Experts say SPP exposed Nepal’s civilian and military diplomacy failureIt’s a fiasco of epic proportions, they say, which could widen trust deficit with neighbours and the United States.
That there was bungling by almost all parties in the government since 2015 with regards to the US government’s State Partnership Program has now become apparent, serious questions have arisen over Nepal’s civilian and military diplomacy.
After quizzing Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka and Nepal Army chief Gen Prabhu Ram Sharma on Friday, the parliamentary International Relations Committee has summoned Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on Sunday to apprise it of what all happened since 2015 to date. The House committee has also instructed the government to provide all the documents and correspondence related to SPP to Parliament.
Foreign policy observers and experts say at a time when there is a need to tread carefully amid the economic and geopolitical shifts, Nepali leadership has been frivolous and flippant.
“This SPP episode is a national tragedy and this is an utter failure of the country’s diplomatic machinery,” said Ramesh Nath Pandey, a former foreign minister. “The poor handling of the SPP issue has created a crisis of confidence. The big question is who to trust in this country.”
As political parties were engaged in a blame-game, with the main opposition demanding clarifications from Prime Minister Deuba in Parliament, the Nepal Army put out a statement, claiming there has been no SPP agreement with the United States. But a day later, on Thursday, a letter by the Nepal Army to the US was leaked in which it clearly requests for the “establishment” of the SPP for Nepal.
The letter dated October 27 is undersigned by then-Army chief Rajendra Chettri.
Even the US embassy in Kathmandu has made it clear that Nepal first applied for the SPP in 2015 and then in 2017 before Washington accepted the requests in 2019.
From 2015 to 2019, all the major parties—the CPN-UML, the Moist Centre and the Nepali Congress—have been in power, and they are now blaming each other for leading Nepal to join the SPP.
Appearing before the House committee, a day after the Army denied Nepal’s participation in the SPP, Gen Shamra said that under the SPP, the Army had received two helicopters and that a third helicopter for medical use is due to arrive in Kathmandu.
Sharma on Saturday left for Lebanon. He will reach the United States on June 27.
“Gen Shamra will land in Washington, DC later this month and will meet with senior Pentagon officials. It’s quite concerning as we don’t know how the Americans will react to the ongoing controversy over SPP,” said an official. “We faced a similar kind of embarrassing situation when controversy over the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact surfaced earlier.”
Pradeep Gyawali, a UML secretary and former foreign minister, said that the Oli government was not in the know of the letter sent by then Army chief Chettri to the US in 2015.
“The political leadership was not aware of the letter,” Gyawali said on Saturday at a function in Kathmandu. “The army brass bypassed the prime minister and other leaderships while sending the letter to the US ambassador. When one after another political leadership has been exposed, now the blame game has started between the ruling and opposition parties.”
CPN (Maoist Centre) leader Barsha Man Pun said it is unfortunate that the SPP proposal came through the Nepal Army.
“It should have come through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We have to seek the reason why the proposal came through the Nepal Army and not through the government channel,” said Pun. “There is no doubt about the Nepal Army’s professionalism but the way political leadership was bypassed is a matter of serious concern.”
Officials say there is a tendency among Nepali politicians and the Army to not abide by the diplomatic code of conduct.
“We introduced the diplomatic code of conduct in 2011 and revised it in 2012 but none of the high-ranking political, military and diplomatic officials have followed it,” said a joint secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Had they adhered to the code of conduct, we would not have faced such fiascos.”
Section 6 of the diplomatic code of conduct states that while concluding agreements or understandings of any kind with a foreign government or a regional or an international organisation or in situations of creating any obligation for the Government of Nepal, prior approval and participation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs must be ensured in keeping with the Government of Nepal (Allocation of Business) Rules and the Government of Nepal (Transaction of Business) Rules.
“But in many cases, the Nepal Army does direct communications and copies them to us,” said another official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If we discuss the content prior to dispatching the letters, we would know the issue better and can make the correspondence accordingly.”
Foreign policy observers and experts say at a time when civilian diplomacy is in question, military diplomacy has also come under the scanner. As an institution under the government of Nepal, the Army should make its decisions, correspondence, and requests through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to them.
“The correspondence related to SPP should have been made through the Foreign Ministry via the Defence Ministry,” said Indra Adhikari, a security expert. “This kind of correspondence should not be made by the Army directly.”
According to Adhikari, the Army must not forget that it is under the civilian government.
“But the politicians who lead the civilian government are also a failure as they always try to appease the Nepal Army,” she told the Post. “Our civilian and political leadership has an inferiority complex when it comes to the Army. While there is a complete failure of military diplomacy, political leaders are devoid of responsibility.’
Many say the Nepal Army often tends to behave like a parallel government, forgetting the fact that it is an institution under the civilian government.
There are several instances of Kathmandu-based diplomats and visiting dignitaries meeting the chief of the Army and its senior officials without the presence of Foreign Ministry representatives, according to officials. The Nepal Army now also faces questions over its institutional memory as well as the lack of coherence while performing its tasks, according to them.
“The Army might have made some mistakes while performing its duty but that does not mean it has totally failed or its diplomacy has failed,” said Jagadish Pokhrel, a retired major general. “The request for support from the US was made before the inception of the SPP and Indo-Pacific Strategy. Now due to our geopolitical compulsion, we have to be extra careful.”
Pokhrel asserts that the Nepal Army has never bypassed the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its correspondence.
Pandey, the former foreign minister, says the poor handling of the SPP has created a trust deficit, which is already with India and China, with the US too.
“This is our leadership’s collective failure. Our trust deficit has deepened now and our relations with America might face a jolt. Now the government has to release a white paper and tell the people the truth detailing all that has happened with regard to the SPP,” Pandey told the Post. “Time has come for us to adopt a strategic culture. We cannot afford to have a deficit of trust with our neighbours and major powers. Our leadership is completely failing.”