The SPP fiasco: What should Nepal do now?

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Nepal-US diplomatic relations, we should not allow wrong information about cooperation projects such as SPP to damage our relations.

Pratik Dotel

  • Read Time 4 min.

The Nepali government decided to stay away from the State Partnership Program (SPP) in light of the most recent developments. However, official letters announcing SPP withdrawal from the Nepali government side have not yet been sent to the US yet. The diplomatic weaknesses of Nepal in dealing with foreign nations, particularly in “bypassing” the Foreign Ministry and conducting foreign affairs on a personal basis, were highlighted during a week-long political drama of ‘war of words’ between leftist and rightist political groups in Nepal. Additionally, it demonstrated the weakness of Nepali political leaders and their practice of burying the problems.

The official letter that the Nepal Army (NA) wrote to the US Embassy in Kathmandu in 2015 mentioning Nepal’s desire to join SPP was leaked online. Earlier to that NA had insisted that no deal with SPP had been made, but when this document was leaked, NA acknowledged that  request letters had been sent to the US Embassy.

Foreign Ministry had been bypassed in both letters.

Every letter written by the Army is always private and sensitive, and leaking such letters exposes a lack of sensitivity for national security. As a result, it has diminished the Nepali government’s negotiating position with other nations. Our future agreements with foreign governments could be impacted by this.

Military confidentiality is maintained in any country in the world. In Nepal, this has not been taken seriously. For instance, in the Rafael fighter jet corruption in India, the Supreme Court was asked to weigh in on the matter. Because it involved a matter of national security, the Indian government sent the relevant quotation in a sealed envelope, and the Supreme Court, considering it to be in the country’s best interest, decided not to make it public and issued a ruling in accordance with that decision. This demonstrates how sensitive military correspondence is for any country.

Initially, SPP was a military development partnership agreement that was forged following the devastating earthquakes of 2015 between NA and the US National Guard with the aim of enhancing NA’s capacity for disaster response. After the 2015 earthquakes, the government and security forces of Nepal believed that its infrastructure for rescue was lacking and asked for assistance from the international community. In their reaction, the US government suggested working with the NA to provide humanitarian aid under a program called the State Partnership Program (SPP). SPP is a program for exchange between the US National Guard and a foreign partner nation.

It is a joint security cooperation program run by the Office of the National Guard of the US Department of Defense that links the National Guard of the country with the armed forces of a partner country in an effort to forge lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with the US allies around the world. The foreign nations must formally write to the SPP in order to participate in the program.

Nepal made formal requests to that effect in 2015 and 2017 and was officially approved in 2019. Unfortunately, as 2019 approached, SPP came to be linked with the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). Despite this, according to a US Department of Defense document from 2019, Nepal is a participant in the SPP program and has acquired two Sky Trucks through it (as confirmed by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) at a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs).

We must realize that our collaboration with SPP was conducted on the humanitarian ground rather than political. Nepal holds military drills with the US, China, and India. That does not mean we have entered a military alliance with them.

The SPP under its 3D model—development, defense, and diplomacy—has been providing aid to developing nations in recent years. The 3Ds provide logistics, military hardware, political-military partnerships, and development (which promotes health, education, and local infrastructure development) and diplomacy (series of conferences, and negotiations). Among these, Nepal receives aid for development, which has been essential to the general growth of our nation over the past 50 years. Therefore, establishing a “red line” for accepting aid and protecting our national interests is a concern for recipient nations rather than donor ones.

What should be done?

As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of diplomatic ties with the US, we should be mindful that we do not allow the wrong information about cooperation projects such as Millennium Challenge Corporations (MCC) and the SPP to damage our relations. The US has done a lot for Nepal—support in poverty alleviation, women empowerment, health, education so on. It lobbied for Nepal’s UN membership as well. We should not forget this history.

We must realize that our collaboration with SPP was sought on the humanitarian ground rather than political. Nepal holds military drills with the US, China, and India. That does not mean we have entered a military alliance with them.

The international political landscape is evolving quickly, and by maintaining either an absolute neutral or de-neutral stance, we are unable to defend our interests on a global scale.  Nepal should not fall for misinformation while conducting relations with countries like India, China, and the US. Maintaining balanced relations with these three countries is our priority and it should remain so.

Pratik Dotel is associated with Rastriya Adhyan Kendra, a consultancy firm based in Kathmandu.