Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa looks back at Nepal’s foreign policy trajectory

The veteran diplomat discusses evolution of the new global order and Nepal’s position in it.

  • Read Time 11 min.

It was 1960. A youth was pursuing his doctoral degree at Claremont University, California. Then a king made a visit to Los Angeles. The youth was one of the invitees to the reception held in honor of the visiting king. The king calls him and asks: “How far have you done with your studies?” “I am working on my thesis,” says the youth. The king thinks for a while and says, “Inform me right after you complete your studies. I need learned men back home to help me in the nation-building initiative.” 

The monarch was King Mahendra. The youth, then in his early 20s, was Bhekh Bahadur Thapa.

This was a turning point for Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa. He returned to Nepal in a few months and was appointed to work as the secretary of the Planning Commission. Thus began his career in Nepal’s public offices. Thapa would go on to become the finance secretary, Finance Minister, ambassador of Nepal to the US and India, and Foreign Minister.

The 1960s was a time of geopolitical competition and uncertainties. Two of the world’s superpowers—the US and Soviet Union—were in the Cold War, each trying to increase their influence around the world, including in Asia and Africa. India and Soviet Russia were strategic and military partners, while China-India relations were fraught with tensions, even war. Tensions between China and the US were escalating over the conflict in Vietnam.

The great geopolitical tension had its effects on Nepal as well. Lying between the two Asian giants, China and India, in war and confrontation, and with a major superpower, the US, watching it, Nepal had to navigate its national priorities and deal with the global powers, each competing for supremacy and influence globally and regionally—a tall order for the country.

Nepal was opening a road to China. But the proposal to open the Araniko Highway had raised eyebrows in Washington DC as well as New Delhi. For the country dependent on India for its trade and transport, it was necessary to tell the world that Araniko Highway was the need of Nepal to reduce its dependency on one country.

King Mahendra chose Bhekh Bahadur Thapa to convey this message to Washington DC. He called Thapa to the palace one day and said, in essence: “Bhekh Bahadur, you need to go to America. My drive to build the Kathmandu-Kodari road has met with heavy opposition in the US and Europe. We have sought an alternative to save our existence. We are not trying to get involved in any geopolitical game. You need to tell this to Americans. You studied there and you have had good contacts. You stay there for two to three weeks and communicate our concerns clearly.”

Now in his mid-80s, Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, one of the first-hand witnesses of the intimidating geopolitics of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, has a lot of stories to tell, a lot to draw from the history of those decades. When we met him, he was at his home, sitting in a library adorned with his pictures taken with Chairman Mao, King Mahendra, and Birendra, and the US presidents. He is watching the changing dynamics of geopolitics; what is happening in the country worries him a lot.

Geopolitics then and now

He is of the view that the 1955 Bandung Conference—wherein 29 governments of Asian and African nations began to discuss their role in the Cold War in which mainly the Soviet Union and America were involved—was a turning point in Nepal’s history to formulate its foreign policy and chart a new course. “After that event, concerns about the foreign policy started to be raised in Nepal. That conference gave a much-needed impetus for each country to assert their self-dignity and independence,” he said. After returning from Bandung, the foreign policy stalwarts and intellectuals like Yadunath Khanal started to study foreign policy deeply.  “Nepali scholars made a deep study about the geopolitical situation in the world and the role Nepal could play. Ideological contestations were still there, some were communists and others democrats, but when it came to foreign policy, such differences were set aside,” said Thapa, reflecting on the days of the past.

According to him, Nepal decided to adopt the policy of non-alignment, whereby Nepal would not take sides of either party involved in the Cold War after the Bandung conference. “Nepal created a niche of its own.  Nepal sent a message loud and clear that it would not be involved in any bloc. Nepal was able to secure its national interests while giving a mature dimension to its international outlook,” said Thapa. Nepal refrained from becoming a part of any force and stood neutral. That was a defining moment for Nepal in its history, where it could still maintain relations with the big powers while they were in the Cold War without compromising on national interests and safeguarding its existence and independence. “The credit for this goes to the foreign policy handlers of the mid-1950s to early 60s,” said Thapa.

With Nepal thus asserting itself in the foreign policy arena, says Thapa, we began to be heard globally. The country which was denied the opportunity to secure UN membership by Russian leader Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, saying that he did not know where Nepal was and what it was, secured the UN membership in a few years. Nepal began to be known to the rest of the world.

For Nepal to be able to tackle the geopolitical challenges, there has to be good governance at home and we should be able to keep our own house in order, says Thapa. ‘Political chaos at home has only helped the foreign actors to be dominant in internal politics.’

How did that become possible? Thapa gives credit to king Mahendra. “You have the freedom not to agree with his political philosophy but when it came to national interests he stood firmly for Nepal, negotiated with big powers firmly, and put Nepal in such a trajectory which has to this day kept the country intact, independent, and sovereign,” said Thapa.

For him, two figures are national luminaries par excellence. First is king Prithvi Narayan Shah, and second is king Mahendra. “While Prithvi Narayan gave us Nepal, Mahendra consolidated our national position domestically as well as internationally. Nepal created its vision and made this vision known to the world. What Nepal is today has its roots in the foundation he laid back in those days,” said Thapa without mincing words.

Today the geopolitical polarization of the 1960s and the 70s seems to have revived in a new way. Big powers are forming alliances against each other. Foreign policy experts have called the rivalry between the US and China the ‘new cold war’ and there is a fear that the two superpowers could get into a hot war. As in the 60s, India and the US seem to stand together, while China is increasing its influence across the world to stand up to the US.  For Thapa, however, the situation today is not absolutely comparable to that of the 60s and 70s. “Back then the ideological war was between the Soviet Union bloc and American bloc. Today’s ideological warfare is broad-based.  Even smaller countries have their say in this geopolitical competition,” he said.

As things stand, the geopolitical competition is growing between the US and China and each seems to be consolidating its efforts to increase its influence in Nepal. In this regard, Thapa thinks Nepal needs to draw from how it succeeded in securing economic benefits from big powers without standing in favor or against the competing powers. “Look what we did during the Cold War. While we did not become the ally of any bloc, we were taking economic assistance from all major powers such as India, China, the US, and the Soviet Union,” he said. In his view, Nepal was successful in that endeavor because we had a national unity and we had a single uniform voice on ‘what we are and what our national priorities are.’ “We were not divided like we are today where some political force shows proximity to one power and the other political party shows similar proximity and closeness to other power. In this process, they invite interference in domestic politics.  The leaders of the past had carefully guarded themselves against this suicidal tendency. Morality and ethics were still supreme in those days,” recalled Thapa. “King Mahendra was clear about national priorities. When Nepal opened its highway with China and built Araniko Highway, Americans appeared displeased. He said ‘communism does not come by truck.’ Then all fell silent. The Americans, however, responded by saying that ‘communism does not travel by truck but the communists do.’”

Thapa says that Nepal needs to be able to make a thorough, deep study about the shifting paradigm in geopolitics, standing firm on national interests. Nepal should be able to decide what kind of relations it should maintain with global powerhouses. “This was something the foreign policy stalwarts of the late 50s and early 60s followed so deeply. The king was their patron and provided his guidance but there were intellectuals to think about and worry about Nepal,” said Thapa.

For him, perennial disunity among the political parties and political actors is among the root causes of why Nepal has not been able to uphold its nationality. “While the country has witnessed radical political change, nationality has become weak.  And since there is perennial political disunity the external powers have found a space to fish in the muddy waters,” said Thapa. “Political parties have failed to have a common voice even on crucial issues such as the MCC and BRI. No political party seems to have a clear outlook on our national interests,” he rues. According to him, the philosophical foundation set in the past remains in the paper but in action and practice, political parties have always stood ambivalent, even confused. “It is hard to find who is serving whose interests, it is hard to find a party you can trust for safeguarding our national interests.”

‘During the Cold War, while we did not become the ally of any bloc, we were taking economic assistance from all major powers such as India, China, the US, and the Soviet Union. Nepal was successful in that endeavor because we had a national unity.’ 

For Nepal to be able to tackle the geopolitical challenges, there has to be good governance at home and we should be able to keep our own house in order, says Thapa. “Political chaos at home has only helped the foreign actors to be dominant in internal politics. The situation today is, foreign powers are clear about their interests and how to achieve them. We are either unaware about our interests or we are susceptible to compromising our national interests,” he said. “We are driven by a narrow focus on petty political interests. This has not helped anybody.”

Keeping our house in order, for the veteran of Nepal’s foreign policy, is but only one precondition. “For a country to be able to maintain its national and international image there always has to be a team of committed and honest bureaucrats to think about the country’s welfare all the time,” he said. He recalled an incident while he was the finance secretary and Yadunath Khanal the foreign secretary. “Khanal always had a resignation letter in his pocket. One day, I asked him, ‘Why do you carry a resignation letter in your pocket?” And Khanal said, ‘There are some immature and arrogant people in the government. Even the king tends to appear immature at times. If they ask me to do anything that is against the larger interests of the nation, I will submit this resignation,’ Khanal said.”

Thapa says we need such honest officers in the government, such officers who think that nation is above all else.

‘BP was a nationalist’

While the 60s were the times for Nepal to reach out to the rest of the world, it was also a period when the first elected Prime Minister of Nepal BP Koirala was removed by King Mahendra through a coup. In those days, the dominant narrative portrayed BP as an ‘anti-nationalist’ leader while projecting Mahendra as the ‘sole defender’ of the nation. Thapa does not agree with this judgment. For him, BP was a nationalist. “BP Koirala was a nationalist. There is no dispute about it. He was struggling for democracy from exile but later came home concluding that his and the king’s necks were tied together,” he said. In his view, BP was a victim of political infighting and the shenanigans of his own brother.

“BP could have done more for the nation if he had stayed in power for longer. But his tenure was short-lived,” he said. Thapa admires BP’s foreign policy outlook. “He maintained relations with China and other countries without being flexible on national priorities. He gave recognition to Israel which was a bold move. BP did not lag behind in aggressively pursuing Nepal’s foreign policy,” added Thapa. He does not dismiss the widely held perceptions that if BP Koirala and Mahendra had worked together or stayed together, Nepal would find itself in a different development trajectory. “In his address to the nation after the royal takeover, King Mahendra has nowhere criticized foreign policies of BP.”

Thapa has felt a conspicuous absence of towering leaders in today’s domestic and international politics. “We live in the age of uncertainties globally as well as internally. There is no towering leader to leave an influence. Back in the cold war days, we had leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Sukarno (Indonesia), and Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt) who had a greater say and who would be listened to. In Nepal, we had leaders like Mahendra and BP. Today nobody listens to any other leaders. No leader has become influential enough.”

According to Thapa, we have no towering figure equipped to deal with big national challenges at the moment. Nepal issued a new political map to include Kalapani, Limpiyadhura, and Lipulekh but there has not been any follow-up to take these lands back under our sovereignty. “The Indian side has been building roads in those territories. We have not been able to do more than have those lands on our map. We still need permission from India to go to these territories, which India does not give,” he said. “We have not been able to build a common framework to address these issues.”   

Thapa, who led the team of Eminent Persons Group (EPG) from the Nepali side, is unhappy that the report which was jointly prepared by the EPGs of Nepal and India has not yet been accepted by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “How can they ignore the report which was born out of the commitment from none other than the Prime Minister of India? The sea change in the attitude toward the EPG from the Indian side is astonishing,” said Thapa. He argues that the EPG has recommendations to resolve long-standing issues between Nepal and India. “Until the matters raised in the EPG report are addressed, the kind of bitterness that sometimes emerges in relations between India and Nepal will continue to surface,” he said.

Know thy national interests

As geopolitical competition between the US and China is escalating, one big challenge for Nepal is surely going to be in handling relations with China and the US. In his assessment, after the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, the global order has fallen into a state of uncertainty. The US which rose into an unparalleled global power is losing its influence. The powerful countries of the past have become weak and the country [China] that was in the poverty trap for a long time has risen as a prosperous and powerful country. Russia continues to show its strength.  The NATO and EU have not become effective institutions on the global stage. In the context of “fragmented Europe, America becoming a challenged power from a sole superpower, and China’s continuous rise,” says Thapa, “Nepal not only needs to study the situation very carefully but also be able to assert its position in the world. Geopolitics is forever changing and the competition seems to be on who will be more powerful. China is rising and America has taken it as a challenge.  We need to study these changing contexts and determine wherein our interests lie,” he said. But the problem, he says, is we have not been consistent in our approach to foreign policy. “Our foreign policy seems to change along with government change. And this laxity has overshadowed the need for determining our foreign policies,” he said.

Thapa is worried about the erosion in Nepal’s sanding on the global stage. “We were in such a respectable position in the comity of nations at one time, now we have fallen so low,” he said. “Excessive politicization of all sectors, including that of foreign policy, has made the problems even worse.”