nepali Congress.”
A lot has changed since Prithvi Narayan Shah unified the country in the eighteenth century,” Rana succinctly summed up Nepal’s security dilemma, “but a lot has remained the same. Located between the two giants we have to be at constant vigil for our survival. That remains unchanged.” The rise of China has added a new dimension to Nepal’s security challenges, he argued.
Excerpts from the interview:
AU: There has been a lot of talk about whether Nepal should or should not get drawn into the Indo-Pacific alliance, and what BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] means for Nepal. How do you look at these issues?
GR: As a Nepali, I see both the Chinese-led BRI and the US-led Indo-Pacific as similar ideas…both are very fuzzy. Under BRI, the biggest project is CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) but I saw that Gwadar port [in Pakistan], which is now said to be a key part of CPEC, was being built in Pakistan as far back as 2004. What is the Indo-Pacific? Is it a strategy or a geographic reality? The Americans divide the world into eight parts — one of them is the Pacific. With the rise of China, its strategic importance has increased; it is logical to start prioritizing this area. In 2012, when I went for the Chiefs of Defense Conference organized by the U.S. Pacific Command [in Australia], I saw apprehension about the rise of China. What we discussed was how we can put the two [Indian and Pacific Oceans] into one framework, though they are distinctively two regions. There was a lot of debate on whether they should be lumped together as the “Indo-Pacific.” The debate had started a while before that, with an article that Hillary Clinton published mentioning ‘the Asia pivot’ in Foreign Affairs [journal] in 2011 when she was Secretary of State.
AU: What does all this mean for our region?
GR: India has been drawn into it. India is often intent on maintaining its strategic autonomy but with the strategic concerns consequent upon the rise of China, it is appropriate for India to get on the strategic bandwagon with the Quad [which brings Japan, Australia, India and U.S. together].
AU: Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali was in the US recently. After the visit, a public statement came out from the US stating that it wanted to see Nepal playing a “central role” in the region. That started a heated debate here over the statement’s meaning and what the US expected from Nepal. How do you see this debate?
GR: The statement calling for landlocked Nepal to play a central role in the Asia-Pacific is odd. Given our size, location, etc., how can we play a central role? The statement by itself sounds incongruous — and it is unlike the Americans to issue an incongruous statement.
AU: Could it not have been simply a diplomatic nicety? Sometimes you say someone is a great leader when he could have been only a good leader.
GR: It is diplomatic nicety gone overboard. This is a sensitive time where people believe even in conspiracy theories. It’s, as you said, most likely a diplomatic nicety. Still, what is the interest of America? Is there any implied link with China [in the statement]?
AU: What would be your recommendation to our foreign policy establishment in view of the evolving geostrategic competition?
GR: We have to recognize our geographic reality and realize where we stand in terms of the power quotient. There are things we can say and things we cannot. We were important in the 60s, then things changed in the 70s with Kissinger’s rapprochement with China. We are coming back to that point again where we are strategically important again due to the rise of China. History is always cyclical. The rise and fall of nations is an inevitable cycle.
AU: You’ve closely observed Nepal’s security dilemma and the evolution of its security architecture since the early 70s. What are the major national security threats for Nepal?
GR: First of all, we are military men. We have been taught that men are pugnacious and war is a social phenomenon. Clausewitz explains that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Sun Tsu says war is the life and death of a nation. Then there is the Western concept of nation-state, the Westphalia model. States have certain characteristics, boundaries, and an army. There are two primary schools of thought — realism and idealism. The former holds the view that the world is anarchical at constant competition and conflict is part of human nature. Proponents of this view believe that states should pursue their interests come what may. Idealists, on the other hand, believe that state relations should be governed by agreed norms and a set of laws. These are the basic frameworks.
AU: Can you bring Nepal into the picture — what is its approach towards foreign affairs?
GR: Nepal has emerged as an independent nation-state. But we are, more than anything else, a small country sandwiched between two large ones. We believe in protecting the interests of the nation; I believe that Nepal’s approach to the world is more realist than idealist in nature. When I joined the RNA (Royal Nepal Army) in the 1970s, it was the height of the Cold War. At the time India was aligned with the USSR. China was previously together with the Russians until Mao and Nixon had a rapprochement.
As for the external pressure, there was a large campaign to disarm the Tibetan Khampas. The Chinese were very concerned about the Khampa movement and they pressured the Nepali government to disarm them. RNA successfully carried out an operation in Mustang. My father was commanding the battalion.
We had a huge influx of Tibetans right through the 60s. There was a global situation where the world was polarized—the Communists versus the capitalists. USSR versus USA. The Chinese wanted to disarm the Tibetans while the Americans were looking to arm them. There are books written on this tug of war.
AU: Yes, there is some literature about this period. The Chinese see the West aiding and abetting the Tibetan cause; the West sees it as a human rights as well as a strategic issue. From Nepal’s internal security standpoint, how have we viewed the Tibetan issue?
GR: The Tibetan issue has been politicized. Everything has revolved around the definition of Tibetans who cross into Nepal. The Americans say that they are refugees; they are escaping political persecution. The Chinese perspective, on the other hand, is that they are illegal immigrants who need to be repatriated. What does a small country with limited national power say? It’s a matter of diplomacy, which I believe we have conducted well up to now. We hope that the relations between the two countries [US and China] improve so the Tibetan issue is not used as leverage to pressure Nepal either way.
AU: You brought up the role of the Nepal Army in disarming the Khampas. Do you think that China could ask Nepal to do something similar again?
GR: There is such a possibility. In the global security agenda, one of the main issues is immigration, refugees — look at the problem Europe is facing. As I said, there is a clash between the perspectives of the US and China. So far Nepal has managed the tightrope walk with deft diplomacy. But as the strategic environment shifts, there may come a time when pressure from the two big nations will be very difficult to withstand.
AU: So the Tibetan issue remains very high on the Chinese security agenda and what they expect from Nepal?
GR: The Chinese are very sensitive about the Free Tibet movement and any internal dissent. Also, China has very limited natural resources and its natural resources are concentrated in its western region. Tibet also happens to be in that region.
AU: Let’s move on to the 80s and 90s, the era after China started liberalization. China is now the world’s second-largest economy and the Indian economy is growing at a rapid clip too. India is projected to be among the top three economies by 2050 and both their militaries have become increasingly powerful. What is Nepal’s strategy for survival at a time when the traditional security architecture is in flux?
GR: The basic tenet of Nepal’s foreign policy is Panchasheel, or nonalignment. We need to be cautious as the balance of power is shifting. The balance of power was in favor of the victors of WWII—the Bretton Woods system, the beneficiaries of the Marshall Plan. You’re now looking at a multi-polar world, resulting from two major transition points: the demise of the USSR and 9/11. Nepal now needs to be mindful that new powers have emerged. China has emerged both economically and militarily. [Chinese President] Xi now stands firmly on the world stage. Once you have economic muscle, military and political ambitions will follow.
AU: In South Asia, India has been the traditional hegemon. How will the rise of China impact the way South Asia perceives itself?
GR: India’s concerns lie in the unresolved boundary dispute [with China]. Then there are the nuclear relationships, the all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan. India has been reactive while China has made rapid progress; the Chinese economy is five or six times larger the Indian economy. For China, the primary interest is the safety of trade and oil routes. Malacca Straits is one of the major choke points for China. China has developed, yes; but geography doesn’t change, it remains the same.
AU: Is the BRI part of China’s effort to reshape its security architecture? CPEC runs inland from the Pakistani port of Gwadar to Xinjiang in western China, for example.
GR: China is thinking strategically and ditto the Americans. For the Chinese, 100 years in the life of a nation is a small span of time. CPEC has faced problems in construction but once it’s complete it will have a huge strategic significance.
AU: The Chinese say that “BRI is a choir and everyone has a role to play.” And that if all the pieces of the BRI jigsaw puzzle aren’t in place yet, it’s for others to take ownership of their individual components. Is it China’s strategic decision to allow BRI to evolve organically?
GR: Yes, I think so. China has its own problems…. They have reached a stage where putting in money to boost growth is no longer feasible. According to some estimates, about 30% of housing space is empty; 20-25% roads remain underutilized. Also, for them to say “take from us” is a positive gesture, but the recipient countries have to be mindful, they need to look at their own capacity. BRI’s expansion is a hundred percent guided by strategic considerations. At the end of the day, when you talk about IR [International Relations], it’s not only the arm-twisting that counts— there is also a soft power component to it. Strategically, why on earth would Nepal be so important? What’s the market in Nepal? You want to cross into India where the market is. Unless relations between India and China improve, I don’t think you’d get the [Kerung-Kathmandu] railway.
AU: But many China scholars, such as Prof Andrew Nathan, argue China doesn’t need the Kerung-Kathmandu railway to get to the Indian market and that the sea route is far cheaper and easier to use. He debunks the theory that China has to access Indian market via railways through Nepal. Do you see the Kerung railway then has a strong strategic value to offset Nepal’s dependence on India?
GR: Nathu La [in Sikkim] is a natural pass. Kerung is not a natural pass; it has to go through very difficult terrain.
AU: If not Kerung, what could be one of our natural passes?
GR: None, geography doesn’t allow it.
AU: If China-India relations improve, you think they would want to develop the railways via Nathu La, and not Kerung?
GR: Yes, it’s natural in terms of cost.
AU: Isn’t there a strategic value of the Kerung-Kathmandu railway? It lessens Nepal’s dependence on an India-locked trade and transit regimen.
GR: We have the mountain belt, a significant part of our population resides in the Himalayan region. Their livelihood is trade. It’s easier to develop Nepal’s northern belt through strong connectivity with China. It will help raise Nepalis’ economic standard, it’s good for the population. Opening up Mustang from the north as well as approaching it from the south will demystify these restricted areas and lessen the tension in the strategic environment.
AU: Do you think the Kerung railway will happen in the next decade or so—it has already reached the DPR stage?
GR: I don’t think I’ll be alive to see it; I’m 64. You have to talk about the cost and it requires a lot of technology. Would you want to spend all that money just to show the world that you can make a railway across the Himalayas? How would one sustain and maintain it? It’s a geographically challenging and natural disaster-prone terrain.
AU: What does China’s rise mean for Nepal?
GR: For us, it’s opportunity, opportunity and opportunity. However, the challenge comes in being able to balance the concerns of India — that’s number one, and next, the US.
AU: Does Nepal have the capacity to balance big power expectations?
GR: We have done it historically. See what Leo Rose says in his book “Strategy for Survival.” Look at the way we survived pressure from imperial powers.
AU: What can Nepal do from a security perspective so it doesn’t get pulled into big power rivalry?
GR: Our national hard power is very much limited. Our soft power is also limited. We have to use smart power, as defined by Joseph Nye [“Smart power is the ability to combine the hard power of coercion or payment with the soft power of attraction into a successful strategy.”]
Smart power is what we have always been using. We’ve survived between two imperial powers, and have been surviving the two largest growing powers. Now the international strategic environment is changing. In the changing context, we have become important, just like we were in the 60s. This is when King Mahendra coined the term “dynamic neutrality.”
AU: What does dynamic neutrality mean?
GR: The way I look at it, it’s to ensure no action is taken by Nepal or within Nepal against the interests of these three big powers — the US, China, and India. That requires astute and mature diplomacy, of which we are capable, for we have done it in the past.
AU: Nepal is far more globalized than in the 60s and 70s. How do you balance this network of important relations — with rising China and India, on the one hand, and a host of other diplomatic and international commitments on the other? Do we have the capacity?
GR: I believe we do. To balance these things, you need capable and educated people. Look at the growing body of young and educated Nepalis, though the irony is Nepal’s 21st-century world is being handled by leaders whose outlook seems that of the eighteenth century. The young layer of Nepalis have a global outlook, they understand the 21st century and the intricacies of the globalized world.
Akhilesh Upadhyay Upadhyay, former editor-in-chief of The Kathmandu Post, is a senior journalist who has written extensively on geopolitics.
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