The Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-16), which Nepal lost, resulted in large-scale land cessions in the south of Nepal to the British.
It was after occupying India that the UK gradually expanded its ambitions to Nepal, the mountainous kingdom in the Himalayas. The UK’s greater strategic goal was to pave a way to China’s Tibet and thus to grab the land ahead of Russia.
But the British army suffered strong resistance when invading Tibet. Thanks to support from the central government of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the geographical barrier formed by the Himalayas – “the roof of the world,” – and the decline of the UK’s national power, the British failed in the end to occupy Tibet.
The UK was gradually surpassed by the US after World War I ended in 1918. Soon after, the Nepal-Britain Treaty of 1923 was signed and Nepal was recognized by the UK as an independent and sovereign nation.
Nepal’s strategic position can be clearly seen from history. Today, it is particularly important because China – Nepal’s near neighbor – has kept rising as the world’s second largest economy.
This might explain the US increased focus on Nepal in its Indo-Pacific Strategy, a US initiative to broaden and deepen strategic cooperation between countries in the Indo-Pacific region. David J Ranz, acting deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, said on May 14 in Kathmandu that “Nepal would benefit from the Indo-Pacific Strategy,” and that the strategy would “create an economic opportunity and ensure security to the benefit of both the United States and Nepal.”
To this day, the US has not described its Indo-Pacific Strategy as an initiative to target or contain China, but neither has the US stated specific plans to drive economic growth in this region, making the strategy seem unrealistic. The only outcome the strategy has achieved might be letting the US accelerate military cooperation with relevant countries.
Is this what Nepal wants? The US is aware of the urgent needs of Nepal, a country adjacent to two major powers – China and India. But the US will never base its strategy on Nepal’s needs.
In consideration of its geopolitical role, Nepal does require a relative balance between the great powers, the most favorable external political environment for the development of this mountain country. However, with limited strength, it is difficult for Nepal to promote such balance between major powers amid today’s rapid globalization. It can only choose what it needs most.
Nepal’s public opinion is generally positive about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in the re-election. They hope Modi’s policies can be continued. These policies, including increasing economic investment in Nepal and further improving relations with China, are all beneficial to Nepal.
Most importantly, China’s development has made it impossible for any force to make Nepal a pawn in strategic arrangements to counterbalance China’s influence.
China’s development has provided Nepal with the potential of benefit sharing. The China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative has brought the country unprecedented opportunities by linking it to its surrounding areas and the world. Nepal will no longer be closed and poor, but will be an essential hub to connect East, South and Central Asia.
Over 200 years ago, British colonists began to march into Nepal, with China’s Tibet their next target. But the era of Western expansion starting from 500 years ago is gone forever. China’s policy of creating an amicable and prosperous neighborhood will offer people of Nepal and other South Asian countries more opportunities to improve their living standards.