The concept of a buffer state, a smaller state strategically placed between two or more major warring powers, has played a significant role in the history of geopolitical theory. We refer to the collection of these buffer states and their neighboring controversies as buffer systems. Such buffer zones provide possibilities for understanding regional interaction patterns. Buffer nations have traditionally served as territorial breaks between warring governments. Such governments often acted as early warning systems for the centers of empires, alerting them to impending invasions in time to prepare. For defense against external dangers, the Roman Empire, for instance, established march states with what it called barbarian tribes on its border.
Therefore, the buffer state’s static geographical relevance for its more powerful neighbors was stressed in historical conceptions, whether as a break between rival great powers or as a defense against invasion. Geography (although still significant) does not provide the same geographical protections as it did before the advent of modern communication and transportation technology in the early 20th century. To better understand the significance of buffer states in modern International Relations, the notion has to be reworked.
As I argue in my article “Reframing the Buffer State in Contemporary International Relations: Nepal’s Relations with India and China,” the notion of a buffer state may be usefully recast as an analytical tool in modern international relations. To properly grasp the buffer state’s significance in international politics, I suggest that it must be seen as a dynamic political arena where its agency is vital. However, the strategic value attested to by the buffer state’s contesting neighbors must be included into any evaluation of the state’s utility.
In the book, I offer a new conceptual framework for the study of buffer states based on two factors: the buffer state’s agency and its strategic usefulness for the contesting bordering states. This idea provides a another perspective from which to evaluate the buffer state, one that is not so rigidly bound to the traditional definition of the buffer as a “gap” or “space” between rivaling forces. Rather, it recognizes the strategic importance of buffer states for its rival contiguous neighbors, who are not passive bystanders but active participants in the buffer system. It is a dynamic political landscape, where rival countries may openly display competitive overtures thanks to the new buffer state idea. These kinds of overtures might provide the competing governments insight into how much sway they really have inside the buffer state.
Although buffer states have become less useful as geographic discontinuities or early warning systems, this new concept of a buffer state emphasizes their agency by emphasizing that they are dynamic spaces in which to measure the foreign policy approaches of their contending neighbors.
Nepal is presented as an example of this new notion of a buffer state. It is a minor state sandwiched between China and India, two major countries at odds with one another. There was a short border conflict between these two countries in 1962 due to territorial issues and a longer-term geopolitical rivalry. Given its strategic position in the heart of the Himalayas and its proximity to both the British Empire in India and the Qing Empire in China, Nepal has long played a pivotal historical role as a buffer state between the two superpowers. Given the ongoing tensions along the Sino-Indian border, Nepal retains its strategic relevance in the current day. Thus, the new buffer state notion is discussed via the instance of Nepal due to its significance in Sino-Indian contacts and the rising influence of China in South Asia, an area previously thought of as being under India’s sphere of influence. The justification for this new buffer state notion was further bolstered by Nepal’s internal political environment, which shapes the country’s interactions with its neighbors and sheds light on their dynamic nature.
Twenty-one distinct political events (termed crucial junctures) connected to the China-India-Nepal buffer system were utilized by me to extrapolate the novel notion of the buffer state. Any one of the buffer system’s member nations may have been prompted to take action by a series of political events at these junctures. The analysis of these 21 turning points demonstrates that the buffer system in Nepal is characterized by competitive overtures from India and China, but also by their active pursuit of undermining each other within the buffer state. Nepal, as a buffer state, reacted to India’s and China’s overtures by openly jockeying for support in order to further its own goals. This new definition of a buffer state, which places more emphasis on its strategic relevance for its neighbors and agency, allows for a more nuanced comprehension of the security dynamics of the area as a whole. As Nepal is a considerably weaker state than its neighbors, the book also provides a comprehensive examination of Sino-Indian interests in Nepal and the responses of Nepal to pursue its own interests.
There has been increased debate about buffer zones and buffer states along the eastern boundaries of Europe with Russia as the conflict in Ukraine continues to escalate. I derive the notion of a buffer state from this, and Ukraine’s agency in international politics is a key part of this. Maybe it’s time to give buffer nations a prominent role in international politics again.