Political manoeuvres compromise Nepal’s COVID-19 response

Author: Sujeev Shakya, Beed Management The Nepali government did little to combat COVID-19 when its first case was confirmed on 13 January 2020, viewing it at the time as an isolated problem in China rather than a looming global public health crisis. Nepal was prompted into action only after Europe was hit, followed by the […]

Political manoeuvres compromise Nepal’s COVID-19 response

Author: Sujeev Shakya, Beed Management

The Nepali government did little to combat COVID-19 when its first case was confirmed on 13 January 2020, viewing it at the time as an isolated problem in China rather than a looming global public health crisis. Nepal was prompted into action only after Europe was hit, followed by the United States. Nepal implemented nationwide lockdowns on 24 March, and further measures were taken following neighbouring India’s response. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened political tensions both domestically and with India, compromising the effectiveness of the public health response to help combat the virus in Nepal.

Nepal initially responded by suspending incoming international flights on 22 March. But the porous open border with India enabled people to undertake risky border crossings by bribing border police. The Indian government’s apparent lack of sympathy for migrant workers amid the health crisis caused complete chaos and led to the mass movement of migrant workers. With many trying to return home, it increased the risks of an uncontrolled and untraceable spread of COVID-19. These workers felt that it would be better to return to Nepal rather than stay in a city under lockdown without work where they would never be prioritised for healthcare if they got infected.

Political tensions have risen between India and Nepal over the inauguration of India’s Himalayan link road that traverses disputed territory claimed by both countries. Increased geopolitical tensions amid a pandemic could compromise public health responses and access to required medical supplies and equipment. The humanitarian crisis at the India–Nepal border dominated social media news but the Nepali federal government has kept quiet amid the growing tensions with India.

The pandemic has also infected Nepal’s domestic political stability by exacerbating divisions in the government. Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli was in frail health after a second kidney transplant in March this year that left him largely incapacitated. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Ishwar Pokhrel was instead entrusted to handle the COVID-19 response through a high-level Government Coordination Committee. But the government failed to provide a single point of coordinated effort as each minister acted on their own volition, with the effect being more ceremonial than impactful.

The procurement of testing kits and other medical supplies became highly controversial as the ruling party made sure to procure suppliers who were willing to contribute the party. Graft became pervasive at every step of the procurement process. The government even handed over parts of its civilian functions to the Nepalese Army in procuring supplies — a concerning politicisation of the military.

Despite his frail health, Prime Minister Oli has tried to portray an image of normality as he addresses the nation, but his credibility and popularity is waning. In his quest to ensure his own political survival amid intra-party squabbles, he announced ordinances that would purportedly risk splitting the ruling party and enable control over the appointment of people to the constitutional bodies, such as the anti-corruption body. But President Bidhya Devi Bhandari retracted these ordinances after facing much criticism.

Prime Minister Oli then trained his political guns on stirring nationalism to consolidate his weakening political position as he has often done in the past. He has taken on India over the inauguration of the Himalayan Link road to China through Nepal, alleging that its construction was undertaken without Nepal’s permission. The Chief of the Indian Army provided further ammunition for Oli when he characterised Nepal’s opposition as acting on the behest of external forces, pointing to China.

The media frenzy in India that portrayed Oli as China’s stooge provided him a powerful political veil to push his nationalist agenda. Oli’s nationalist push garnered the political support of the Nepali Congress in seeking to grant constitutional status to an updated map claiming the disputed territory of Kalapani as Nepal’s territory. Oli’s political manoeuvring is distracting the country from taking effective measures to combat the pandemic. It draws attention away from the inadequate testing, the absence of an economic recovery plan and the lack of general preparedness to handle the pandemic.

Having previously faced shutdowns during natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, Nepal can respond well to lockdowns and supply chain disruptions. Police effectively enforced the initial lockdown, but over time political agendas trumped the public health agenda and those with political ties could pay their way through the country during lockdown.

Quarantine and isolation facilities became grossly mismanaged and a few voluntary groups scrambled to provide basic food and water. Private hospitals blamed the government for failing to integrate private healthcare facilities. The Nepali private sector was busy figuring out rent-seeking opportunities in their cartel groups rather than cooperating with the government in overcoming this challenge.

The pandemic has shown that Nepal’s politics and government reflect the state of society. The border crisis became an opportunity to divert Nepal’s attention from the public health crisis towards politics instead. It reflects a blissful ignorance that discussing border maps will keep coronavirus troubles away.

 is CEO of Beed Management, a Nepal-based consulting firm. He is also Senior Advisor for Nepal and Bhutan for BowerGroupAsia and Chair of the Nepal Economic Forum.

This article is part of an  on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

Source : East Asia Forum More   

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Survey Suggests China Influence Over SE Asia Is Rising as America’s Falls

China already has far more economic influence than the U.S., and slightly more political power, in Southeast Asia, and the gap is expected to widen in the next decade.

Survey Suggests China Influence Over SE Asia Is Rising as America’s Falls

The United States is struggling to compete with China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia, according to a new survey of the region's experts, even though there is strong support among them for democratic values.

China already has far more economic influence than the U.S., and slightly more political power, in Southeast Asia, and the gap is expected to widen in the next decade, the survey by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank found.

The survey by the respected Washington-based think tank targeted “strategic elites” – nongovernmental experts or former officials from six Southeast Asian countries. There were 188 respondents from Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. Another 13 people in Fiji responded to the survey.

The survey was conducted in November and December 2019, so it does not factor in how the COVID-19 pandemic may have shaped perceptions of the two powers. The coronavirus originated in China, which has been accused of initially trying to cover up the outbreak. As the virus has spread across the globe, the U.S. has recorded the most deaths.

“The results of this survey paint a picture of clearly ascendant Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, complex and diverging views of China, and deep concerns over U.S.-China strategic competition and its impact on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),” the report describing the survey’s findings says.

Respondents were asked to select up to three countries that hold the most political influence in Southeast Asia. China came up top with 94.5 percent, followed by the U.S. with 92 percent.

But the margin of difference between the two powers grew significantly when the question shifted to who will be the most influential in 10 years’ time, with 94.5 percent choosing China, and 77 percent the U.S. For both questions, Japan and Indonesia came in a distant third and fourth place respectively.

Pat Buchan, director of the U.S. Alliances Project at CSIS and a co-author of the study, said China’s efforts to gain influence in the region have accelerated significantly in the past five years, and the survey results reflect that trend. He said this should serve as a wake-up call for the U.S. as it seeks to compete with China.

“From a historical perspective, the United States has not focused on Southeast Asia largely since the fall of Saigon,” Buchan said in an interview, referring to the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

“Its efforts in Asia have always been focused on East Asia and Northeast Asia. So that does reflect that there is a sort of lost generation of American influence and American expertise on Southeast Asia,” he said.

When it comes to economic influence, there was virtual unanimity in the survey that China is already the frontrunner by a large measure and will continue to be so in a decade.

Asked which three countries now have the most economic power, some 98 percent named China, 70.6 percent said the U.S. and 66.7 percent said Japan. In 10 years, 96 percent say it will be China, 56.7 percent say the U.S. and 56.2 percent say Japan.

Buchan attributed that outcome to the relative lack of U.S. involvement in multilateral trade deals and institutions like the Trans-Pacific Partnership – which was negotiated by the Obama administration as part of its strategic “pivot” to Asia, but then dropped by President Donald Trump.

Despite the recognition of CCP-governed China’s rising influence, and the authoritarian tendencies of many Southeast Asian governments, respondents voiced near support for democratic values.

Some 85 percent of strategic elites said they were confident democratic values were beneficial to their countries’ stability and prosperity. This was most pronounced from respondents in Thailand and the Philippines – which have seen an erosion of democracy in recent years – and Indonesia, where it has proved more robust.

“That definitely ran through the whole thing, this desire for democratic norms and values,” Buchan said. “If we had ran this poll 30 years ago you would’ve gotten a very, very different answer.”

“The soft power influence of the United States is now showing through two generations later as the accepted norm,” he said.

Some 53 percent of respondents considered China’s role to be beneficial for the region, while 46 percent called it detrimental. The negative views were most pronounced in Vietnam and the Philippines – two nations which also expressed the most concern about the situation in the disputed South China Sea, which China claims in its entirety.

Respondents identified the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the most important institution for regional order.

Vietnam, however, was an outlier on this, which may be attributed to its frustration over ASEAN’s failure to reach consensus on the South China Sea issue, with pro-China members such as Cambodia foiling attempts at consensus.

Nearly half of respondents identified external pressure from great powers as the biggest threat to ASEAN’s unity, followed by concern that member states were not giving sufficient priority to the 10-nation bloc.

Source : Radio Free Asia More   

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