Dr Nishchal Nath Pandey, the Director of the Center for South Asian Studies, a Kathmandu-based think-tank, is worried about the unfolding global geopolitics and the way Nepal is handling its foreign policy with major powers like China, the US, and India. As a person who served as the Executive Director of the Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA) under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he has close insights into international geopolitics as well as Nepal’s foreign policy. In his view, the lack of common stand by the political parties on foreign policy has contributed to a major weakness in Nepal’s handling of foreign policy.
He says the global situation is getting very complicated by the day. “We started with the pandemic which has had a crippling effect on our economy. And then suddenly there is the Russian invasion of Ukraine which has created a lot of problems at the global level,” says Pandey.
This has created a major problem in supply chain disturbance, spikes in oil prices, and hyperinflation. “A lot of countries are already facing social unrest due to the economic hardships faced by the people,” he says and argues Nepal needs to draw a hard lesson from the predicament of these countries.
So what is that lesson? According to him, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has proved that the United Nations as a global organ has become totally ineffective, weak, and powerless. The UN whose member Nepal is and to which Nepal contributes by sending the peace-keeping missions has become completely ineffective and helpless to safeguard the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of smaller countries. “It is powerless to speak for and safeguard our interests. It has been reduced to a debate club of members where accusations and counter-accusations are hurled at each other. This is unfortunate,” he says. In his view, the UN is no longer a body we can look up to safeguard our sovereignty, territorial integrity, and interests.
“If there is anything that the war on Ukraine has taught us it is that we should be very careful about the security-related sensitivities of our immediate neighbors,” says Pandey. “We have seen that when it comes to a real crisis and threat to our sovereignty, there will be nobody to come to our rescue. You will find forces who provoke but there will be no one to really come to you and help you come out of the crisis. We have to fight to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity by ourselves.” For him, this is a major lesson that Nepal must learn. “In front of our own eyes, Ukraine has become a battleground. The country is in ruins.”
Pandey says that maintaining good relations with China and India is a precondition for safeguarding our interests and sovereignty. “We have to have good relations with our two neighbors because the security-related sensitivities of China and India are going to impinge on us very hard and deeply in the long term.”
“If there is anything that the war in Ukraine has taught us it is that we should be very careful about the security-related sensitivities of our immediate neighbors.”
He says the correct handling of foreign relations has been the major safeguard of Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity but fresh challenges have emerged in recent years. “We have survived as a sovereign nation for more than three hundred years precisely because of the correct handling of the foreign policy,” he says. “Prithvi Narayan Shah the great said that Nepal is a yam between two boulders. That reality is changing. We now have become a yam between three boulders.” So now we have to deal properly and correctly with India, China, and the US at the same time because we have a specific context and history of relations with all these countries. “With the US, Nepal established diplomatic relations before we did so with India and China. The US has supported us in the education, and health sector apart from providing training to the police and army. Thus we need to have very good relations with the US,” says Pandey. “But we should also be careful not to ruffle feathers with our two neighbors while dealing with the third party.”
‘We need to have very good relations with the US. But we should also be careful not to ruffle feathers with our two neighbors while dealing with the third party.”
But handling the relations with these three powers in a way all three feel comfortable with and, for that matter, maintaining a balance in foreign policy conduct is tricky for Nepal. Pandey agrees but says Nepal is not the only country that is facing such a predicament. “Major powers want you to take sides. But we have to ensure that our soil is not used or misused by any inimical elements against our friendly countries. While we need to keep ourselves safe from geopolitical conflict, we should not become a boxing ring of geopolitical rivalry,” he says.
According to him, countries like Nepal should be able to take benefit from competing superpowers for economic and infrastructure development. But Nepal has largely been unable to do so because of our own internal political wrangling, instability, and because of lack of coordination and communication between our related ministries.
On Foreign Ministry
According to him, the controversies surrounding the State Partnership Program of the US and other recent controversies in bilateral dealings with foreign countries are mainly the outcome of the lack of coordination among the ministries. “Take the case of Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Nepal Compact. The Ministry of Finance struck a deal but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was unknown about it for a long time,” he says. “Only later, we came to know that the deal had to be endorsed by the parliament.”
The same holds true about the SPP. The decision to seek partnership with the SPP seems to have been taken without proper consultation with the Foreign Ministry. “I wonder why Foreign Ministry has been ignored this way. Why have we treated it like a post office?” He argues that the tendency to ignore Foreign Ministry in major diplomatic and financial dealings such as awarding and withdrawing the contracts is increasing. “The Foreign Ministry has been reduced to a kind of post office. We need a larger role for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It should be a part of every bilateral and multilateral negotiation that other ministries conduct on behalf of the government of Nepal with foreign nations,” he says. He argues that this tendency has to be corrected immediately. “The current global disorder is becoming nasty and very difficult for countries like Nepal. The sooner we learn the lesson the better it will be for Nepal,” he says.
Foreign Ministry has a major role in all kinds of affairs related to foreign countries. In India, a chief minister of any state has to secure approval from the Foreign Ministry if s/he has to go on a foreign trip. There are cases of the Indian Foreign Ministry not granting approval to the Chief Ministers and other ministers to go on a foreign trip when it sees that such a visit is not beneficial for the nation. “But look what has become of our foreign ministry,” he said. “We have made it weak. The problem of lack of communication, coordination, and cooperation between the foreign ministry and other ministries is stark. This has to be corrected.”
Inconsistencies and deviations
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is scheduled to make an official visit to the US in July. This will be the first official visit of Nepali PM to the US after 20 years. There have been no high-level official visits to Nepal from the US side. It was 50 years ago that the US Vice president Spiro Agnew came to Nepal in 1970. The Secretary of State Colin Powel came to Nepal in 2002. This is the first time after 20 years that the US has invited a Nepali PM on an official visit. Thus it would be the opportune occasion to further enhance Nepal-US relations. “But look what is happening. We have this SPP controversy. The bilateral relations have been made controversial mainly because of the weakness on our own part. Leaders have been giving conflicting statements about the SPP. This will not do us any good in the long term,” he said.
He sees no major shift in Nepal policy of the US and India. India, China, and the US are consistent with their Nepal policies. “Regimes change, the governments change but their Nepal policy remains largely unchanged,” he says. On our part, our policy seems to be very inconsistent. It seems to change along with the change in the government.
“Take the case of SPP. When Nepal sought partnership with the National Guard of the US in 2015, there was democratic administration. It was followed up by the Republican administration and it is being followed up by the current Biden administration as well,” he says. In between, there have been several government changes in Nepal, and heads of the governments of different periods have been giving conflicting statements about the SPP. “A head of government of one party says SPP was not sought during his administration and says that it was done by some other government led by another party. They are shifting the blame. There is no single voice. Why this inconsistency? Why has there been no long-term foreign policy planning in Nepal? Why do we change our position along with the change of the government?”
“The Foreign Ministry has been reduced to a kind of post office. We need a larger role for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It should be a part of every bilateral and multilateral negotiation that other ministries conduct on behalf of the government of Nepal with foreign nations,”
He sees no policy change in India vis-a-vis Nepal either. Nepal is close to India on many fronts–religion, language, culture, economy, people-to-people relations, marital ties, open border, and so on. A number of Nepali leaders fought for the Independence of India. India has been a key player in the political changes in Nepal. “With India, we have multifaceted relations. We can see the imprints of Indian assistance in our infrastructures such as the first road, first airport, first hospital, etc,” says Pandey. But he also admits that we have issues with India. “The most pressing ones being the border issues in Kalapani and Susta. There has been no forward movement on these issues. The EPG report is yet to be accepted by the Indian side,” he says. According to him, we need to resolve these issues and for that, we need to redefine our relations with India. “For this, there has to be a strong national consensus in Nepal.”
Some in Nepal argue that since Sher Bahadur Deuba came to power in July 2021, India’s Nepal policy has changed. Pandey does not think so. “India’s Nepal policy remains largely unchanged. You don’t see a fundamental difference between the Nepal policy of the Indian Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. But our approach to India seems to differ from one government to another. While the Congress-led government takes one kind of approach, the communist-led government seems to take quite a different approach.”
United we stand
The government of Sher Bahadur Deuba is being criticized for distancing itself from China. For example, the contract of Buddhi Gandaki that was awarded to a Chinese company by the previous government was recently withdrawn. And contracts for other hydropower projects are being awarded to India. Pandey says this does not reflect well on our foreign policy and bilateral relations.
“The tendency of tilting toward one neighbor by one government and reversing that by successive governments ultimately erodes the credibility and sustainability of Nepal’s foreign policy. We need to have a common stand on the foreign policy no matter which party leads the government,” he says.
“India’s Nepal policy remains largely unchanged. You don’t see a fundamental difference between the Nepal policy of the Indian Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. But our approach to India seems to differ from one government to another.”
The key question we need to ask ourselves at this moment, he says, is are we adding bricks to the wall of our national interests or are we demolishing that wall. “This is where we need to be very careful.”
As global geopolitics is getting nasty and cruel, Pandey thinks that it is more important than ever before for smaller countries like Nepal to become more careful about their sovereignty. “In such a situation, maintaining best of the relations with the immediate neighbors, being sensitive towards their security sensitivity is the only defense for Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he says.