‘The Chinese are serious about cross-border railway’Former Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka on his tenure in the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government and the roles of various foreign actors in Nepal.
Narayan Khadka served as foreign minister in the last Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government, when it successfully pushed the MCC compact through the national Parliament. Khadka, in an interview with Purushottam Poudel of the Post, spoke about his tenure as foreign minister and the roles of various foreign actors in Nepal.
China sent a team to conduct a feasibility study of cross-border railway and opened up its border—immediately after a communist government took the helm at Singhadurbar. Was this a coincidence, in your view?
To connect the coming of the Chinese team for the railroad feasibility study and its opening of the closed border with the change of government in Kathmandu would be misleading. When we were in government, Nepal and China put in a lot of effort to make these two things happen. Deals in diplomacy take time. I still have some paperwork that was sent from the Chinese side when I served as foreign minister. When I visited China in August last year, my Chinese counterparts and I reached an understanding on the feasibility study. Of course, Nepal had also done some homework before I became foreign minister.
The two countries have been working hard over time to prepare for the opening of the border. The Chinese side cited Covid-19 as the reason for the inoperative borders. A few days ago, China changed its policy against Covid-19. Immediately after that, China opened its international borders, which included the border with Nepal.
Separately, just ahead of the election, China's tourism minister visited Nepal against Nepal's will. Even before that, there was a high-level visit from China. Again, I don't believe Nepal's new coalition government was formed as a result of China's high-level visit during election time. Regarding the visit of the Chinese Vice Minister for Culture and Tourism Li Qun to Nepal, it should be noted that China is helping rebuild some areas destroyed by the 2015 earthquakes.
Yes, we had asked the Chinese side to refrain from travelling to Nepal during the elections. However, they requested us to arrange for one, stating that there would be no diplomatic meetings. We did not provide anything more than the facility to use the airport.
A Chinese group is currently in Nepal to study the railways’ feasibility. As a foreign minister, you were in regular contact with high level Chinese officials. How serious are the Chinese on the cross-border railway project?
The Chinese appear to be seriously interested in the railway. Instead of the Chinese focusing on Nepal, the railway is aimed at the populations and the markets that will run alongside. If someday, the Chinese railway comes to Nepal, it will only be for geoeconomic reasons.
There was a heated debate over whether the Parliament should approve the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, an American aid initiative. It eventually got parliamentary approval under the leadership of the Congress. Many at the time suggested the Congress-led government had come into being just so it could approve the compact.
The political environment when the Congress-led government was formed last year and the environment today cannot be compared. The compact is a sizable project in Nepal and getting its parliamentary approval was a challenge. Many issues need to be resolved to help a coalition government function. There was the administration of a different party for three and a half years prior to the establishment of a government under the Congress. In that regard, the Congress leadership got just a year and half.
As a result, despite the Congress-led coalition wanting to accomplish a lot of things, it faced time constraints. Additionally, both the municipal and general elections had to be held—and we successfully conducted both. Thus, it is inaccurate to claim that the Congress-led administration was established only with the intent of passing the MCC compact.
People say a kind of geopolitical competition was evident in the November elections. Did you feel that as foreign minister?
We overlook our primary issue if we are only concerned about the external interest in our internal affairs. There is definitely interest from foreigners. They are interested in our domestic affairs as they must send back information on major events here. They risk losing their jobs if they don’t send back accurate information. In order to defend their nation's interests, the embassy personnel are interested in our domestic operations. If a foreign power backs a particular leader, it will be because he or she is vital to advancing their interest. But in a country like Nepal with a perennially unstable government, how many people will buy the story of outsider interference in elections?
By denying Pushpa Kamal Dahal the position of prime minister, the Congress has lost out on many key positions like president, speaker, and chief minister of some provinces. Was the Congress under any kind of pressure not to back Dahal as prime minister?
The Congress leadership was fully aware that should the Maoist Centre chair Dahal not get the post of prime minister for the first half of the five-year tenure, the Congress would not get the positions of president and speaker. Congress also knew Dahal would in that case join other forces to become prime minister. However, I don't believe there was pressure on the Congress not to appoint Dahal as prime minister.
As things stand, what do you think are American concerns in Nepal?
We find that there has been a change in America's view of Nepal. Nepal is not only a geopolitically important country, it is also between two neighbours who are poles apart in political views and these neighbours do not have cordial relations. The United States is thus paying close attention to Nepal as any issue here might have a ripple effect on the rest of the world.
What about the Chinese?
China's special interest in Nepal is security. They are concerned that Nepal does not become a playground for forces who want to destabilise China. It wants to see political stability in Nepal. Similarly, they want to see Nepal as a country that understands and tries to address Chinese interests and concerns.
Last, how does India view Nepal these days?
India's policy towards Nepal differs from that of other nations because of our open border and cultural similarities. India, nonetheless, also adopts a similar strategy to Nepal. India, as an aspiring global and regional power, has been closely monitoring Nepal. India is concerned about any potential security threat emanating from Nepal because of the open border. India wants Nepal to have strong institutions and to maintain its commitment to democracy.
In your experience, does Nepal in any way shape international global politics and international relations?
Nepal has a mixed view of world politics and international relations. A blend of liberal and social construct theory is our approach to international relations. Irrespective of how Nepal views global politics and international relations, our foreign policy is constrained. We cannot campaign for any issue in the international sphere due to a lack of resources. We cannot ask our ambassadors to speak up for Nepal in line with our national interests, given our precarious financial position.
How do you respond to the accusation that you underperformed as foreign minister?
Any foreign minister's capacity to do their job is constrained by the country’s political and economic stability. Foreigners will try to play in a scenario where domestic politics is not stable. If there were high expectations of me as foreign minister, I alone was not in a position to come good on them all. The prime minister and the heads of other political parties above me dealt with more important matters.