The Big Question
Today’s world is vastly different from what it used to be a few decades ago. The era of a polarized world in which smaller countries aligned themselves with one superpower or the other is gone. Instead, regional powers are emerging in all parts of the globe, amassing political and economic clout in the power vacuum left by the United States. Granted, the U.S. is still a heavyweight to be reckoned with but the war on terror and the recent financial crisis has left it somewhat crippled.
Meanwhile, post-Cold War Russia is on a mission to regain its influence and the first step towards achieving this goal is to become important regionally. India and China are also following a similar path so it is not surprising at all that these countries are coming together to form various trade and security organizations and forge cooperation agreements.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is one such block. Previously known as the Shanghai Five, the organization is composed of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan joined the body in 2001 while Pakistan, India Afghanistan, Mongolia and Iran have observer status in the body. In terms of resources and geographical mass, the sheer human population covered by the SCO is formidable. If some or all of the observer states become members, the SCO will comprise half of the world’s population living in countries that are becoming important on the world stage for one reason or another. As India, Russia and China continue with their quest to become military and economic giants, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan are viewed with trepidation because of the potential threat their volatility poses to the world.
By conducting frequent joint military exercises and negotiating security treaties to work against the threats of ‘terrorism, separatism and extremism,’ the SCO has shown its desire to increase its military standing both in the region and internationally despite claims that there are no plans to form a military bloc.
However, the SCO has not restricted itself to security related agreements only. Economic cooperation is also high on its agenda. The global financial crisis presented a good starting point to the SCO to come up with a more resilient banking and financial system. Member states have also expressed their interest in acquiring a bigger quota in the IMF. More recently, the New Development Fund has been formed by BRICS nations - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
The NDF has its headquarter in Shanghai and seeks to become an alternative to the World Bank and the IMF. While such an ambitious plan may take time, the NDF does have a close link with the SCO and this will further strengthen the position of its member states in the region. It will also encourage smaller nations in Asia, which are currently dependent on international funding for economic survival, to forgo help from the IMF and turn to neighboring countries for bailout money and development funds.
The SCO has certainly been positioning itself as an alternative to the west since its inception. Its show of military might could be construed as a way to discourage entry of western forces into Central Asia. There have been no direct threats to western powers but in its observer status, Iran has used the platform to express hostile views towards the United States. Currently, no western country has membership or observer status with the SCO.
Given this scenario, several regional countries have been angling for the membership of the SCO. Nepal is among them and has a very strong rationale for joining the organization. After wading in the democratic process for the past several years, Nepal is finally finding its feet by establishing ties with several nations. It is felt by analysts that Nepal’s image has suffered in recent years due to internal discord after the abolishment of the monarchy and the country’s initial forays into democracy.
Nepal is well on its way towards establishing a firm democratic process and its success in this regard will be partially measured by its ability to take on board the international community in a manner most suitable to its own particular needs. The government
has shown a willingness to pursue diplomacy as a means to furthering Nepal’s international interests.
As Nepal has both China and India as its neighbours, there is simply no way for it to avoid dealing with them. Also, it wouldn’t be a prudent foreign policy tactic if either one of these heavyweights was ignored. Both countries have the political and economic clout to help Nepal in its bid for progress. They also have a greater interest in Nepal’s well-being than western powers for whom the country may be relatively insignificant.
Inside Nepal, there is a desire for the country to take up a clear foreign policy stance and position itself in alliances that can support it through economic upheavals. In the wake of the war on terror and the global financial crisis, the world stage is uncertain in terms of both security and economic stability. Any sudden change in conditions could sweep away smaller countries with the tide since they do not have the depth of military or monetary resources necessary to withstand such pressures.
Threats to the stability of countries are not just appearing on the ground these days. International boundaries have become more fluid since the world has become digitally connected. This has led to an increase in cyber crimes and has also helped those who use the internet to carry out their illegal activities. The SCO has taken an active stance in protecting its member states from such threats and its capabilities in this area could help Nepal as well.
However, while there has been talk of Nepal joining the SCO for the past several years, this cannot take place without collective political will and a strong foreign policy. For a fledgling economy, it is just not possible to flourish in the current climate without the help of trade and cooperation agreements. Globalization, like everything else, works on the principle of give and take. By standing on the sidelines in an effort to remain neutral, Nepal will gradually lose its usefulness to its highly competitive and ambitious neighbours.
Under the circumstances, the best course of action for Nepal is to make active and concrete efforts to join the SCO and fully take advantage of the various benefits offered by its member states. In the future, the NDF could also serve as a useful monetary resource for the country.
The rationale for joining the SCO is very strong and it is up to Nepal’s current leadership to prove to the organization’s members that by accepting it into their ranks they will not just be taking on dead weight and that Nepal will be able to actively contribute towards the greater good of all member states.
A broad political consensus among various stakeholders of the Nepalese government is the key to the success of its foreign policy. In addition, there is also a need to overhaul and improve the country’s diplomatic infrastructure to build a more positive international image.