Nepal caught in virus geopolitical games as US and China spar over originKathmandu should maintain a neutral position, as Covid-19 crisis is not over yet and it cannot afford to antagonise any friendly nations, analysts say.
The Embassy of China in Kathmandu on Monday morning issued a statement, attributed to its spokesperson, on Covid-19 Origin-Tracing Report released by the United States government which has stated that Beijing is trying to hold back international investigation and rejecting calls for transparency.
The statement further says that more than 80 countries, including Nepal, have written to the World Health Organisation director-general, issued statements, or sent diplomatic notes to voice their objection to the politicisation attempts and call for the Joint Report by the WHO-China joint study team to be upheld.
Nepal is now in a bind.
This is the first time Nepal has been dragged into a larger geo-political game between the West versus China.
Washington and Beijing are at loggerheads over lab leak conspiracy theories. The United States, earlier under Donald Trump and now under Joe Biden, has pushed for a origin-tracing investigation.
However, after rejecting the calls for a fresh origin-tracing investigation, China has launched a new theory that the virus was leaked from an American military lab.
The Chinese push that Nepal make a position makes it difficult for Kathmandu.
Both the US and China are Nepal’s good allies, and Kathmandu cannot afford to antagonise either. Nepal is now under pressure to take a side on the proposed second phase of investigation into the origins of Covid-19.
Both the countries’ support and assistance to Nepal have been immense in the fight against the pandemic.
China so far has provided the largest number of vaccine doses either in grants or under commercial deals.
China has delivered more than 7.4 million doses of vaccine to Nepal through grant assistance or commercial purchase, and this makes it the largest vaccine supplier to Nepal until now.
The US, on the other hand, has also supplied vaccine doses and other medical assistance and promised more jabs.
Neither the government of Nepal nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made public any official position yet. But officials in the know say Mani Bhattarai, Nepal's permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, has submitted a note verbale to Dr Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organisation in Geneva.
According to officials in Kathmandu, the note verbale that Nepal has submitted at the WHO headquarters echoes Nepal’s stated position that it calls for scientific evidence and research.
Repeated attempts to speak to Bhattarai went unanswered.
A senior government official who is familiar with Nepal's position on the matter told the Post that the remarks made by the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu which stated that Nepal objects to the politicisation of the Covid-19 origin, was in fact from March and not recent.
After the US insisted on the second proposal to carry out the investigation, the Chinese side made yet another request to make its position clear, officials say.
After the Chinese request to Nepal to make a position, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs communicated to its Geneva-based Permanent Representative about Nepal’s position some two weeks back, according to Sewa Lamsal, spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry.
Nepal, however, appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place.
In its statement, China has minced no words to explain its cooperation to Nepal.
“Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, China and Nepal have always helped and supported each other, setting a good example of international cooperation in the fight against the pandemic,” said the Chinese embassy.
“China thanks Nepal for always adhering to an objective and fair position and giving China valuable support on the issue of origin-tracing.”
The embassy also said that China will continue to strengthen anti-pandemic cooperation with Nepal, provide more vaccines to Nepal within its capacity, and work together with Nepal to resist the headwind of politicisation of origin-tracing and safeguard the sound atmosphere of global anti-epidemic cooperation.
China has rejected the WHO's next-phase origin-tracing work proposal saying that it is not based on scientific evidence gathered from the first-phase study jointly conducted by Chinese and foreign experts in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, earlier this year, from where the first coronavirus cases were reported.
“We have not supported the Chinese rejection to carry out the second investigation. Nor have we fully supported the calls made by the US,” said another Foreign Ministry official who did not want to be named. “We understand the geopolitical rivalry tied to this issue and we don’t want to be dragged into all this.”
After the second Covid-19 wave, which slid into a devastating crisis, as around 6,000 people died of the virus within weeks from mid-April, Nepal feels it is in a precarious situation. India, the southern neighbour, with a population of more than 1.3 million, is predicting the third wave, and if it strikes there, Nepal cannot remain untouched. In such a situation, Nepal’s priority right now is to stay safe and vaccinate as many people at the earliest.
But Nepal does not have enough doses and it is to secure vaccines from wherever it can get. With India, considered the vaccine powerhouse, iself struggling, Nepal sees the US and China as the best options who could supply the jabs.
The rivalry between the two countries and Nepal’s entanglement into that, however, could make it more difficult for the country when it comes to fighting the pandemic.
A senior government official said Nepal’s principled position is that it will follow any scientific research backed by the WHO.
“It’s not in our interest to get into any lab-leak theories… no matter whichever country is talking about it,” said the official requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media on the matter. “We are not going to take sides. We have reiterated our position based on internationally accepted principles.”
Dr Roshan Pokhrel, secretary at the Health Ministry, said that Nepal is against politicisation of the virus, but the ministry has not sent any notes to anyone on the issue so far.
Former diplomats say it is difficult for Nepal to make a public position on the issue, as it is tied with geopolitical ramifications. Nepal needs to tread carefully, according to them.
Shambhuram Simkhada, Nepal’s former permanent representative to Geneva, said that Nepal should pursue and stress scientific research on the origin of the virus so that the information can be useful in the future as well.
“A vast majority of the scientific community has ruled out the lab-leak theory so I have doubts over it. And politically, it is very difficult for Nepal to make a position,” Simkhada told the Post. “It would be better for Nepal to follow and consult close neighbours like India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, to name a few. Their positions may help us understand how we should move ahead in such a sensitive matter.”
“Nepal should keep itself far from the rivalry between major powers,” said Khadga KC, who teaches international relations and diplomacy at the Tribhuvan University. “The origin of the virus and conspiracies surrounding it are something to be dealt with by scientists.”
According to KC, Nepal should focus on how it can secure more vaccines sooner.
“Our focus should be on inoculating as many people as possible at the earliest,” said KC. “We are in the midst of a pandemic. While saying that Nepal is always for evidence-based studies, Nepal should maintain a neutral policy. It’s not the time to antagonise anyone. Definitely not our friendly nations.”