Interview by Nepal ambassador to Beijing for China’s Global Times causes furoreForeign policy analysts say the statements by Mahendra Bahadur Pandey are undiplomatic and go beyond the brief of an envoy.
Nepali analysts and observers on Monday woke up to an interview with Mahendra Bahadur Pandey, Nepal’s ambassador to China, with the China's Global Times, just as a section of Nepali media, including the Post, reported on cargo trucks stranded at Nepal-China border points.
Pandey, in his interview with Chinese government’s mouthpiece, hailed China-Nepal relations while castigating India as well as Indian and foreign media for trying to ruin China-Nepal ties.
Pandey’s interview met with quite some criticism, as some called it “undiplomatic”, while there were some who seconded him for speaking the truth.
Pandey was appointed ambassador to China after Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli suddenly decided to recall Leelamani Poudyal from Beijing. No reasons have been given so far as to why Oli recalled him.
Observers, diplomats and party leaders were quick to respond that Pandey’s statements were undiplomatic and beyond the brief of an ambassador, which ran against the set protocol.
“I do not understand why our ambassadors speak in favour of India or China or the countries where they are serving,” said Dinesh Bhattarai, who served as foreign relations adviser to Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala. “The kind of statements the ambassador [Pandey] has made could easily put us in trouble.”
In the interview with Global Times, Pandey, who took over as Nepal’s ambassador to China in July, has not minced words in saying how India has encroached upon Nepali territory and how there are a host of problems with India.
Pandey has also highlighted the important relationship that Nepal and China share.
Analysts say while Pandey’s assessment on Nepal-China relationship is a right assessment, he should not have ignored Nepal-India ties, which are cultural, social and even “unique”, given the free movement of citizens of the two countries enjoy.
“We must understand that our relations with India and China are fully independent and they cannot be replaced or substituted by each other and this is the geographical reality too,” said Bhattarai.
As a country sandwiched between India and China, the two emerging economies in the world, maintaining a fine balance for Nepal has always been difficult. Foreign policy analysts have for long called for maintaining good ties with both the neighbours for the larger benefit of the country. But the Oli administration’s foreign policy vis-a-vis India and China has been questioned on more than one occasion, with parties in the opposition as well as analysts saying that it is lopsided and lacks coherence.
A former Nepali ambassador to China who did not wish to be named described Pandey’s interview as ludicrous, especially when he resorted to the Indian media reporting to assert that relations between Nepal and China are good.
Nepal and China share more than six decades of diplomatic relationship and a report or two in the Indian media or anywhere else cannot undermine it, according to the former ambassador.
“The Indians and Chinese engage with each other more than us [Nepal and China], they understand each other more than us and they have far bigger engagements– diplomatic or economic,” the former diplomat told the Post. “There is no point talking about how Indians or Indian media are trying to ruin the relationship between Nepal and China. The Chinese, anyway, are smart enough, to understand that.”
Many say Nepal will continue to face such debacles and become a laughing stock if it continues to appoint party leaders as ambassadors.
Pandey, a ruling Nepal Communist Party leader, served in the past as foreign minister during the Sushil Koirala government between February 2014 and October 2015. Oli appointed him ambassador to China in August after recalling Poudyal.
Many say Pandey’s statements in the interview are largely guided by what his party leadership thinks rather than a larger geopolitical context.
In the ruling Nepal Communist Party, according to a leader, Pandey is known as a person who is blunt and straightforward.
“But in diplomacy, it does not work,” the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Post. “If Pandey continues to talk like this in the future, it will damage Nepal’s ties with other countries.”
In the Global Times interview, Pandey appears quite forthcoming from the very first question, anticipating questions galore on Nepal-India relations and border disputes between the two countries.
Pandey has happily described the dispute relating to Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura, saying how the Indian Army occupied the territory. The Nepali media has extensively reported on that, with the Post being the first paper to report back in November how India placed Kalapani within its borders in the revised political map that it had published then.
“Statements regarding border issues with neighbouring countries by ambassadors in either of our neighbouring countries do not go well and such remarks do not help strengthen our ties with our neighbours,” said the ruling party leader.
The way Pandey has spoken about Nepal’s two neighbours, according to some observers, also gives rise to a question whether the country still sticks to its non-aligned policy.
In his interview, Pandey has profusely praised China while taking a potshot at India, while both the countries are the only and two immediate neighbours.
“One may say the statement(s) made by the Nepal’s ambassador to China in Global Times are highly undiplomatic but when we get into details, the statements seem to breach the non-aligned foreing policy Nepal follows,” said Chandra Dev Bhatta, a foreign policy observer and political scientist who also writes for Kantipur, the Post’s sister paper. “Going by the answers, it looks like Nepal is not interested in defending its national interest but is bent on serving others [China’s] interest.”
Pandey, on his part, defended his interview, saying he said what he felt and what he believed in.
“I just resserted what some Indian media were reporting about Nepal-China relations,” Pandey told the Post over the phone from Beijing. “I do not want to comment whether my interview was diplomatic or undiplomatic. I am a straightforward person.”
Asked about reactions to the interview, Pandey said, “Leave the matter here.”
Analysts say it’s the Foreign Ministry’s responsibility to respond to the queries related to any ambassador when he or she makes statements which can have far-reaching consequences.
The Post’s repeated attempts to talk to Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali to get a comment on Ambassador Pandey’s interview went unanswered. Foreign Secretary Shanker Das Bairagi too did not respond to the Post’s repeated calls and text messages.
A former diplomat who did not want to be named said ambassadors are the country’s assets and every statement they make needs to be owned up by the state.
“The ambassador concerned is answerable to every statement they make. Or else, the state, or the Foreign Ministry for that matter, is accountable,” said the former diplomat. “If such a trend continues–an ambassador making random statements and the foreign ministry refusing to react or acknowledge–our foreign policy and our relations with the friendly nations are sure to see a dip.”