Government is in a fix. It has decided to shun SPP but is not clear how to do thatForeign Ministry officials say they’ve got Cabinet decision ‘not to move ahead’, which they find too vague to pursue.
In a reactive move, the government on Monday decided not to move ahead on the United States government’s State Partnership Program, following pressure from various quarters.
It, however, is in a fix. How to do that?
The Foreign Ministry said that it received the Cabinet decision on Thursday, but has yet to decide on its action.
“We received a communication from the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers regarding the decision on the SPP taken by the Cabinet just today [Thursday],” said a Foreign Ministry official. “We are coordinating with the political leadership and discussing the decision as it does not categorically say anything.”
The official said the ministry understands the gravity of the matter and that it will act as per the instructions of the political leadership.
While deciding not to move ahead on the SPP, the Cabinet on Monday also decided that all communications to foreign governments should be made through the Foreign Ministry.
Now it’s up to the ministry to communicate to the US government as per the Cabinet decision, which officials find vague.
The delay in writing to the US despite the Cabinet decision has given rise to speculations if the Americans in Kathmandu have conveyed, through unofficial channels, their displeasure to the top leadership.
The SPP has become a hot potato in Nepal, with almost all political parties arguing against Nepal’s participation in it.
A debate on the SPP took centre stage after some sections of the media circulated a document which was dubbed a draft agreement between the Nepal Army and Utah National Guard of the United States.
The US embassy was quick to react, calling the document “fake”. It, however, said that the US accepted Nepal in the SPP in 2019 after its two requests in 2015 and 21017. But the Nepal Army put out a statement on June 15, clarifying it has not and will not participate in the SPP.
A day later, the Army had to scramble for justification, as a letter dated October 27, 2015, undersigned by then Army chief Rajendra Chhetri, made it to the public domain. In the letter written to the then US ambassador Alaina B Teplitz, the Nepal Army has requested its association in the SPP. The Army confirmed the authenticity of the letter but said it was about seeking support for the relief and rescue efforts after the earthquakes.
At a House committee meeting last week, Foreign Minister Naryan Khadka and Army Chief Prabhu Ram Sharma said that Nepal is not part of the SPP and it does not intend to be. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was summoned for Sunday, skipped the House committee meeting, citing his busy schedule.
As the main opposition CPN-UML was lashing out at the Deuba government over the SPP, Congress general secretaries Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma too urged the prime minister not to join the partnership as it could have security and military consequences.
Amid confusion whether Nepal indeed is part of the SPP or not, it was the US embassy in Kathmandu that came up with a statement in which it said a country can terminate its association with the SPP by writing a letter.
The government then said Nepal won’t move ahead on the SPP but stopped short of explicitly saying how to end its association, if any.
Foreign Ministry officials say they would act on the decision only after further consultations with the government and the political leadership.
On Tuesday, a day after the Cabinet decision on the SPP, Anna Richey-Allen, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Kathmandu, told the Post whether to participate in the State Partnership Program or not is Nepal’s decision.
“Worldwide, the State Partnership Program brings together the US National Guard and military/civilian personnel for a variety of training and education both in the United States and in the partner nation,” she said. “Of the nearly 90 countries with the State Partnership Program, only Belarus has ended its participation.”
In the last 75 years of bilateral ties, the US has provided several kinds of assistance to Nepal, including military aid.
The SPP, however, stoked concerns as the issue surfaced on the heels of Nepal’s ratification of the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact amid opposition from some quarters who called it part of the Washington-led Indo-Pacific Strategy. The US has put the SPP as well under the IPS.
Critics of the MCC compact said that its ratification would pave the way for Americans to have boots on the ground in Nepal. Since the SPP is also about military-to-military exchange, political and intellectual circles expressed concerns if the United States army personnel would set up barracks in Nepal.
The US embassy, however, has ruled out any such initiatives.
“Independent of the SPP, the US bilateral relationship that has focused on people-to-people connections including student and professional exchanges, diplomatic engagement, military partnership, trade, and common values remains strong,” said the US spokesperson.
There are also concerns if the row over the SPP could affect Deuba’s planned visit to the US. Deuba is set to visit the US in mid-July, but no official announcement has been made yet. Chief of the Army Staff General Prabhu Ram Sharma who has already embarked on a foreign trip will reach Washington on June 27.
The embassy said that Nepal’s decision [on the SPP] won’t affect any bilateral exchanges.
“Visits by Nepali officials to the United States and vice versa will continue to be an important part of our relationship,” she said.
Meanwhile, Beijing has said that it welcomes the Nepal government’s decision of not moving ahead with the SPP.
Speaking at a regular press briefing, Wang Wenbin, spokesperson of China’s Foreign Ministry, said on Thursday that as a friendly and close neighbour and strategic cooperative partner, China commends the Nepali government’s decision [not to move ahead on the SPP.]
“Various political parties and factions, the government, the army and people across the Nepalese society see the SPP as a military and security initiative closely linked to the Indo-Pacific Strategy,” said Wang, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement, “and they consider it against the national interests of Nepal and its long-held non-aligned, balanced foreign policy to be part of the SPP.”
Beijing had earlier in February spoken about Washington’s “coercive diplomacy” when a debate was raging over ratification of the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact. The Chinese see both the MCC and SPP as an American strategy to expand Washington’s influence and counter China.
Despite China’s concerns, Nepal’s Parliament, however, ratified the MCC on February 27.
On Thursday, stating that China will continue to support Nepal in upholding its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and support Nepal’s commitment to its independent and non-aligned foreign policy.
“China stands ready to work with Nepal to jointly safeguard regional security, stability and shared prosperity,” he said.