Nepal’s security challenges have traditionally been viewed more narrowly through a military lens. In the present context, Nepal’s security challenges can only be adequately visualized through the wider aspects of security. Among a wide array of security issues, the primary security challenges for Nepal are concerned to its volatile neighborhood, geopolitical reality, open border, cross-border crime, internal socio-political extremism, weak economy and weak governance that could render Nepal as a hub for international terrorism.
Nepal faces a challenging task of maintaining balanced ties with its immediate neighbors India and China. Nepal is located in a highly volatile neighborhood. Akbar Notezai points out, “the longest-standing mutual interest for China and Pakistan has been the leverage that the two sides gain in their rivalries with India, which has underpinned Sino-Pakistani security cooperation for decades.” This is bound to impact the wider region, not least Nepal, sandwiched as it is between India and China. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has failed to deliver peace, stability and prosperity in the region. Thomas Thornton argues that in regional organizations, it is difficult for “countries to establish balanced relations when one has a significant advantage in power over the other states.”
Given the great Himalayas that stand between Nepal and China, for all intents and purposes, this “yam between two boulders,” is practically India-locked and not simply landlocked. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have found it difficult to meet their burgeoning energy demands which poses a threat to their energy security. Therefore, it presents both opportunities and challenges for Nepal to fill that void given its vast potential for production of hydropower.
Another major contemporary challenge Nepal has been facing is to choose between the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. Specifically, there is an ongoing debate in Nepal on whether the US Millennium Challenge Corporation grant of 500 million US dollars is being given under the broader framework of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Given its geographical proximity, geopolitical reality warrants warm ties with its neighbor across the Himalayas. However, Nepal has historically pursued ties with friendly nations beyond its borders as well without harming the interests of its immediate neighbors.
The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Kathmandu in October 2019 was the first by any Chinese Head of State since Jiang Zemin in 1996. Some read this as a growing closeness between Nepal and China. The balance that Nepal requires in line with its policy non-alignment in world affairs will emerge as one of the most pressing challenges of its foreign policy.
At the domestic level, the growing prevalence of socio-political extremism has risen to poseincreasing challenges for Nepal. With its society still reeling from the decade long Maoist insurgency that ended in 2006, there are indications that the breakaway faction of Maoists, led by Netra Bikram Chand “Biplav”, is trying to instigate another insurgency. This hard-line faction considers the 2006 ceasefire and subsequent peace deal a stab on the back by their former comrades and feels that the revolution is not over. As a result, it appears keen to resume an armed struggle. It engaged heavily in the use of Improvised Explosive Devices during the last national elections.
The secessionist aspirations in the southern plains of Nepal led by C.K. Raut caused upheavals in Nepal’s fragile political environment. Although now in the political mainstream after having agreed to give up his separatist agenda, the secessionist seed was sowed in disgruntled parts of the Nepalese society.
Extremism along political and ethnic lines poses a challenge to Nepal’s security which must solemnly be contained. Moreover, the faltering Nepalese economy, especially in light of the booming Indian and Chinese economies, has manifested itself into a security challenge. Therefore, there is a threat of an economically unstable Nepal impacting human security, including demographic displacement and second order effects on health and society.
Nepal’s economy suffers from “structural as well as several binding critical constraints comprising high-cost economy; subsistence agriculture; alarming increasing dependence; inadequate and poor status of physical infrastructure; rampant corruption; followed by inefficiency and poor governance.” Although Nepal’s economy has picked up considerably with an economic growth rate of 8.2 percent in 2016-2017, and 6.7 percent in 2017-2018; Nepal still remains as the fourth poorest country in Asia and the 31st poorest in the world.
Weak governance may create ungoverned or inadequately-governed spaces in Nepal that may be exploited by international extremists. Among others, Islamist groups could potentially target Indian, Western or Chinese interests in or from Nepal. The U.S. State Department’s 2018 Country Report on International Terrorism states that, “due to Nepal’s open border with India and insufficient security protocols at the country’s sole international airport in Kathmandu, Nepal has and could continue to be used as a transit or staging point for international terrorists.”
In conclusion, the security challenges faced by Nepal are very broad and emanate from wider aspects of security. From finding a balance in its complex relationship with its two powerful neighbors, maintaining its non-aligned approach in world affairs and achieving economic prosperity to tackling socio-political extremism, effectively governing itself and keeping rogue organizations at bay, the tasks faced by the Himalayan nation are truly arduous. Nepal’s success will largely depend upon its political parties, security forces, bureaucracy and ultimately its people. They must together endeavor to preserve the nation while persevering in the face of challenges that would emerge in the days ahead.