Nepal’s economic growth will form the crux of our engagement with foreign governmentsWhat is the primary foreign policy emphasis of the government of the left alliance headed by KP Oli?
As the KP Oli government completes a month in office, one particular area of curiosity has been how Nepal will manage its relations with its immediate neighbourhood.
Because the Oli government didn’t enjoy the best of relations with India the last time he was in office in 2015-16, there is a lot of interest as to how foreign affairs will evolve with India, and as importantly with China, with whom the last Oli government signed 10 framework agreements to diversify Nepal’s trade and transit.
How this government positions itself in foreign policy is particularly important because it enjoys an unprecedented support base, with already close to two-thirds in Parliament. Though he hasn’t held any formal positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), Pradeep Gyawali is the Foreign Minister at a crucial juncture in Nepal’s history: he is rational, articulate, well-read, and enjoys broad respect across the political spectrum, the media and civil society.
Mukul Humagain and Kamal Dev Bhattarai talked to Gyawali about Nepal’s foreign policy approach.
What is the primary foreign policy emphasis of the government of the left alliance headed by KP Oli?
The main focus of this government is to establish political stability and prosperity in Nepal in a manner that the Constitution of Nepal has envisioned. Needless to say, foreign policy plays a great part in stimulating growth and development, so it too
is central to the government’s agenda. The MoFA plays an integral part in formulating a conducive international environment, whereby foreign policy matters will be addressed in a manner that benefits the country as a whole.
The new government also realises that it is necessary to develop foreign relations approaches that are in keeping with the evolving global context. Suspicions levelled against foreign powers for meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs should be addressed at the outset so that diplomatic relations are not affected. Bilateral and multilateral relations are essential for Nepal’s development, it is also in our interest to promote regional partnerships. One of the greater challenges for the new government will to balance its relations with its two neighbours India and China, both world powers who seem keen to deepen their engagement with Nepal.
Maintaining balanced relations with India and China will be the cornerstone of the new foreign policy framework Nepal will pursue. Nepal cannot make much headway in development without the cooperation and assistance of both our neighbours, India and China, and we have no intentions of pursuing relations with one nation at the cost of our ties with another. Nepal cannot replace those relations with India that have been in place since time immemorial, nor can it afford to isolate itself from the extraordinary growth of China, a nation with whom we have shared relations for over 2,000 years that is the second largest economic power in the world.
We do not seek to impinge on the strategic imperatives of any foreign power. We have communicated to both India and China that they should not view any foreign policy initiatives taken by Nepal with suspicion. Our only aim is to extract maximum benefits from both of our neighbours and promote relations that are beneficial for Nepal’s development and growth.
Does this imply that the government will revitalise Nepal-India relations that had cooled down considerably after the border blockade from 2015-16 when KP Oli last headed the government?
The time after the constitution was promulgated, the conflict that arose during this period and the effect it had on bilateral relations was a nightmare that we would like to put behind us.
Both nations realise that it is essential to move on if we are to deepen our ties. Of course, Nepal’s dignity as a sovereign nation must be upheld at all costs, and we must not compromise on our independence. To this end, the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Nepal-India relations’ recommendations will serve as a major basis for the new government to reset our relations with India.
The deliberations of the EPG are now in the final stages and it is pegged to submit its report by July. To what extent will the new government uphold the recommendations made in the report and how do you view the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty?
The EPG is a mechanism that was formulated via the agreement of both Nepal and India; it was created to recommend changes to the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty and its legal framework and dynamics in a manner that is reflective of the current context. Nepal and India are strongly committed to honouring the Terms of Reference that were agreed upon in relation to the EPG. Our government will honour the recommendations made by the EPG in conjunction with the Indian government.
And what of the relations with our northern neighbour, China? During the blockade, in 2015-16, Nepal made a number of agreements with China, but no concrete progress has been made to realise those agreements.
Those agreements made with China in 2016 should have been followed up and implemented, but this did not happen. The new government has every intention to remedy this situation and drive progress in terms of those agreements made with China. China has asked Nepal to select projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and a response will be given soon. Additionally, the new government will also finalise the protocol of the trade and transit agreement with China. Promoting connectivity with China via the trans-Himalayan railway, opening new border points with China, the north-south highways, and cross-border power transmission will be given prime importance to advance relations with China.
There was minimal progress under our previous governments; this will be remedied now and every endeavour will be made to fuel growth and progress through the agreements made before.
There are also concerns in some quarters that the BRI could have long-term downsides, as say the ‘debt trap’ that Sri Lanka and the Maldives find themselves in?
There is no evidence to justify such sentiments. In this day and age, and in a world of globalisation, there is no way that a country can stay isolated. There are nearly 70 countries involved in the BRI, and Nepal cannot stay aloof from an initiative of such magnitude. It’s up to us to pursue the kind of projects that drive our development and mobilise resources in order to fuel prosperity.
China can in no way force a country to partake in a particular project related to the BRI; the countries reserve the right to make their own decisions. So such fears are totally unfounded and could in fact prove detrimental for the development of Nepal in the long term if they are allowed to fester needlessly.
Other than the BRI, what other instruments of economic diplomacy can Nepal utilise to fuel the prosperity that Nepal so desperately needs?
Strong economic diplomacy is essential for Nepal’s growth, so we need to focus on projects that bring economic growth, target key areas, allow technology transfer, promote tourism, and allow for branding and marketing of Nepali products, among others. This will be the crux of our diplomatic missions now.
Are any high levels visits for the Prime Minister and the President in the offing? More particularly, are there any plans for trips to China or India? Which country will the Prime Minister travel to first?
It does not matter which country the Prime Minister travels to first. The agenda behind the trip, what is discussed, and the final outcome are the main issues of importance. What Nepal gains from these respective sojourns, how Nepal’s agenda was promoted are key, not the order in which these visits are conducted. But let me tell you, the year 2018 will be full of high-profile visits. I believe that both the Indian and Nepali prime ministers will be exchanging visits. I also hope that there will be high profile visits both to and from China this year, though this is yet to be confirmed.
There are also concerns that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) is far from fulfilling its objectives, and that it has not made much progress since its establishment in 1985. What do you have to say about Nepal’s involvement in Saarc?
It is unfortunate that the current South Asian region is very far from achieving those objectives that the founding members of Saarc defined to fuel regional cooperation. While regional cooperation in other regional committees such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the African Union (AU) is growing, no progress has been made in terms of Saarc. It is lagging behid and has been unable to live up to people’s expectations. Inter-country relations have been allowed to impinge on Saarc dynamics and have thus resulted in stagnant regional cooperation.
Regional and sub-regional initiatives such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) and the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative have been formed that may be worthwhile in terms of connectivity and energy transfers, but Saarc promotes free trade, and it allows members to fuel growth in a manner that cannot be rivalled by any such sub-regional initiatives. So we have to make Saarc strong and effective. There are no other alternatives.
There is talk that the new government is working on policy guidelines for donors and diplomatic missions regarding their terms of engagement in Nepal’s development. Could you explain that.
Nepal’s constitution has categorically stated that issues related to foreign affairs are within the federal government’s jurisdiction. We plan to formulate rules of engagement between the diplomatic missions and three levels of government (federal, provincial and local). We need to make sure that diplomatic engagements are above-board and that they are put in our institutional memory.