The US is quietly making “new friends” to better contain China

The United States held a 3-day military training in February at its Northern Warfare Training Centre located in Black Rapids, Alaska. The event gathered 12 nations and aimed at...

The United States held a 3-day military training in February at its Northern Warfare Training Centre located in Black Rapids, Alaska. The event gathered 12 nations and aimed at enhancing cooperation and capacities in the High North. Black Rapids’ harsh climate and rugged terrain allowed the military to improve their skills in northern warfare and offered conditions very similar to the ones in the Arctic, as it is just 500km off the 66th parallel.

Additionally, it provided Washington with a great opportunity to develop and strengthen new ties with non-NATO countries that could play a key role in what might be seen as an attempt from the US at containing China’s regional influence.

Most of the Arctic council member states – excluding Russia – were on the Pentagon’s guest list to train alongside the US forces: Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway all answered the call. The training was also a great opportunity for non-Arctic allies, namely Australia, the UK and Japan, to get a taste of northern climate.

However, what is interesting to note is the participation of two countries that have, thus far, not only expressed little interest in northern issues, but are also located at a fair distance from the Arctic region: Mongolia and Nepal. Although NATO did not directly sponsor the training, most of the states that took part in the event are either NATO members or long-time major non-NATO allies. While Mongolia is just at the beginning of its relationship with the Western alliance, Nepal’s connection to NATO is, to date, non- existent.

photo: USARAK

Army Training in Black Rapids (photo: USARAK)

The current world order renders a direct confrontation between Beijing and the West unlikely, but in order to secure a minimum level of influence in the region and limit China’s expansionist moves, NATO is slowly making inroads in Asia in building stronger partnerships with China’s neighbors to better contain it.

Mongolia: a buffer zone between two giants

Mongolia and NATO began cooperation in 2005. The partnership was further strengthened through the launching of the Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme in 2012. Mongolia now enjoys the title of “partner across the globe,” which allows it to partake in joints exercises and operations, as well as sensitive training. These existing ties would explain why Mongolia’s armed forces were invited to train at the U.S base specialized in high-altitude operations.

But Mongolia’s strategic location on the world map might also have been a strong incentive to NATO’s decision of having Ulaanbaatar in Black Rapids. First, Mongolia represents a key player in the wake of NATO’s expansion policy at the doors of Russia, which has a major gas plant in Irkutsk, run by the Irkutsk Oil Company and located less than 200km from the Mongolian border. In addition Irkutsk is the heart of Russia’s East Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline, which allows the Kremlin to export its crude oil to the Asia-Pacific markets.

Second, through the established partnership, Mongolia’s privileged position gives NATO the ability to set up a buffer zone between China and Russia. This is a great deal when it comes to containing China. Sino-Russian relations are on the rise, both economically and military, and it is not in the interest of the US to see the formation of an immense geographic area where it would not have any influence.

As economic ties gradually increase between the West and Asia, the stability of the region is becoming an area of concern for NATO. Having a close ally prepositioned there is essential for the alliance, but one might not be enough.

Nepal, a strategic partner in the containment of China by the West

Nepal’s participation in the training is intriguing. Unlike Mongolia, Nepal has no former connection with NATO, does not maintain close relations with the US, nor does it have a direct stake in Arctic issues.

The US Department of Defense press release about the training in Alaska makes reference to “making new friends,” but does not explain what the implications of these new friendships would be. China and India, the two Asian economic giants surrounding landlocked Nepal, are both attempting to exert their influence on Kathmandu. Last summer, India and Nepal officially initiated talks about setting up a pipeline that would stretch from Raxaul (an Indian city sitting on the border with Nepal) to Amlekhgunj. As for China, it promised military assistance to help Nepal acquire new military equipment in 2009.

However, the role of the US, beyond providing an exotic training to the Nepalese military, remains unclear, as it has not yet articulated a specific strategy for Nepal. When looking at a map of Asia, one realises that having Nepal as a “new friend” actually means better containing Chinese expansion.

Combined with the NATO-Mongolia partnership in the North, as well as Japanese and Korean partnerships in the East, the development of stable ties with Nepal would allow the US – and NATO – to put pressure on China from all sides. It is true that NATO already cooperates with Pakistan, but the country’s internal turmoil might make Islamabad a less reliable partner in the future. Nepal might be smaller in size and population, but these drawbacks might be offset by its greater stability.

It would not be surprising if in a years down the road we learn of Nepal becoming a “partner across the globe.”

The famous geostrategist Spykman once said:

 “Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia, who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”

Nepal happens to be right in the middle of the Rimland and on February 6th 2015, Obama launched the US’ National Security Strategy for 2015. The Strong and Sustainable American Leadership, as it has been officially titled, aims at “rebalancing to Asia and the Pacific through increased diplomacy, stronger alliances and partnerships.”

Victor Prevost

Victor Prévost is a junior geopolitics analyst living in Montréal, Canada. He owns a Master's in International Security and Defence and previously worked at United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna for the Civil Society Team, and for the French Ministry of Defence at the Canadian embassy in Ottawa. Having a strong interest in northern politics, he currently runs a blog on economic and defence issues in the Arctic, at
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