Lack of consistency in pursuing its foreign policy has cost Nepal dearCompetition may be forcing powerful countries to facilitate undemocratic and corrupt tendencies in the country.
The most important point Chinese President Xi Jinping made when he met with Narayan Kaji Shrestha and others, according to a tweet by the Nepal Communist Party leader himself, is that to run the government, a communist party must first pay attention to cleanliness and good governance inside the party. His message was that capturing the government is not enough; a party must continuously win the hearts of the people.
Chinese leaders made the same point during a recent symposium where they discussed Xi Jinping Thought. They talked about the need to maintain discipline in the Nepal Communist Party and how the party could be better organised.
As China seeks a stable partner in Nepal, in the context of intense geopolitical competition and foreign policy swings by the Himalayan country, such concerns appear understandable. However, patrimonial politics and multiparty electoral competition are providing excuses for political parties and candidates to become corrupt. Intense geopolitical competition may be making matters worse.
Democratisation and geopolitics
Democratisation in Nepal has always been a bargain between the autocratic political elites, who want to retain control over the state and its resources, and the citizens, who have been demanding democracy and development. The transfer of political power to the people, in practice, remains incomplete and has been allowed only to the extent required to maintain political stability.
Nepal is now at a critical juncture where the political elites are getting more powerful, and the people are getting weaker. If we can correct critical flaws, Nepal can enter a path of development and democracy. If we fail to do that, Nepal will see growing inequality and political conflict.
One reason is that almost all of the political elites in Nepal maintain their power through corruption, collusion and patrimony. Corruption is no longer limited to national boundaries, and incidences in recent days show that the corruption in Nepal involves mechanisms, actors and illicit financial flows that extend to countries across the globe including the US, UK, China and India.
Nepal's political transition is caught in the midst of intensifying geopolitical competition.
For example, Xi Jinping's blueprint for Nepal-China relationship, reflected in his article as well as in the final joint-statement issued by Nepal and China, indicates that the geostrategic competition will enter a new phase that can put intense pressure on Nepal's ability to conduct diplomacy.
One of the essential features of Xi's new 'strategic partnership' is China's interest to have a closer partnership with Nepal's bureaucracy, politicians, security mechanisms, and civil society. There is a clear sign that China wants to shape Nepal's governance in order to deliver economic development as well as to ensure a close affinity with China.
The pursual of trans-Himalayan connectivity also appears to have a dual purpose: to integrate Nepal close to China's communications, transport and trade infrastructure, and gain access to South Asia. The second purpose requires close coordination with India and would depend on the dynamic relationship between the three countries.
While China has made inroads into Nepal's governance and political system, the US has suffered several diplomatic setbacks in recent months. This has forced America to try to appease the political elites. The US seemed insecure about Xi's visit and intensified its communication efforts. It seemed to be over-reacting and insecure, which was a marked transformation from its calm and confident image in the past.
India may also be worried about China's inroads. Xi's talks with Modi indicate that there are significant strategic differences between India and China, and it would require some more time to build trust between the two countries. Until India, US and China develop a higher level of trust, the spill-over of geopolitical competition into Nepal will continue to distort Nepal's transition to democracy.
Keeping things in check
Even as they create a narrative of democracy, discipline and good governance, countries seeking to assert their global influence are torn between idealist narratives and realist objectives. Narratives like democracy or good neighbourliness or special relations frequently serve to disguise strategies to protect security, economic or political interests.
In pursuing realist objectives, these countries frequently compromise the ideals of democracy and justice, especially so in the context of increased geostrategic competition between US, India and China.
Now, there are increasing signs that powerful nations, while pursuing their objectives, are negotiating and appeasing powerful and corrupt political interests, making them more entrenched in our society. Their foreign policy will delay Nepal's transition to democracy and the rule of law.
While foreign countries are trying to appease the political elites and the decision-making network, the political elites are also trying to use Nepal's foreign policy to establish their power. In recent months, we have seen clear signs of how political leaders have been using foreign policy and international relations to promote their political standing in the party or to access financial resources.
The Chinese president for one has clearly emphasised anti-corruption initiatives in China and does not want to see Nepali politicians spoil Nepal-China relations by misusing it for narrow personal interests or corruption. Nepal-China relations has the potential to transform Nepal's economic development process. However, this relationship should be pursued in a way that does not harm Nepal's democracy and the rule of law processes.
Nepal's foreign policy lacks consistency. Personal interests have clouded the country’s primary goals in pursuing foreign policy. In addition to concerns about sovereignty and independence, Nepal should be seeking to reduce the trade imbalance by promoting exports, productivity and tourism.
If they really want to pursue their idealist objectives, these countries should put the interests of Nepal as a nation and its people at the forefront. These powerful countries are, therefore, accountable to the Nepali people and need to make sure that they are not promoting interests harmful for Nepal's national interests or to democracy. That is a high hope, but the country's civil society should at least be able to keep track of what is happening and try to make these countries, as well as our decision-makers, accountable.
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