Is Nepal being pushed to the geopolitical trap? 

Nepal can fall into the trap if we drag China and the US into the issues that Nepal ought to be able to deal with on its own and if China and the US begin to allow their bilateral matters with Nepal to be enmeshed in their rivalry.

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 7 min.

As the war of words continues between China and the US on the MCC’s Nepal Compact, a new worry in Kathmandu is that China and America are fighting a proxy war in Nepal. The alarm bell has been raised that Nepal could fall into the geopolitical trap set by the growing rivalry between the world’s top two military and economic powers.  

I argue in this article that Nepal may become a victim of  US-China rivalry and be caught in the crossfire mainly because of two reasons. First, because of our own follies. Second, when China and the US start interfering in Nepal affairs by crossing the diplomatic boundaries. In other words, Nepal can avoid the much-feared geopolitical trap but there is an equal possibility of such a trap being created by Nepali political players themselves, including intelligentsia and the press, if we forcefully drag China and the US into the issues that Nepal ought to be able to deal with on its own, independently of its relations with China and the US. 

Equally, if China and the US begin to allow their bilateral matters with Nepal to be enmeshed in their rivalry, if they exert undue pressure (overt or covert) on Nepal over the matters purely bilateral in nature.

The flurry of statements and counter-statements and claims and rebuttals of the past few days over the MCC Compact presents a case for study. It also offers an example of how the hasty reporting–even misreporting–of sensitive matters by the political players and the press can contribute to creating a needless controversy in Nepal’s relations with global powers. 

Misreading the message 

It is immodest to doubt the abilities of our own political actors to comprehend the message passed by the foreign interlocutors. It may sound unprofessional to criticize the media over the matter but close scrutiny of how the American messages on MCC were reported by the political parties and the press, and then by China, in the last few days show that they can create an embarrassing situation to push Nepal into a geopolitical tightrope.  

The US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu was in Kathmandu in November last year. He met political leaders including Maoist Center chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda.’ It was reported, citing Prachanda’s aide, that Lu set a deadline of December 14 to ratify the Nepal Compact. Within minutes, it was all around that Lu set the deadline for Compact ratification and also pressured Nepali political actors to that effect. Lu himself had to clarify that no such deadline had been issued and that no pressure was given. It is possible that Lu mentioned during the meeting with Prachanda about the December 14 meeting of MCC’s board of directors. And this was misconstrued by Nepali interlocutors as the US setting the deadline to Nepal for Compact ratification. 

Donald Lu was apparently misunderstood and misreported again on February 10, when he held telephone conversations with Nepali leaders. Soon after, Nepali leaders close to Prachanda and KP Sharma Oli were attributed as saying that Lu threatened them to ratify the Compact by February 28. Lu was reported as saying: Nepal must ratify the Compact by February 28, if Nepal does not, the US would understand it as Nepali actors stalling the Compact on China’s behest, the US would be compelled to review the bilateral relations between the two countries, even go to the extent of imposing ‘economic sanctions’ on Nepal, so on and so forth.

‘How can the US say that to us?’ We thought. Nobody knows the actual talking points of the conversation. Could Donald Lu have threatened the Nepali actors of the consequences? None of the leaders who he spoke to–Prime Minister and President of Nepali Congress Sher Bahadur Deuba, the chairperson of CPN(UML) K P Oli and the chairperson of Maoist Center Prachanda–had shared the content of the conversation. Yet, the US issued a warning, a threat to Nepal became established as a ‘fact’ overnight. It was further reinforced by news, views and editorials around the threat theme. Analyses are still coming out around that theme and some political leaders are still taking reference from those media reports to justify their opposition to Compact ratification in parliament. 

US ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry.

Distraught and alarmed by the way what was not said was being reported as truth and what was actually said was being omitted, the US embassy in Kathmandu rebutted all such reports.  On February 14, the US ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry clarified that there had been no such threats and warnings.  He said in no uncertain terms that the US has “not threatened Nepali leaders” about the MCC Compact and that it is only asking Nepal to honor its own commitment to endorse the Compact. “We are asking Nepal to follow through on its commitments.  Whether the Nepali leaders ratify MCC is a decision for Nepal to make, as a sovereign democratic nation, and Nepal’s decision alone,” he said. 

He looked worried and unhappy with the way the Nepali press reported the message of Donald Lu.  “We have had discussions with Nepali leaders but not in the way characterized by some press and online discourse,” he said.

How much this rebuttal helped to mitigate reputation damage of the US is anyone’s guess but by the time the clarification came, apparently, the news had spread far and wide and foreign media, by citing the local reports, had begun reinforcing the threat narrative as well as giving China angle to the MCC debacle. For example, a newspaper published from New Delhi on February 14, citing the local reports from Kathmandu, reinforced the theme of warning, threat and China factor in the whole affair. 

Now, it seemed, was the turn of China to react.

On February 18, citing these reports,  China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson was asked what China has to say about the ‘US warning’ on the impact on US-Nepal bilateral relationship if the MCC Compact is not ratified by February 28. Wang Wenbin called the  ‘warning’ ‘a coercive diplomacy’ and said China “oppose” it and “actions that pursue selfish agenda at the expense of Nepal’s sovereignty and interests.” Some of the Nepali press reported this as China saying that it would pratirodh (resist/fight) the US in Nepal. Other reports suggested that China and the US are confronting each other in Nepal.

Perhaps in reaction to China’s opposition, the US embassy in Kathmandu reiterated its stand on February 19 that the $500 million MCC grant is a gift from the American people to Nepal.  

Close scrutiny of how the American messages on MCC were reported by the political parties and the press, and then by China, show they can create an embarrassing situation pushing Nepal into a geopolitical tightrope.  

A day later, in what may be taken as a reaction to China’s reaction to the US reaction, came the reaction from Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating that “the sovereign parliament of Nepal alone decides what development assistance is needed in the best interest of Nepal and Nepali people.”

[Related:To China, with questions and a message]

I had expected that it would not go further from here. But it did. The Chinese side came up with another uncalled for remark on MCC, making it appear China is indeed flexing its muscles to support the anti-MCC bandwagon in Nepal.  Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying lambasted the US embassy’s statement: “The US Embassy in Nepal described the $500 million MCC grant as “a gift from the American people to Nepalis”. I wonder, since when does a gift come with the package of an ultimatum? How can anyone accept such a “gift”? Is it a “gift” or Pandora’s box?” 

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying.

Officials in Beijing need to know that as the MCC Compact has now been tabled in parliament, such a response from the Chinese side would be taken as nothing less than the attempt to influence the Nepali lawmakers.  China has other serious issues vis-a-vis Nepal, which could dampen the relations if not addressed.  MCC should be allowed to be resolved from parliament without any maneuverings  and pressures, whether from the North or the West. 

Do the right thing 

Could this war of words have been averted from Nepali side if Nepali political actors, Prachanda in particular, had not misunderstood the message and if the Nepali media had not made his (mis)understanding a major premise to build the narrative of threat and warning? Could this have been prevented if the US side had communicated its concerns to the Nepali leaders on a simpler, softer, politer note? Or if the Chinese side had refrained from overreacting to ‘US diplomacy’?

With a little bit of wisdom on our part, perhaps the escalation of the war of words could have been prevented early on. What seems to lie at the root of the whole story is our own interpretation of what was said, rather than what was actually said.

So here is a take-home message: When political actors, and the media, exaggerate that the US is here to fight China and vice versa and if we do so on the basis of unverified claims, or if we pit America against China and vice versa, we will be creating a ground for them to speak against each other. Nepal then will be pushed to a tough spot.

Needless to say, how well the political actors and the government handle Nepal’s bilateral relations with the US and China decide how well we can avoid the geopolitical trap. But the role of the media is also paramount because they shape public perception.

Our job ought to be to warn the political actors against making wrong moves on foreign policy, discourage the third party from meddling in our internal affairs and bilateral relations, not provoke or be provoked to pit one power against another. 

As for the US and China, reactive diplomacy on Nepal’s bilateral dealings with them will invite further reactions and damage their own reputation. These lines attributed to Bo Bennett are highly relevant for all of us: “Diplomacy is more than saying or doing the right things at the right time. It’s avoiding saying or doing the wrong things at any time.”