It is rather simplistic to infer that nations pick sides in a big power rivalry basis their engagement and are, therefore, at the benevolence of the country they choose to support. There is a complex push-pull interplay between the United States, China, and smaller nations. There are limits. Most States, from the South Pacific to Southeast Asia, are angling to maximise their gains from the intensifying competition between Washington and Beijing, but remain cognisant that their behaviour must avoid spiralling into armed conflict or economic isolation. At the other end of the spectrum of limits, most States do not compromise their national interests to please big powers. South Asia, the heart of the Indo-Pacific, presents perfect examples of where small States draw the line.
US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi’s historic visit to Taiwan on 3 August brought out the angry Chinese nationalist. Multiple Chinese political bodies and the military issued statements condemning Pelosi’s visit, accusing her of ‘eroding the consensus of One-China Policy’.
In South Asia, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka reiterated their commitment to the One-China Policy. Pakistan’s foreign office said that the developments between US and China in the past week have had serious consequences on regional security at a time when it is dealing with severe energy and food crises. Across the Himalayas, Nepalese Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand specified, “Nepal will never allow any forces to use its territory for anti-China separatist activities.” Interestingly, the Maldives reaffirmed its support for the One-China Policy, but clarified that the government would not issue an official statement on the matter. Among other small acts of big rebellion, the Bangladesh government compelled Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to change the dates of his visit to Dhaka in August. Sri Lanka requested China to indefinitely delay the planned visit by a ship to the Hambantota port.
Players, not game pieces
The intense big power competition has not only motivated India to align with the US and Pakistan with China but also put the other, smaller South Asia under a bright spotlight. Every geopolitical move is studied through the prism of the US-China rivalry. It is argued that the 2015 blockade and the subsequent fuel crisis nudged Kathmandu to consider Beijing a feasible alternative to Nepal’s economic dependence on India. Nepal officially joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2017, making the easy case that Nepal was in China’s corner. This panoramic view ignores the reality that relationships between nations are transactional and that Nepal is a player and not a game piece. The BRI would bring prosperity to Nepal while giving China an advantage to utilise the Himalayan nation’s strategic location. Additionally, China found support from Nepal on its position on Xinjiang at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and the status of Hong Kong. Since 2019, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has also agreed to provide regular financial assistance to the Nepalese Army.
Earlier this year, Nepal’s parliament voted in favour of a $500 million US government aid, indicating its autonomy after weeks of fiery debate. The sharp domestic political divide on the ratification of US foreign aid agency Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) Nepal Compact, was bolstered by a peeved Beijing’s taunts and lobbying. It may have taken nearly half a decade for the Himalayan nation to ratify the MCC but it did so on its terms—it was reported that Nepal’s Cabinet issued a 12-point declaration that “clarifies the country’s understanding that the MCC compact is just a development grant and is not above the country’s constitution as well as not part of any strategic, military or security alliance such as Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.” Kathmandu left no space for either China or the US to hold any delusions about its propensity.
From the mountains to the seas, Sri Lanka too performed a small act of rebellion. Days after it deferred the visit of a Chinese military vessel, Colombo revised its decision and allowed the ship to dock at the Hambantota port. The research and survey vessel was expected to dock earlier from 11-17 August but was deferred after India raised concerns. According to the Sri Lankan foreign ministry, the decision was revised considering the interests of all parties. This is an indication that the island nation will not give in to diplomatic arm-twisting by either India or China
Small acts of big rebellion
When seen in isolation, these moves are mere blips in the relationship between long-time neighbours. But keeping the power asymmetry in mind, these actions underscore the firm resolve of smaller South Asian countries to pursue national interest at the least possible cost. It is not feasible for Bangladesh to oppose its largest trading partner. Neither is it wise for Nepal to jeopardise its strategic partnership with China. These nations are testing the limits of their relationship with a major power without damaging it irreversibly. Bangladesh may have rescheduled the first high-level visit in the last five years, from China to Dhaka, but it also signed four Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) and agreements with China when the foreign minister did visit on 7 August. Unless nations intend to pursue and protect their national interests unilaterally, they need partnerships.
Small States utilise rivalries to maximise their gains and influence the strategic course of larger powers. Small acts of big rebellion in South Asia remind centres of power that any policy should approach the region not as a collective but appreciate the particular interest of each nation.
Shibani Mehta is a Research Analyst with the Security Studies Program at Carnegie India. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)