Assessing Nepal’s foreign policy after MCC Compact ratification and Ukraine crisis

Has the Deuba government really deviated from the fundamental principles of non-alignment and Panchasheel? What does non-alignment and Panchasheel mean for Nepal?

Photos: Nimesh Jung Rai/NL Today

Geja Sharma Wagle

  • Read Time 7 min.

Following the ratification of the much-debated MCC Compact and the immediate adoption of a clear policy against the Russian military invasion in Ukraine by the government, a debate has emerged in the political and diplomatic sphere regarding Nepal’s foreign policy priorities and proactive diplomacy. 

Breaking the diplomatic tradition of remaining neutral, indifferent and silent or releasing abstract and ambiguous statements on the pretext of non-alignment in most of the prominent international issues, the government expeditiously conveyed its clear message on Ukraine. This marks a significant policy departure of Nepal. Some ultra-communist parties, and ‘left’ and ‘nationalist’ intellectuals have accused the government of deviating from the basic principles of non-alignment and Panchasheel. It is claimed that the Sher Bahadur Deuba government is following an immature and ‘pro-West’ policy undermining Nepal’s geopolitical sensitivities while both of our neighboring countries—India and China—have remained neutral. 

Has the Deuba government really deviated from the fundamental principles of non-alignment and Panchasheel? What does non-alignment and Panchasheel mean for Nepal? What are the guiding principles of Nepal’s foreign policy? Should Nepal prioritize national interests and pursue an independent foreign policy, or should it follow the footsteps of its neighbors by citing geopolitical sensitivity? Should Nepal play a more proactive role in the international multilateral forum or should it be subservient to India and China? These are some of the political, geopolitical and diplomatic questions that have arisen in the political and diplomatic circle. Therefore, those issues should be attested based on Nepal’s foreign policy, Nepal’s Ukraine policy and its implications, and the regional and international power balance. 

Guiding principles of Nepal’s foreign policy 

For any country, the principles and priorities of international relations and foreign policy are determined by its political, geopolitical, strategic, economic, social, cultural, and trade context. Some principles of international relations and foreign policy are fundamental and permanent, while others are contextual and country-specific. Nepal is no exception. Independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, UN’s Charter, Panchasheel, Non-Alignment and world peace are the permanent guiding principles of Nepal. Likewise, Nepal has been strengthening and diversifying its diplomatic relations based on the principle of sovereign equality, mutual respect and equal benefits while safeguarding its national interests. 

Article 51 of Nepal’s Constitution has stated that guiding principles of Nepal’s foreign policy are  protection of Nepal’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence, national interest, and independent foreign policy shall be pursued in accordance with the Charter of the UN, non-alignment, the principle of Panchasheel, international law and world peace. Similarly, democracy, rule of law, peaceful co-existence, human rights, peaceful resolution of all wars and conflicts and disarmament, and eternal peace are the objectives of Nepal’s foreign policy. 

Taking its geopolitical realities and sensitivities into serious consideration, Nepal has been giving supreme priority to its immediate neighbors—China and India—and has been enhancing the traditional, diplomatic, economic, social, cultural and trade relations, making its relations warmer and intimate. Additionally, Nepal has been giving special priority to other countries and development partners for its larger national interests and economic development while prioritizing the neighborhood-centric policy. Therefore, the government reaffirmed its long-standing position that Nepali soil will not be used against any of its neighbors the day after the approval of the MCC Compact from the parliament to reassure both neighbors’ concerns, particularly China’s. 

The Deuba government has not deviated from the principle of Panchasheel, non-alignment, and the UN Charter. Rather, it has expressed solidarity with Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

Diversifying its diplomatic relations beyond the neighborhood to pursue larger world-oriented diplomacy and strengthening closer ties with development partners like the US, Europe, the UK, Japan, Australia including others is in the best interest of Nepal. For an underdeveloped and landlocked country like Nepal, whose national economy is dependent on foreign aid, economic diplomacy deserves special priority for its development and prosperity. These guiding principles, objectives and priorities are enshrined in Nepal’s Foreign Policy 2020. 

Non-alignment and Panchasheel 

As mentioned earlier, non-alignment and Panchasheel are the guiding principles of Nepal’s foreign policy. The underlying meaning of non-alignment is not to align with the superpowers and emerging global powers, their strategic interests and any form of the military alliance. Adopting non-alignment policies does not mean being neutral, indifferent, passive, silent, and visionless in every international issue. Even a country that follows a non-aligned policy can and should play a proactive diplomatic role by taking appropriate policy and stands on international issues. Similarly, the principle of Panchasheel signifies mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, non-aggression, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. Therefore, those who are criticizing the government’s policy on Ukraine must first understand the meaning and definition of the Panchasheel and non-alignment. 

The Deuba government has not deviated from the principle of Panchasheel, non-alignment, and the UN Charter. Rather, the government expressed its unambiguous solidarity with Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity abiding by the principle of Panchasheel, non-alignment, and the UN Charter. The principle of Panchasheel and the UN Charter guarantees the sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs and peaceful co-existence of every sovereign state. 

Nepal took an appropriate decision on Russia’s blatant military attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity challenging the principles of Panchasheel and the UN Charter. By misinterpreting the government’s stance, an attempt has been made by some ultraleft parties, and ‘left’ and ‘nationalist’ intellectuals to establish the false narrative that Nepal voted against Russia and in favor of the US in the UN General Assembly. But that is not true. Nepal is neither against Russia nor for the United States. In fact, Nepal stood for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of a sovereign nation. 

Ukrainian women and children leave Ukraine after crossing the Slovak-Ukrainian border in Ubla, eastern Slovakia, close to the Ukrainian city of Welykyj Beresnyj following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Photo: AFP/RSS)

While both Nepal and Ukraine are politically unstable, strategically sensitive and relatively small compared to its neighbors, all sovereign states are equal in terms of sovereignty. Following Russia’s attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, it was not only natural to adopt the much-needed policy, but also indispensable for Nepal’s national interest. Therefore, Nepal has taken the right decision in favor of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Nepal had opposed any big and powerful nation’s attacks on sovereignty and territorial integrity of small nations in the past. It opposes it today and will oppose it tomorrow as well. This is the fundamental principle of Nepal’s foreign policy. So how has the government deviated from the guiding principles of foreign policy?

The results of the Emergency General Assembly meeting held at the UN Headquarters on March 6 have validated the policy of the Deuba government. Out of 193 countries in the UN, 141 countries voted in favor of Ukraine, while only five countries—Russia, North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Eritrea—voted for Russia. Thirty-five countries, including India and China, abstained. Even if the resolution passed by the UN General Assembly is non-binding, Russia seems completely isolated diplomatically. 

Isn’t it appropriate for Nepal to pursue an independent foreign policy based on its national interests? Should Nepal always follow in the footsteps of India or China in international affairs? In my opinion, certainly not. Following Nepal’s firm stance in favor of independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, human rights and democracy of small nations, Nepal’s diplomatic image has come into the limelight in the international arena. Washington DC, New York, Beijing, Moscow, New Delhi have been keeping a close eye on the Deuba government’s foreign policy priorities and proactive diplomacy. 

Nepal’s stand for sovereignty and territorial integrity 

This is not the first time that Nepal stood in favor of sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. In 1956, Nepal denounced the former USSR’s military intervention to save the communist regime of Hungary and firmly stood in favor of Hungary’s sovereignty, independence and democratic rights. Like today, India and China had adopted a neutral policy regarding Hungary. Similarly, Nepal condemned the 1956 military intervention of Britain, France and Israel in Egypt. History has attested that Nepal can independently adopt judicious policies in international affairs. 

In retrospect, Nepal’s policy in terms of international relations and foreign policy shows more prudence and farsightedness than that of India and China even though they are emerging global powers. The then government of BP Koirala recognized Israel as a sovereign nation and established diplomatic relations on June 1, 1960. Nepal was the first South Asian country to establish diplomatic relations with the geopolitically and strategically sensitive state of Israel. Thirty-two years after Nepal-Israel ties, China established diplomatic relations with Israel on 24 January 1992 followed by India on 29 January 1992. At present, both countries have given high priority to their diplomatic and strategic relations with Israel. In this context, we can say that BP was farsighted enough to recognize Israel. 

Isn’t it appropriate for Nepal to pursue an independent foreign policy based on its national interests? Should Nepal always follow in the footsteps of India or China in international affairs? 

Prime Minister BP’s address to the 15th General Assembly of the UN on 19 November 1960 is considered a milestone in the history of Nepal’s foreign policy. The views expressed by BP in favor of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of geographically small, militarily weak and underdeveloped nations are equally relevant today. To date, Nepal has been following those notions as its guiding principles. Even today, China appreciates BP’s views on the role and representation of the People’s Republic of China in the UN. BP strongly advocated in favor of Congo and Algeria’s independence against colonialism. Similarly, BP’s views on the role of smaller nations in the UN are equally relevant today. 

Despite being a geographically small, militarily weak, and landlocked and underdeveloped country, Nepal can and should follow a firm policy in favor of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and can and should play proactive diplomacy. But unfortunately, some communist parties and some ‘left’ and ‘nationalist’ intellectuals have been victims of a kind of diplomatic inferiority and defensive diplomatic narrative. Nepal has been pursuing and should continue to pursue an independent foreign policy in line with its national interests. It is imperative for Nepal to be a prominent proactive diplomatic player in multilateral forums on the issues of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of geographically small, militarily weak, landlocked and underdeveloped nations. It is in the best interest of Nepal. Otherwise, Nepal may have to pay a high price in the years to come. 

Geja Sharma Wagle is a security and foreign policy analyst based in Kathmandu. 

Twitter: @GejaWagle

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