Interview | ‘Nepali Congress should learn from BP Koirala’s playbook on China to resolve border issues with India’: Geja Sharma Wagle, foreign policy analyst

Photos: Nimesh Jung Rai/NL Today

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 10 min.

Geja Sharma Wagle, columnist and security/ foreign policy analyst, has been a critic of Nepal’s foreign policy, especially with India, China and the US. One of his claims was that the government of KP Sharma Oli tilted the balance of Nepal’s foreign policy toward China, thereby rupturing Nepal’s long-held principle of balanced relations. What does he have to say about the foreign policy of the Sher Bahadur Deuba government? What are the problems and challenges of Nepal’s foreign policy in general? In a recent interview, Wagle shared his perspectives on a wide range of foreign policy matters.

You were a vocal critic of the Oli government’s foreign policy. In your view, how does the foreign policy of Sher Bahadur Deuba differ from that of Oli?

Oli appeared China-friendly in the initial days of his term. The Chinese also seemed to regard Oli’s government as China-friendly.  One positive outcome of this was the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Nepal in October 2019. This was an important visit and it can be called a success story of Oli.  But we could have reaped a lot of benefits for Nepal during that visit. It was expected that Oli would push the BRI projects during his term but he failed to do so.  We had the most powerful government to push the BRI projects but we could do nothing.

Oli did not remain loyal to China for long. He started to turn to India after the disputes escalated inside the then Nepal Communist Party (NCP). He seemed to be tilting toward India in the latter days, even as the Chinese were visibly displeased about his volte-face. Throughout the whole tenure, Oli paid lip service to get the MCC Compact endorsed by parliament.  But he took no decisive step toward that end. This is why I say that the foreign policy conduct of Oli was out of balance.

As for the Sher Bahadur Deuba government, it may be too early to evaluate his foreign policy for he has been in power for only six months now. But as a party that has long been maintaining balanced foreign policy, Nepali Congress has given continuity to the policy of balance. Nepali Congress has had friendly relations with India and greater credibility among the Western democracies. With China too it has had relations based on trust and mutual respect. Nepali Congress’s relations with China are based on the foundation set by BP Koirala. The Sagarmatha dispute, which seemed intractable, was amicably resolved during BP’s China visit through the high-level political dialogue. 

Deuba’s government looks resolute on passing MCC, pursuing BRI, and normalizing relations with India. I would say this government is bringing our foreign policies back on balance which had been almost lost when Oli was in power.

But as things stand, Deuba has been blundering on many fronts. He failed to pick the vital boundary issue and the death of Jaya Singh Dhami with India. He instead picked an unverified border encroachment claim with China and has failed to pass the MCC Compact.

I do not claim that this government’s foreign policy is flawless. But it is heading toward a positive direction. Oli’s high rhetoric had actually caused trouble in our relations with India. His approach was grounded on jingoism and disloyalty or treason. Those who agreed with his policies were branded as nationalists, those who did not as traitors. This extreme polarization did not do us any good. The current government has refrained from taking extreme positions. It at least has tried to bring the relations back on to an even keel. Today, you don’t see the ups and downs, rise and fall, and dis-balance that were there during Oli’s term.  Now at least, high-level political dialogue has resumed. Deuba and Modi met in Glasgow. They would meet in Gujarat too but it did not happen because of Covid-19. Diplomatic dialogue and party-to-party relations have resumed. Yes, we have issues related to the border, trade, EPG and so on which cannot be resolved overnight. But at least the relations have normalized.

What you say as ‘normalized relations’ seem to have come at the expense of the government’s silence on territorial claims on Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura.

The territory of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura has become an emotional issue for Nepali people.  The success of any government is going to be measured in terms of how well it negotiates with India to assert Nepali sovereignty on that territory. 

In this context, I would like to advise the Sher Bahadur Deuba government to take a leaf from the book of diplomacy of Nepali Congress founding father BP Koirala. BP Koirala was instrumental in resolving Nepal’s border disputes with China.  The dispute with China was not only about some areas of land along the northern frontier. The major dispute was about Mt Everest, the soul and pride of Nepalis. 

BP had such diplomatic skills and had maintained such friendly relations with China that the Chinese would take him seriously. So how did BP negotiate with China in 1960? He had high-level political dialogues with Chairman Mao and Premier Chau En-lai.  It would not have been possible if the negotiations had taken place only at the technical or bureaucratic level. Before making the visit to China and raising the issue with China, BP did intense homework back in the country. He gathered evidence and presented them to the Chinese side.  If you see the photos of meetings between BP and Mao and Chau En-lai you will see BP talking to the Chinese leaders by pointing at the map.  Nepali side did not just put its claim but also furnished historical documents, facts and papers we had as evidence. So the issue was amicably settled. 

Nepali Congress should learn from the playbook of BP’s diplomacy with China to resolve border issues with India. I would request Nepali Congress to look back to that history. If we furnish our evidence and negotiate at a high political level, I don’t see why the border issue with India cannot be resolved.

Let me mention here again that border dispute is a highly contentious, complicated and sensitive issue for every country. It takes a long time to resolve it. But whenever I think about diplomacy and negotiation, I remember Nobel Prize laureate British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s mind-blowing quotation. He used to say ‘diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.’ 

Our government, diplomats and negotiators should also take the much-needed lessons from Churchill when it comes to diplomacy and negotiation. And they should show diplomatic and negotiation skills like Churchill said. If our government, diplomats and negotiators are able to follow those kinds of diplomatic and negotiation skills, all the problems with neighbors including border disputes can be resolved amicably.  

In your view, what are the major problems of Nepal’s foreign policy?

Nepal is among the oldest independent nation-states in South Asia but the tragedy is we did not have a written foreign policy document until we became a federal democratic republic.   The KP Oli government unveiled the first foreign policy document. That was a welcome change but it became the subject of debate because there was no consensus among the major political parties. There should be a consensus among the parties on at least two vital national documents—the foreign policy and national security policy. But in our case, even such policies become influenced by partisan interests. There should be wider consultation among the parties represented in the parliament during the discussion on such policies. This is what many other democratic countries do. We need to follow suit.   These two policies should always be aligned with the larger national interests of Nepal and they should be the guiding principles for those who lead the government. Unfortunately in Nepal, our foreign policy priorities change along with the change of the government. 

Our national security policy was unveiled in 2015 when Sushil Koirala was the PM. In 2020, the policy was further revised by the Oli government giving no justification for it and the matter was not made public.  It was not discussed with the concerned stakeholders and major parties in parliament. Similarly, the first foreign policy document was unveiled the same year but again there was no wider consultation with experts and political parties. As a result, these policies have flaws. Nepal should present its foreign policy and national security policies in parliament for wider discussion and deliberations. If we endorse it by parliament, government change does not lead to policy change. This is a major foreign policy flaw. There are others as well.

What are they? Can you explain?

First, our governments, political parties and their leaders and even scholars are guided by ‘small and landlocked nation’ syndrome. This syndrome always makes you feel weak and inferior. So we think we are a small nation, we are not able to negotiate from a position of strength and we have to accept whatever the big neighbors impose on us. We need to come out of this syndrome as soon as possible.  We need to think of ourselves as a land-linked nation, not as a land-locked nation. After all, with trade and transport agreements with China, we are no more a landlocked nation.  

The second problem is with the yam doctrine preached by King Prithvi Narayan Shah which is still followed as the main mantra of our foreign policy. I think this doctrine is flawed because it presents us as a weak and vulnerable nation, a nation that could be crushed by the boulder from either side. Even metaphorically, yam is a weak symbol, something that can be crushed, cooked and swallowed down.  We need to come out of this yam doctrine and present ourselves as a bridge between China and India.

Third, we are always in a defensive position as if we cannot become proactive. Our political parties remain divided on vital foreign policy issues. They keep changing foreign policies along with the change of the government.

Is this the reason why the position of the political parties keeps changing on projects like BRI and MCC?

To a large extent, yes. But we also need to realize that we have become a bit too obsessed with MCC and BRI. There are other sides to our relations with the US and China apart from MCC and BRI. Our entire discourse is centered on these two issues. At the moment, MCC is a hot potato and everybody is talking about it. I have long been saying that Nepal must take support under MCC and BRI both. But having said that, it would be a mistake to think that our relations with the US are only about the MCC and that with China is only about BRI. With the US and China, we have several other aspects of bilateral, economic and people-to-people relations. We should keep in mind that BRI is one project, just as MCC. There are multi-layered, multi-dimensional relations of Nepal with these countries. For example, we have not been able to follow the trade and transit treaty with China. Where is the follow-up? Likewise, what happened to all those good agreements which were signed between Nepal and China during the visit of the Chinese president to Nepal? Again, where is the follow-up ? Our focus on MCC and BRI should not be allowed to overshadow our multidimensional relations with America and China. We have geo-politicized big projects funded and assisted by China and the US. This is not in the interests of Nepal.  We need to remember that if we fail to execute MCC, we will fail on BRI as well. In that case, neither America nor China will consider us as a reliable partner. Our development partners will also start questioning our credibility. 

I would love to give examples of Sri Lanka and Mongolia in terms of both BRI and MCC.  Sri Lanka failed to implement MCC, it failed to benefit from BRI as well. Mongolia has implemented both MCC and BRI and is gaining from both. Sri Lanka failed on both fronts because it failed to prioritize its national interests and negotiate diplomatically. Mongolia succeeded on both fronts because it was able to identify its national and economic interests and selected and negotiated the projects based on its own national interests. It dealt with both the countries diplomatically and could secure assistance for the country from both America and China. Nepal should learn from the failures of Sri Lanka and the success of Mongolia. Nepal identified its priorities based on national interests and became a signatory to both MCC and BRI. Now it needs to be able to implement both BRI and MCC.

As the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China is escalating amidst tensions between India and China, what do you see as the major foreign policy challenges for Nepal in the days to come?

India and China are the emerging powers in our neighborhood. The conflict and misunderstanding they have now may further escalate in the days to come. The same goes for the US and China.  The Cold War of the 60s was centered on Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. Today’s cold war has shifted to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, or the Indo-pacific, and the Himalayan range.  So the epicenter of the conflict could now be the Indo-Pacific and the Himalayan range.  

Nepal is surely going to feel the heat.  But the Nepali political parties and the government do not seem to have realized the seriousness of this matter. They have not thought about the risks, let alone assessing them. We have not yet visualized the scene. Now every major power, the US, China and India, is trying to increase their influence in Nepal. This competition for influence will be even more intense in the days to come. To what level will this geopolitical competition and rivalry increase will depend on how fast India and China will rise and how China-US relations will deteriorate.  But Nepal will be faced with several vulnerabilities. Nepal could become a geopolitical playground of these three powers.  Nepal should guard itself against falling into the geopolitical trap of the rivalries between these powers.  In this context again, Mongolia may be an example for Nepal to follow.  Mongolia lies between China and Russia and as such is a geopolitically sensitive location. But it has been able to balance its relations with these countries along with America.  Mongolia has taken the policy of permanent neutrality in international forums in terms of its immediate neighbors.  

You outlined foreign policy flaws and challenges. In your view, what are the solutions to those problems?  What should Nepal do?

We need to come out of this conventional approach to foreign policy. We need to depart from that approach and the political parties need to be prepared for that.  For that, we need to define foreign policy according to national interests.  Like I said, we need to come out of land-locked syndrome and present ourselves as a land-linked nation. We need to frame our policies not as a land-locked but as a land-linked nation. This should be taken into consideration not only while drafting foreign policy but also national security policy.  Then we need to discard this yam metaphor and adopt a bridge doctrine. Nepal as a nation lying between the largest economies of Asia is a bridge between them. We are not a yam. 

Our discourse on foreign policy is dominated by geopolitics. We tend to think talking geopolitics is talking big. India, China and the US also tend to look into Nepal through a geopolitical lens.  Geopolitics is important for them and let it become their priority. But we need to focus on geo-economics. We need to prioritize economic benefits out of our relations with these two countries. Then we need to enhance economic diplomacy for foreign assistance, grants and loans.

Climate diplomacy is a big and emerging issue globally but we have not even started to talk about it. We need to make it an integral part of our foreign policy priority.  Nepal also needs to make country-specific policies. Nepal needs to have a separate policy on India, China, the US, the EU nations and global and regional organizations. This is important because they are our development partners as well. I can suggest a number of such measures but the problem in Nepal has never been that of lack of ideas of solutions. The problem has largely been about the lack of will to work on those ideas.