US delegation to be in Nepal right after Chinese foreign minister’s visitA team of 25 Congressional members, the biggest ever, is flying into Kathmandu after the MCC compact’s passage, which Washington has hailed and Beijing has noted.
In what looks like deepening interests in Nepal, two major powers—both with whom Kathmandu shares longstanding relations—have been intensifying their engagements.
The United States is set to send a bipartisan Congressional delegation, most probably by the second week of April, days after the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is also the State Councillor, on March 26-27.
Nepali officials confirmed that the delegation, arguably the biggest from Washington comprising 25 members, is visiting Kathmandu.
Given the backdrop of the passage of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact after years of controversy, Beijing’s increased concerns over the US grant and Wang’s planned visit to Kathmandu, it is apparent that powerful countries have renewed their interest in Nepal, according to officials and experts.
In the lead up to the ratification of the MCC Nepal Compact, a $500 million grant from the United States for improving electricity supply and roads, Washington’s pressure on the Nepali leadership had become apparent, just while Beijing warned against “coercive diplomacy”.
After the MCC compact’s ratification on February 27, China said it had noted the event, but at least two Chinese government mouthpieces produced strongly worded editorials, saying the US grant undermines Nepal’s sovereignty.
Washington’s plan to send the 25-member delegation, on the heels of a high-profile visit from Beijing, many say, comes as an indication that the US wants to convey reassurances to Nepal.
At least two officials familiar with the scheduled visit from the US said Washington wants to thank Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and the Nepali leadership for ratifying the compact. The visit itself is a message to Beijing as well, according to them.
The visit of the US Congress delegation is also expected to lay the ground for more high-level exchanges later this year from both sides to mark the 75 years of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Nepal and the US, said the familiar sources.
Political divisions and controversy in Nepal over the MCC compact, signed in September 2017, had clearly left Washington frustrated, as rejecting the US grant could have come as an insult to Washington. Continued delays in ratification had prompted Beijing, which in the past had not explicitly objected to the grant, to join the fray.
One of the officials said the visit by the bipartisan Congressional delegation should be viewed in context.
“This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Nepal-US diplomatic ties and a lot of political and social engagements are taking place between the two counties,” the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Post. “The US has also extended an invitation to Prime Minister Deuba to visit Washington. There are also talks about inviting US Vice President Kamala Devi Harris or US Secretary of State Antony John Blinken to Kathmandu within this year as part of the celebrations of the 75 years of establishment of Nepal-US ties.”
The American embassy in Kathmandu refused to confirm any visits, but it did not rule that out.
“While we do not have any confirmed visits to announce at this time, the US Embassy in Nepal is expecting to host US officials during the year—particularly as part of the 75th anniversary of the US-Nepal diplomatic partnership–to explore the country’s culture, strengthen people-to-people ties, and discuss shared values such as our commitments to human rights, a free economy, and democracy,” Anna Richey-Allen, spokesperson for the embassy, said in a brief email response to the Post.
A source familiar with the development said the 25-member US bipartisan delegation will have members of the US congressional committees—foreign affairs and judiciary, energy and commerce, human rights and finance, among others—as well as a senior State Department official.
The last time a big team from the US had arrived in Nepal was in 2017, when the US House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi led an eight-member bipartisan Congressional delegation to Kathmandu. Later in February 2020, Representative Ami Bera, who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s ( HFAC) Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation, led a four-member bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Kathmandu.
After the MCC compact’s passage, Beijing appears to be making a push for some projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, to which Nepal signed in May, 2017, months before signing the MCC Nepal Compact. However, in the last five years, not a single project under the BRI has taken off in Nepal.
American officials in the past, however, have made their reservations clear about BRI in Nepal.
In February 2019, during his visit to Nepal, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, Joe Felter, said that some activities that China has been engaged in in the past across the region—in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Malaysia—are a cause for concern.
“We welcome a constructive relation with China, we welcome the investment by China, but as long as that investment is designed to serve the interest of Nepal and not just China,” he said.
Experts say the US-China rivalry on the world stage is known to all, but as far as Nepal is concerned, it must tread carefully to avoid getting trapped in geopolitical games. Kathmandu should navigate through to benefit from all friendly nations, including the US and China.
“Big powers and big neighbours are now looking at us but that does not mean that they are exerting their influence in Nepal or they are intensifying their rivalry and competition,” said former foreign secretary and ambassador Madhu Raman Acharya. “If healthy competition is there and we can use the leverage in our interest, it is good for the country.”
According to Acharya, how Nepali leadership manages to deal with big powers in the larger interest of the country is key.
“Recently we have ratified MCC. This will do good to the country. Now the Chinese foreign minister is coming. But I do not know how much preparation we have done to take advantage of the BRI,” said Acharya. “If big powers and neighbours are paying attention to us, it is good for us and we should try to give them a level playing field.”
Nepali politicians have for long failed to build and follow a robust foreign policy, thereby exposing it to the dangers of powerful countries’ geopolitical games. Kathmandu has more often than not shown the tendency to tilt towards one country or the other depending upon which party is in power.
“The more engagements from big countries, the better for Nepal. We should focus on economic development and cooperation,” said Acharya. “Engagements are not always tied with security, or strategic or military interests.”
Foreign Ministry officials said that since the Covid-19 pandemic situation is easing, they are expecting some high-level visits from various countries.
“We are looking forward to some high-level visits and exchanges from different countries in the near future,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Sewa Lamsal. “It’s too early for us to make announcements at this time.”