How America missed an opportunity to solidify relations with Nepal

Early this month Secretary Blinken was in New Delhi. He missed an opportunity in trying to keep relationship with Nepal at the highest level.

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 4 min.

I was keeping my expectations very low, probably even more than that, let’s say, extremely low. I knew that a visit of the American Secretary of State to Nepal would have been highly improbable considering what’s going on around the world, from Gaza to Ukraine, without forgetting the civil wars happening in Sudan and Myanmar.

On top of all these crises, the preparation for the APEC summit that is happening these days in San Francisco, including the key meeting between President Biden and President Xi, would not have allowed it.

Still, Secretary Blinken was really close to Kathmandu and once again, the Americans missed an opportunity to keep up with their strategic rival, China, in trying to keep their relationships with Nepal at the highest levels.

He was close because, after the Foreign Affairs G7 held in Tokyo on November 8, Secretary Blinken visited New Delhi, after Japan, its most important ally in the Asia Pacific.

There he was accompanied by his colleague, Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin, for a crucial 2+2 dialogue that saw Indian and American counterparts from Foreign Affairs and Defense ministries coming together.

We know that Nepal’s status in the region cannot be equated with India but still Kathmandu is an important capital after all and for several reasons.

First, the peace process, even not fully completed, is a success story. Second, and most importantly, Nepal has been a staunch “practitioner” of democracy and human rights. If you consider Kathmandu’s standards in these two complementary and mutually linked areas and you compare with what’s going on south of the border, Nepal is truly a success story.

Moreover, the country also made the right decision at the UN Security Council by condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Another important reason why Nepal should not be discounted is the fact that it has been quite adept at balancing its strategic relationships with both China and India.

Many observers might wish that Kathmandu had a stronger voice while dealing with the two superpowers.

Yet, all in all, the national diplomacy has been skillful enough to ensure that both neighboring countries are satisfied with Nepal’s overall strategic decisions at home and in its foreign policy.

Then actually there is another reason that the Americans should appreciate. It is the fact that Nepal was able to stand firm on China’s official position that some of its major undertakings in the country were part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Multiple times, the officials in Kathmandu were able to push back on this claim. It was a proof of strength that surely Beijing took note of but both parties, Nepal and China, were able to move on.

The recent visit to Nepal by Wang Junzheng, Tibet secretary of Communist Party of China and also Tibet’s highest official according to the Chinese system, proved that. All these considerations make us wonder if the Americans missed an opportunity here.

In my opinion they did, even if I feel for the gruesome schedules that Secretary Blinken is going through.

After all, Kathmandu is less than two hours flight from Delhi and just a brief visit to the capital of Nepal would have been significant to further cement the relationships between the two countries. Now it is also true that Blinken had recently met Foreign Minister Saud just few weeks ago in Washington, itself an important recognition for Nepal.

But still I guess that D R Thompson, the American’s Ambassador to Nepal, might have been very frustrated by the miss. Probably he and his entourage of diplomats here in Kathmandu and probably even a decent number of diplomats at Foggy Bottom where the State Department is located, really tried hard to include Nepal’s “detour” from the official schedules of Blinken.

Taking these kinds of decisions is always a very calculated process, with, what I imagine, an endless number of meetings and discussions.

Last year the two countries celebrated 75 years of strong diplomatic relationships.

There have been, surely enough, some high-level visits from high-ranking officials, including the joint visit of top senators like Kirsten Gillibrand, Sheldon Whitehouse, Cory Booker, Mark Kelly and Representative Mondaire Jones.

Still many were at least expecting Vice President Harris to visit but such a trip never materialized nor we can really know if it was ever considered. At the same time, no one was really hopeful that President Biden would make a stopover in Nepal after visiting India for the G20 Summit in September.

From here where the relationships between the US and Nepal will go? There is no doubt that they will remain strong and solid for years to come. The development assistance provided through USAID, the important work of the Peace Corps and the bilateral exchange programs and people-to-people diplomacy are remarkable and truly appreciated.

Kathmandu is less than two hours flight from Delhi and just a brief visit to the capital of Nepal would have been significant to further cement the relationships between the two countries.

Yet the US also needs to understand the symbolism and the importance the high-level visit would add to the relations between the two countries. In one sense, as one of the two global powers in the world and as a key representative of the democratic world, America should do more to recognize the role of a country like Nepal. At the same time, only stability and effective governance in the country would encourage more global leaders to come to Kathmandu.

If you think about it, the country is still at the margins of global international relations and it is punching well below its weight. Nepal can do much better and it should not allow its delicate balancing with India, China and the US to constrain its foreign policy.

After all, there are many other countries dancing on a similar tune, appeasing both Washington and Beijing while maximizing their own interests.

Look at Indonesia whose president just visited the White House or read the speech of Prime Minister Anwar of Malaysia given in San Francisco on the sidelines of the APEC Summit, to understand that Nepal is in a truly unique geographical position. Yet at the same time, many of its challenges in dealing with the two superpowers are shared by other nations as well.

More work, tons of it, needs to be done on both American and Nepali sides, to truly elevate their partnerships. It will probably take time to see a sitting Secretary of State or an American President coming to Nepal but, eventually, it will happen.

If Nepal is able to project itself differently on the global arena and become an indispensable partner, rather than just a recipient of America’s generosity, then those trips will come faster and much more easily.

Opinions expressed are personal.