In Kathmandu, analysts and experts often criticize the government of KP Sharma Oli for, what they call, its deviation from Nepal’s guiding principles of maintaining a diplomatic balance between emerging global power and our immediate neighbors. It is widely believed that the government is deviating from the principle of balance and leaning toward India.
Are there any shifts in the foreign policy? Was there any secret agreement with India during the recent visit by RAW chief Samant Goel? Has the government put the issue of Kalapani-Lipulekh-Limpiyadhura on the back burner? Minister of Foreign Affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali spoke to Siromani Dhungana and Mahabir Paudyal on foreign policy, government’s Covid response and many other emerging political issues.
The government had started with an impressive foreign policy slogan of ‘amity with all, enmity with none.’ Three years down the line we seem to be in ‘enmity with none, amity with none’ position. What led to this shift?
First of all, that we have descended to the ‘amity with none’ position is a flawed perception. Such perceptions are born out of lack of adequate information, proper understanding of the reality on the ground and, sometimes, by biases. Nepal’s foreign policy’s main goal is to protect and preserve its national interest. For this, the only weapon available for the country is fraternity, amity, friendship and cooperation with neighbors and friendly countries around the world. We are a country that has always avoided polarization and strategic alliances. The ‘amity with all, enmity with none’ slogan was carefully crafted to capture this core principle of our foreign policy. That is our guiding principle even today.
One can assess this in how our diplomatic outreach has expanded across the countries over the past three years and how deep our diplomatic engagement has been with the countries around the world. One can see that in how seriously Nepal’s voices and concerns have been listened to by the global community and the type of response Nepal is getting in major international forums. The cooperation and response Nepal is getting during the times of pandemic is the latest proof of how Nepal is moving toward the right direction.
Uncertainties, contestations and polarizations have become the norms of geopolitics today. Our policy is to ensure that Nepal is not part of such contestations.
That said, we are mindful of the fact that relations between the global powers are fraught with contestations, rivalries, strategies and counter-strategies. We have to watch all that carefully. We cannot change their policies and strategies by our efforts. We have to be smart enough to navigate our relations in these turbulent times.
But as things stand we have not been able to do much in implementing BRI and MCC projects. Nepal appears to be leaning toward India by alienating China.
That’s not the case at all. We have two neighbors and an extended neighbor (the US). Throughout our history, Nepal has preserved its sovereignty and national interests by remaining on good terms with these major powers. Yes, there were deviations at times but on the whole Nepal has always maintained a fine balance in its relations with the neighbors and friends.
Let’s be clear about one thing: The contestation between the US and China and China and India are not because of Nepal’s foreign policy. At times we seem to think as if Beijing, Washington and New Delhi have nothing else to think about but politics and engagement with Nepal. We at times seem to be obsessed with such thoughts. That makes no sense.
Uncertainties, contestations and polarizations have become the norms of geopolitics today. This has got nothing to do with Nepal’s foreign policy. Our policy is to ensure that Nepal is not part of such contestations. Nepal would love to play a constructive role to minimize such contestations if it could. We are aware that the global superpower and emerging global powers have their interests in Nepal. We want those interests to be translated in line with our development aspirations for peaceful and prosperous Nepal. We are trying our best to convey the message to the neighbors and friends that Nepal’s soil will not be misused against their genuine interests.
The government does not seem to be talking about the boundary issue with India. Why?
We have some issues with boundaries and some of the provisions of the 1950’s treaty with India. These issues are the outcomes of history. But we are in communication with each other. We are discussing how they can be resolved bilaterally. For the first time, during the sixth Joint Commission meeting held in New Delhi last January those issues were tabled and discussed. Yes, differences persist and we are yet to come to a common understanding but we are discussing the issues and trying to find the solution.
China’s Trans-Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity Project has been enlisted under the BRI framework. Covid-19 has halted many projects under BRI but they are on the right track. Yes, MCC has not been approved by parliament but that’s not the problem created by the government. You know that MCC has become a victim of the political interests and differences of some of the leaders with Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli. The government has continued its engagement with India, China and the US.
Earlier you spoke about geopolitical rivalries, contestations and polarizations between the US and China. Can we say that those contestations reflect on Nepal’s inability to take decisions on MCC and BRI?
Like I said, the MCC process has been halted not because of the objection of our friendly country but due to the rift between the political players inside the country. I have discussed it extensively with my counterpart from the friendly country. They know very well that Nepal has the sovereign right to take the decision on issues of its national interest. Unless Nepal’s vision goes against the genuine interests of a particular country, there is no reason for them to be alarmed. We have assured them that Nepal will always remain a friendly, trustworthy nation to them. Nepal’s relation with one particular country is not against any other particular country.
MCC has not been approved by parliament but that’s not the problem created by the government. MCC has become a victim of the political interests and differences of some of the leaders with Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli.
Let’s talk about our vaccine diplomacy. Nepal was making pleas for vaccine support from India which itself was suffering a huge Covid crisis. Was the omission of China deliberate?
First of all, we should change our notion that there is a huge stockpile of vaccines in one particular country, Nepal can charter a plane, fly to that particular country and bring all the vaccines back home. It’s not that simple. There is unequal distribution of vaccines worldwide. Out of 1.86 vaccines administered on people, more than billion vaccines were given to the people of only 15 countries. The rest of the world has not benefited from the vaccine support in that sense.
Even despite limitations, Nepal is still the only second country in South Asia to vaccinate the people. We are among the leading 60 countries to vaccinate the people. We started our procurement from Serum Institute of India. We received ten million vaccines from India first. When Covid surge went up in India, Serum failed to provide the contracted amount of vaccines to Nepal.
It would be a big misreading if you say that we have limited vaccine diplomacy to India. Under my personal initiative and through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have requested the governments of China, the US, the UK and Russia to put Nepal on their priorities. We have approached two major vaccine manufacturers of the world, Sinopharm of China and Johnson and Johnson of the US. You will see the results soon.
Samant Goel came to Nepal not as the chief of RAW. He was here as a representative and a message-bearer of Prime Minister Modi.
There is a strong feeling in Nepal that the government made some secret compromises with India in terms of Kalapani-Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura territory during Samant Goel‘s meeting with Prime Minister Oli on October 22, 2020.
This is a big distortion of truth. What happened is evident. The government of India published a new map in November, 2019 incorporating areas of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. Nepal objected and appealed for immediate talks. It was not listened to. We waited until May, 2020. There was no response. Then the link road to Lipulekh through Nepali territory was inaugurated by the Indian side. We were left with no option but to issue a map. If bilateral dialogues over the matter, which Nepal had requested for several times, had taken place we would probably not have to bring out a new map and get it incorporated in our constitution. We would probably be able to resolve the matter through negotiations. After that episode, India and Nepal remained in a state of communication breakdown for many months.
The telephone conversation between PM Oli and PM Narendra Modi on August 15 broke the silence and communication resumed from that point. Then the eighth meeting of Nepal-India Oversight Mechanism was held on August 17 in Kathmandu. These marked a positive change in Nepal-India relations.
Samant Goel came to Nepal not as the chief of RAW. He was here as a representative and a message-bearer of Prime Minister Modi. You need to get this distinction. He was here with the message of PM Modi. Any other official could also have come in his place. It happened to be him. In diplomacy, nations apply informal channels when formal channels do not help. Did not we send Nepal Army officers to India during the blockade to ease the situation? We should not read too much into Goel’s visit to Nepal. Supposing that some secret deals were made during the meeting or such understanding was made, where does it reflect on Nepal’s relation with India? Where does this reflect in practice? The exaggeration around his visit is totally unwarranted.
Besides, tell me what has changed after his visit? Have we changed our map? No we have not. They are in pages of school textbooks and on the walls of the offices across the country. Where has Nepal altered its policy since that event? When I was in New Delhi in January, for the first time we tabled the territorial issue on the table of discussion. Indian side is not convinced but we stick to our stand.
Supposing that those were exaggerations. What generated those exaggerations then?
I think there have been a lot of exaggerations around this issue because people have linked the internal political developments after October with that visit. Some people have linked the dissolution of the House of Representatives on December 20, split of Nepal Communist Party and what has been described as the U turn of Mahatha Thakur and Rajendra Mahato of Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal (JSPN) with that particular event. The truth is there is no connection between these events with the meeting between PM Oli and Goel.
Let me tell you the truth. The exercise of bringing no confidence motion against PM Oli had started as early as April, 2020. The NCP was in turmoil mainly because of the internal conflicts among the top leaders. Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s game plan was to either capture NCP or to sow the seeds of discord by playing a faction of UML against another. This was the root cause of House dissolution in December, 2020. And the root cause of the NCP split is the Supreme Court verdict of March. As for JSPN, their unity itself seems to stand on a fragile ground. One faction of today’s JSPN was the government’s coalition partner for more than one and half years. Now another faction of that party is supporting the government. What is unnatural about it? The October meeting has nothing to do with it.
If so, what exactly was discussed between Prime Minister Oli and Samant Goel during their one-on-one meeting? There was no presence of Foreign Ministry officials during the meeting.
The record of conversation between PM Oli and Samant Goel is safe in the Foreign Ministry. The conversation between Oli and Goel was focused on improving relations and clearing mistrusts between India and Nepal. PM Oli categorically told Goel that based on historical evidence, proofs and facts, India should return those territories to Nepal. He told him that Nepal is not making the claim simply for the sake of making a claim or to pique India. Even the Treaty of Sugauli, which in a way is a treaty of humiliation for Nepal, shows those territories belong to Nepal. PM Oli told Goelthat India should agree to resolve the issues based on facts.
The record of conversation between PM Oli and Samant Goel is safe in the Foreign Ministry. The conversation was focused on improving relations and clearing mistrusts between India and Nepal.
The matters related to the 1950’s treaty, the EPG report and Pancheshwar projects were also discussed. PM Oli told Goel that those matters have to be resolved immediately. The PM said we need to resolve the contestations created by history, resolve all irritants and move on with new spirit and new faith. This is the message PM delivered to his Indian counterpart through Goel.
The government looks bent on releasing even those convicted of Tikapur massacre to bring a faction of JSPN onboard. Why such a serious compromise with the country’s justice system?
The Tikapur massacre and the incidents in Madhesh that year are the biggest tragedies in Nepal’s history. There has to be an objective assessment and investigation of these incidents. The guilty must be punished, the innocent must be spared. We have not deviated an inch from this principle. But at the same time, we must admit that there has not been an in-depth study on these incidents. The Lal Commission was formed but looking back it seems to be an attempt to pacify the situation at that moment.
On the other hand, many innocent Tharus and Madheshis have been facing jail terms and trials. The idea is to secure the release of the innocent, not the guilty. The government will not commit any such activities which are prohibited by the constitution and the laws. This has been clearly stated in the six-point agreement with Tharuhat/Tharuwan Joint Struggle Committee. The government is actually saying that if there are cases which can be reviewed or pardoned according to the law and the constitution, the government will work in that direction. Cases against those convicted in the Tikapur massacre are sub-judice at the Supreme Court. The government can do nothing about it.
Regarding the cases of Tikapur massacre, the government is actually saying that if there are cases which can be reviewed or pardoned according to the law and the constitution, the government will work in that direction. Rest assured, the government will not take any move that helps promote and institutionalize impunity.
Rest assured, the government will not take any move that helps promote and institutionalize impunity.
When you took office you advocated a merit-based envoy appointment process and you set a criteria for that too. The recent ambassador appointment controversy shows you are violating your own rule.
There is no denying that the position of the ambassador is a sensitive position loaded with huge responsibility. And merit-based appointment is a way to ensure that our envoys are competent as well responsible. That’s why I myself formulated a directive for ambassador appointment, got it endorsed by the cabinet and put it in implementation.
There is a need to balance political appointment and promotion from among the career diplomats and there is a need to ensure inclusion too. The fact remains that the structure of our career diplomats is still not inclusive enough. Yes, more women and people from reservation schemes are in the Foreign Service than in the past but they are so few in joint-secretary level that we cannot make appointments inclusive even if we want to. Few years down the line, the picture is going to change but for the moment this is where we stand. On political appointments, because it is a political appointment and it has to be inclusive too, we have had to make a compromise with quality. There is a third factor to it too. Some people appointed with high expectations have performed so low but some people who were appointed with low expectations have done wonderful jobs. The point is we get to know who performs well only after assigning them the responsibility. It might sound tricky but this is true. I have noted the criticisms regarding ambassador appointments in a good faith. I will make efforts to correct the shortcomings.
The President is making appeals for vaccine and medical support from her counterparts in consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is unfortunate that the President’s efforts for saving people’s lives have been politicized.
Finally, the activism of President Bidya Devi Bhandari in ‘vaccine diplomacy’ has been criticized for undermining the authority and role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the country’s Executive. What is your comment?
Everyone should know that the President is making appeals for vaccine and medical support from her counterparts in consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Just like I am talking to my counterparts, she is corresponding with her counterparts for support. We are together in this and the government has taken a decision to mobilize all state mechanisms to secure vaccines for the people. It is unfortunate that the President’s efforts for saving people’s lives have been politicized.