As world sees rapid geopolitical shifts, Nepal needs a clear foreign policy, experts sayForeign Ministry is working on a new foreign policy which analysts say must be oriented to domestic needs and promotion and defence of the country's interests.
Weeks before KP Sharma Oli took office as the prime minister, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 1, 2018 sent Sushma Swaraj, the then minister for external affairs, to Kathmandu.
It was an unprecedented and surprising move from Modi and it was viewed as Delhi’s overtures in the wake of frayed ties between Nepal and India.
With nearly a two-thirds majority, the communist leader had a strong mandate to govern for the full five-year term just while streamlining Nepal’s foriegn policy vis-a-vis India and China as well as world powers, particularly the United States.
The Oli government is now halfway through its term. Analysts say instead of strengthening its foreign policy over the last two and a half years, it left it in a disarray. With the Foreign Ministry working on a new foreign policy document, according to them, it's a good time to make it oriented to domestic needs and promotion and defence of the interest of the state in view of the global shifts.
“We need to build a foreign policy taking into consideration the world’s important major powers as well as geo-political shifts that are taking place,” said Narayan Khadka, a Nepali Congress leader and shadow foreign minister. “Our neighbours are important to us, but equally important are other countries with whom we have diplomatic ties.”
The Oli administration in the past years has faced criticism for its lopsided foreign policy, with critics saying it is disoriented.
Nepal’s foreing policy has traditionally revolved around neighbours India and China but during Oli’s reign, coherence seems to be lacking, according to analysts.
While ties with Delhi are at a historic low due to Nepal’s release of a new political map that includes territories disputed with India, Beijing is seen to be making inroads into Nepal, observers say. The Oli government is also in a fix when it comes to the United States, largely because of the ways leaders in Oli’s Nepal Communist Party view Washington.
Ruling party chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s statement last year on Venezuela, accusing Washington of meddling in the Latin American country’s internal affairs, had left the Oli government embarrassed. The failure to get the US Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal ratified by parliament because of divisions in the ruling party has also become an embarrassment for the Oli government.
Despite being able to strengthen ties with China, the government has not been able to move forward any of the projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.
There are multiple areas the Oli administration needs to work on when it comes to Nepal’s foreign policy, according to Vijay Kant Karna, who taught political science at Tribhuvan University and was a former ambassador.
“The major thrust of our foreign policy should be non-alignment. But our foreign policy has become imbalanced,” Karna told the Post. “We also need to see how relations between the United States and China, India and China and the United States and China are evolving.”
New Delhi is revising its worldview just while it seems to be in a bid to reset its priorities in the neighbourhood. Beijing, which has emerged as a dominant world power, is making inroads in South Asia. As the pandemic continues, analysts say “vaccine diplomacy” is likely to take the centre stage.
China has committed to providing the vaccine against Covid-19 to Nepal and so has Russia. A Times of India report dated August 20 said Bangladesh is its priority in the neighbourhood when it comes to vaccines.
Nepal and India, which share historical and cultural ties, have not been in their best of terms of late. While Kathmandu’s move of publishing a new map depicting Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as Nepali territories, which India claims as its own, has not gone down well with the southern neighbour, Oli’s recent claims on the birthplace of Hindu god Ram has rubbed Delhi the wrong way.
Amid India-China rivalry, Kathmandu needs to maintain a delicate balance, say analysts.
“India and China are poised to be superpowers, and in course of that, they would try to secure influence on immediate neighbours,” said Khadka. “It’s natural that both will try to win over the neighborhood; it all depends on how countries, including Nepal, balance their foriegn policy.”
This is not the the first time Nepal is working on a foreing policy. At least half a dozen such documents since 1994, when the then foreign secretary Uddhav Dev Bhatta presented a report, have been prepared so far, according to Foreign Ministry officials.
A joint secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office told the Post that there has been a lukewarm response to such foreing policy documents from the political leadership in the past.
“That’s why all these documents have been gathering dust. Foreing policy is also about political will by the leadership,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity citing sensitivity of the matter.
Frequent changes in the government are also to be blamed, say officials and leaders, as different parties had their own priorities when it came to defining the country’s foreign policy.
“It takes time, effort and money to prepare such documents,” said the joint secretary who has been part of some panels that prepared such policy documents in the past. “It won’t be wrong to say that they were never a priority for the parties and leaders in power.”
In 2017 when a report on Nepal’s new foreign policy was submitted to then prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba he had assured the team members and its coordinator Shridhar Khatri, director at the South Asia Study for Policy Studies, a think tank, that the report would be implemented immediately after the Cabinet’s approval and would be made public subsequently.
“But it was neither made public nor implemented,” Khatri told the Post. “It is the prerogative of the government of the day to come up with any new policy.”
The Khatri-led team had representation of major political parties and noted experts and diplomats. The team had spent 10 months preparing the report.
“I had urged prime minister Deuba to make the report public but it didn't happen,” said Khatri. “Had it been made public, diplomats, experts and the media would have known about the report and commented. I don’t want to comment on the report that was prepared by a team led by me. Since I have not seen the new policy that is being worked on, I cannot comment on that either.”
Officials familiar with the draft of the new foreign policy say it is 10 pages long and is divided into various sections like bilateral diplomacy; multilateral, regional, economic and public diplomacy; trade, commerce and labour.
According to a secretary, who says he has gone through the draft, the policy document talks about the same regular things that “we have been hearing from prime ministers and ministers.”
“One good thing is it gives more emphasis on public diplomacy,” said the secretary who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “The document states that Nepal should promote achievements made in strengthening inclusive democracy, nationally-driven peace process, climate change, its natural heritages, Buddha and Mt Everest.”
Ram Karki, a ruling Nepal Communist Party leader who is also the deputy chief of the party’s Department of Foreign Affairs, said he is not aware of any new foreing policy document the government is preparing.
“If it is, then it's a good opportunity to pursue a balanced policy,” Karki told the Post. “It all depends on how our leaders comprehend our international relations in the changing global context.”
According to Karki, Nepal should be able to assert what it believes is in the domestic interest. Karki said with neighbours, Nepal definitely needs to maintain a fine balance.
“This is not the era of Nehru and Mao and dynamics between India and China are changing,” said Karki. “We should not strive to have closer ties with one country at the expense of the other.”