Tracking the trajectory of 75 years of Nepal-US relations

If we follow the trajectory of Nepal-US relations we find the cases of contributions and support from each other during crucial times. It also offers some learning and insights.

Nepal PM Sher Bahadur Deuba with the US President Joe Biden in November 2021. Photo: Twitter handle of PM Deuba

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 10 min.

It is now evident that the United States is trying to engage more with Nepal. High-level official visits to Nepal from the US with notable frequency make it clear.

Beginning in 2017, the US officials have been coming to Nepal nearly every year–sometimes twice a year even. The list is long. In  March 2017, the US Pacific Commander Admiral Harry B Harris Jr was in Kathmandu to take part in a multinational military drill for peacekeeping. In May 2018, a delegation from the US Government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) led by Jonathan Brooks, Deputy Vice President for Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America was in Nepal. In January 2019, Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Phil Davidson, in February that year Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joe Felter, and in November 2019 Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback came to Kathmandu. In February 2020, Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Deputy Vice President for Europe, Asia, Pacific, and Latin America Jonathan Brooks followed by Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s (HFAC) Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, Representative Ami Bera came to Kathmandu. In September 2021, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Vice President of Compact Operations, Fatema Z Sumar and in November 2021 Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, along with Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Kelly Keiderling were in Kathmandu.

More recently, on April 22, the United States high-ranking Congressional delegation arrived in Kathmandu for a three-day visit.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba with US Congressional delegation. Photo: PM Deuba’s Twitter handle

Many of those visits until 2021 were focused on getting the MCC grant endorsed by Nepal’s parliament. The American grant had become a matter of heated debate across the political spectrum and among the intellectuals and it had invited heightened concerns and reactions from China

The most recent Congressional delegation, however, is learned to have taken the Kathmandu trip to thank Nepal for endorsing the Compact and for condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the US side has increased the amount of aid to Nepal after the MCC ratification and there is a commitment for more.  Soon after MCC ratification, the United States Agency for International Development offered  Rs 80 billion grant to Nepal.

The good news about rising American engagement with Nepal is that it has created an impression in Kathmandu that Washington is starting to look into Nepal through its own lens. Until a few years ago, one of the nagging questions that the US ambassadors in Nepal faced was why Washington looks into Nepal through New Delhi’s lens and why it does not have its own independent Nepal policy. 

There are reasons for the two countries to look back to the past, and realize each other’s contributions and limitations. 

However, the growing US engagement in Nepal also needs to be seen in the larger framework. In the whole of South Asia, Nepal may be the only trusted partner of America at the moment. India’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised eyebrows in Washington. On the other hand, Nepal has sharply departed from India’s and China’s position in the Russia-Ukraine war and shared the American position. 

Besides, the government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba has given a visible cold shoulder to China since it came to power in July 2021. When the Chinese foreign minister came to Nepal last month, the government sent a message of polite rejection of the BRI, the Chinese project about which the US has shown open reservations.

State Councilor and Foreign Affairs Minister of China Wang Yi called on Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba last month. (Photo: RSS)

How the Nepal-US relations will progress in the days ahead will be largely determined by how skilfully Nepali actors conduct their diplomacy, how the US will respond to it and how long the US-China confrontation will continue (this is a case for a separate analysis anyway). But if we follow the trajectory of US-Nepal relations we find the cases of contributions and support from each other during crucial times. It also offers learning and insights.

Bond for sovereignty 

Many of us tend to take Nepal’s relations with other countries for granted. But such relations often get established by resisting pressures from various quarters. Nepal-US relations have a similar story. 

In India, the independence movement was gaining ground. After the end of the Second World War,  the locus of global power shifted to Washington from London. Back home, the Rana rulers were trying to diversify the relations. Whether they were doing this out of the expectation that the outside world would lend support to their rule or the fear that with diplomatic relations only with the UK, Nepal might not be able to safeguard its independence and sovereignty is a matter of debate. But their reaching out to the US proved to be the right move for the right cause later on.

The US took a move favorable to Nepal on April 21, 1947, by recognizing the country as an independent sovereign nation. Four days later, on April 25, 1947—four months before India became independent—the Agreement of Commerce and Friendship was signed between the United States and Nepal in Kathmandu, which paved the way for the two countries to establish diplomatic relations on February 16, 1948.

The occasion of the establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the United States and Nepal. Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nepal 

This at a time when there were voices in Nepal and India that Nepal does not need to maintain foreign relations beyond India. Sardar Bhim Bahadur Pande has written about the situation in his book Tes Bakhatko Nepal. The Nepali leaders living in India were not happy about Nepal establishing diplomatic relations with the US, he writes. They argued that Nepal needs to keep close ties with India and that would be enough. In their view, the only reason Nepal maintained relations with the US was to ensure the longevity of the Rana regime. “Indian and British governments were also unhappy to see Nepal starting diplomatic relations with the US,” he writes.

When Nepal applied for the UN membership in 1949, it forwarded the diplomatic relations with the US as one of the proofs to testify to the independence and sovereignty of Nepal. 

In the later years, the government-to-government engagement and cooperation between the US and Nepal would also draw the attention of India. In a letter written to Nepal Prime Minister Matrika Prasad Koirala on April 25, 1952, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru suggests that Nepal need not engage with the US and that if it has to, it should do so via India. “I understand that your government has approached the government of the United States for a gift or loan or something,” he writes to Koirala in the letter attached in his autobiography A Role in a Revolution. “The direct approach to the US government by your government is likely to create a good deal of confusion and might even put your government in an embarrassing situation,” says Nehru. “Hence it is far more desirable that before any such request be made to the US or any other foreign government, some kind of reference might be made to us on the subject.”

Nepal-US diplomatic relations helped Nepal in a number of ways. After the US recognized Nepal, Nepal was able to tackle two possible challenges to come. After the Chinese communist party’s takeover of China in 1949, China could reach out to Nepal to bring it under its control. Mao’s Five Fingers foreign policy theory considered Nepal as one of the fingers of China’s palm. The recognition by the US also put the prospect of India treating Nepal as it treated Sikkim. 

When Nepal applied for the UN membership in 1949, it forwarded the diplomatic relations with the US as one of the proofs to testify to the independence and sovereignty of Nepal. Russia stood against Nepal’s membership in the UN but the US continued to support Nepal.

King Birendra with US President Ronald Reagan during his state visit to the US in 1983. Photo: US Embassy Nepal 

Documents published by the  United States also acknowledge the sovereignty and independence of Nepal as an important element of Nepal-US relations.  Nepal and Bhutan: Country studies published by the Federal Research Division of Library Congress in 1993 states: “United States policy toward Nepal supported three objectives—peace and stability in South Asia, Nepal’s independence and territorial integrity, and selected programs of economic and technical assistance to assist development.” “Although Kathmandu’s primary interest in relations with Washington was for economic and technical assistance,” the book mentions, “Nepal also sought global support for its sovereignty and territorial integrity. While on a state visit to the United States in December 1983, King Birendra received President Ronald Reagan’s endorsement of Nepal as a zone of peace.”

Nepal’s geopolitical dilemma 

The 1960s were perhaps the times of great geopolitical dilemma for Nepal. After the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1949 and especially after the uprising in Tibet in 1959, the US became increasingly concerned about the prospect of the spread of communism in Nepal from the north. 

Nepal’s engagement with China raised eyebrows in Washington DC.  Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa fondly recalled the times of geopolitical dilemma that Nepal had found itself in with Nepal Live Today in January 2022.  King Mahendra had sent him to the US to convince the Americans that Araniko Highway was for opening ‘an alternative to save our existence’ and that Nepal is not trying to get involved in any geopolitical game.  Apparently, Americans were not convinced. When King Mahendra tried to convince the US and other skeptics that ‘communism does not come by truck’ the Americans are reported to have said ‘communism does not travel by truck but the communists do.’

Nepal found itself in yet another tricky situation in the 60s when the Khampa rebels made Nepal’s Mustang a secret hideout to conduct a resistance movement against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China.

While the US supported the Khampas and they were using the Nepali soil to resist the PLA, China was visibly distraught. Nepal was placed in an awkward situation. As Nepal had signed the Sino-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship on September 20, 1960, writes Arjun Basnet in “Disarming Khampa Guerilla by the Nepal Government: A Politico-Historical Perspective” published in the Journal of Political Science, “it was totally against the commitment and international norms for Nepal to harbor armed Khampas. Now, turning a deaf ear to this situation would certainly compel China to forcefully enter Nepal and indulge in retaliatory strikes.”

When China and the US stopped locking horns, Nepal breathed a sigh of relief. In 1975, the US and China started talking about how best they could help Nepal. 

He further mentions that during the visit of King Birendra to China in December 1973 Chou-Enlai requested the king to control the armed Khampas residing in northern Nepal.

Nepal was indeed caught in a tight rope of great power conflict, says Prem Singh Basnyat, the author of Nepalese Army in Tibetan Khampa Disarming Mission. “On the one hand there was the US  and on the other there was China. If Nepal quelled the Khampa rebellion in Mustang the US would be unhappy and if Nepal did not do anything about the matter it would invite the wrath of China,” says Basnyat. “Perhaps King Mahendra also did not speak up against it because he knew how complicated the situation was.”

Nepal finally launched the Khampa disarming mission in 1974 when the US and China pursued rapprochement after US President Richard Nixon visited China in February 1972.  It is possible that the US and China agreed on what to do about the Khampas and Nepal took the cue.

US President Gerald Ford with Deng Xiaoping in 1975. Photo:  Gerald R Ford Library

When China and the US stopped locking horns, Nepal breathed a sigh of relief. In 1975, the US and China started talking about how best they could help Nepal. A point of conversation between American President Gerald Ford and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping during their meeting in 1975 was how they could help Nepal. 

Sensitive times 

As the US-China rivalry continues to escalate, the main worry in Nepal is that Nepal might be enmeshed in the great geopolitical game between the two great powers. Nepal has had to deal with the mutually exclusive interests of the US and China.  While the  US  wants Nepal to adopt a liberal policy with regard to Tibet and Tibetan refugees, Nepal is bound, by virtue of its foreign policy doctrine,  not to deviate from its ‘One China’ policy.  Nepali leadership cozying up to China or the US or India is an aberration rather than a norm in Nepal’s larger foreign policy framework of a balanced relationship.

The refrain ‘Nepal needs to maintain the best of the relations with both China and the US’, which is often repeated by experts in Nepal’s foreign policy discourse, has its firm basis in the awareness of history and sensitivity of geopolitics.

In 75 years, Nepal-US relations have come a long way. From the Point Four Program to the MCC grant to Covid-19 assistance to the recent USAID grant, America has been a consistent supporter of Nepal on multiple fronts (journalist Kamal Dev Bhattarai has tracked the history of American aid to Nepal.) This has helped create a big soft power capital for the US in Nepal. With a sizable Nepali community in the US and with most middle-class households in Nepal having their relatives living or working in the US chasing and sharing the American dream, communications between the two countries have become much easier than ever before. 

This is why as leaders were creating one after other controversies on the MCC grant, Nepali media and intellectual community advocated for accepting the American grant. Not all countries enjoy such privileges.

Global geopolitics remains in flux.  When Nepal started diplomatic relations with the US, China was nowhere on the scene of global geopolitics and perhaps Nepal did not think it necessary to establish relations with China back then because of the same reason. China and the US, allies during World War II, later became adversaries, then became friends before becoming adversaries again.  The US and India, which appeared like close allies, today stand poles apart in the Russia-Ukraine war. 

It is my firm conviction that none of the big powers–whether the US or China–should allow their rivalry and differences to impinge on their relations with Nepal. The US is Nepal’s one of the oldest development partners with which Nepal shares democratic values. China is the second-largest economic power and Nepal’s neighbor and another development partner. These are the permanent realities of Nepal.

What ultimately sustains the relations between the two countries is how rationally they make decisions and how reasonably they consider each other’s sensitivities and concerns. Such considerations help keep the relations intact. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken extolled the 75 years of Nepal-US relations early morning today. “We are proud of our accomplishments as partners, and look forward to many more decades of friendship,” he wrote on Twitter. Indeed. But as Nepal and the US are celebrating 75 years of partnership, this is also a time to reflect on the evolution of relationship and enrich understanding of each other’s position and sensitivity. Neither Nepal nor the US should fail on this front.