What should Nepal learn from the SPP debacle?

The SPP issue exposed the dishonesty of the Nepali leadership, both in power and in opposition. The purported SPP draft agreement and several letters associated with it further raised concerns.

Shristi Kafle

  • Read Time 4 min.

The United States Government’s State Partnership Program (SPP) not just stirred controversy in Nepal, but also exposed the failure of the country’s layers of diplomacy. Both the political and military leadership are now being questioned for their poor handling of the military diplomacy with the United States.

The issue exposed the dishonesty of the leadership, both in power and in opposition. As the institutions and leaders jumped into a blame game following the leak of a purported SPP draft agreement, and documents associated with it, silence from the government leadership further raised concerns. Amid suspicions, the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government responded that Nepal would never be part of any global military alliances, putting long-held non-alignment policy at risk. This SPP saga also proved that Nepal’s foreign policy has been highly politicized.

The SPP chapter has been closed at least for now after the government decided to stay out of the program, calling it a military strategy. But there is a need for clarity on different levels and retrospection from the parties and leaders themselves. Different statements from leaders, ministers, and officials of the Nepal Army have only created confusion among the public.

Blame game

Many evoked the issue of nationalism in the course of arguing about the US projects while cashing on the sentiments of the general public. However, with the blame game, changed statements and hiding the facts, parties or leaders have no morals to sell the card of nationalism if they are not honest enough to accept or correct the mistakes.

A letter showed that Nepal Army wrote to the United States on October 27, 2015, and requested its participation in the SPP. It was after the devastating earthquake of 2015 that killed nearly 9,000 people and made over a half-million homeless. Such a request from the Nepal Army to the US Army on the heels of the deadly disaster was logical. Nepal Army Chief clarified that it had just approached the United States for humanitarian assistance and had no intention to be part of the super power’s military strategy.

In the letter sent by the then Army chief Rajendra Chhetri, Nepal Army had formally requested the US government the establishment of the National Guard State Partnership Program in Nepal.

But had there been any consultation by the Army leadership with the political parties and leaders on the issue? KP Sharma Oli, the then prime minister, told recently that the Army leadership did never consult him regarding its participation in the SPP. Are they being honest? There is room to doubt. For years, people were kept in the dark about such a sensitive issue, whereas there should have been transparency and reality check.

On the other hand, following the circulation of documents on SPP, the US embassy in Kathmandu said that it accepted Nepal in the SPP after its two requests in 2015 and 2017.

“Since the US agreed to Nepal’s request to take part in the State Partnership Program, we have continued to have an open dialogue with Nepali leaders to collaborate on what the cooperative exchanges under the SPP might look like, including possible humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness activities. No SPP-led events have occurred because Nepal has not wanted them to occur. Any event under the SPP would happen only with the approval of Nepal,” the US embassy stated.

Security cooperation, exchanges, and visits, humanitarian assistance during disasters or regular military-to-military exchange programs, all are important. Nepal can have security cooperation with any country but not at the cost of harming its independence, sovereignty, and internal security.

Most importantly, such an alliance should not be forged at the cost of harming the country’s non-aligned foreign policy. In addition, it should not have any negative consequences in terms of Nepal’s relations with the neighboring countries China and India.

At a time when the northern neighbor has been claiming that the latest US programs in Nepal are meant for containing China’s rise leading to doubts and suspicions.

Sensitive times

Nepal needs support from all the countries to help it develop and prosper. But at the same time, Nepal needs the neighbors most with whom its lifeline is connected. Keeping its core interests at the center, it should equally be careful about the security sensitivities and concerns of the neighbors. Its land should not be used for any unreasonable factors or ill-intentions that can upset the neighbors.

The US has time and again claimed that Indo-Pacific is the name it has given to the US policy, to protect and advance a free, open, and secure Indo-Pacific region. But since security is an integral part of ensuring the Indo-Pacific Region, and given the cold war between the US and China for quite a long time, China will obviously be worried about it.

Given the endorsement of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact with the 12-point interpretative declaration, that is yet to be cleared, and the growing US engagement with Nepal, China has become suspicious about the growing US engagement with Nepal.

With the US, Nepal shares 75 years-long partnership. The partnership and cooperation should continue but in a way that also respects Nepal’s independence and geopolitical sensitivities.

Nepal should be responsible enough to hear and try to understand the nerves of neighbors while dealing with important programs while being aware of the possible future consequences. Programs and partnerships should be built on the foundation of trust, not suspicions.

While signing up the cooperation deals with China or the US, Nepal should consider its own interest and welfare.

For China, possible Tibetan activities are a matter of big concern. It is worried that the Western countries, particularly the US, use the Tibet card. With the high-level delegations from the US arriving in Nepal and visiting the Tibetan camps openly and discussing Tibetan issues, it may have given a reason for China to feel insecure and worried. Apparently, Beijing thinks Nepal is becoming a playground for vested interests.

Though Nepal is committed to the ‘One China Policy,’ Nepal itself has given this space and reason for China to have doubts over its intentions and stances. Lately, Nepal has been losing its credibility owing to its own inconsistency while dealing with foreign affairs.

Nepal cannot afford to lose its friendship with the US, nor can it afford to lose its friendship with China.  Thus while signing up the cooperation deals with China or the US, rather than considering the interests of China or any other country, Nepal should consider its own interest and welfare.

Foreign relations should not be defined on the basis of political ideology or favoritism.  Sadly, this tendency is slowly becoming a norm in Nepal.

Nepal, a landlocked country that is redefined as a land-linked one, cannot afford to be a pro-India, pro-China or pro-US or anti-India, anti-China or anti-US. Rather, it should be clear on its national interest and national security. Nepal needs to put its own interests first and decide its foreign policy independently. While dealing with any project from any country, national welfare and security should be kept at the center.

Shristi Kafle is a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu.