Amid SPP confusion, home minister makes a gaffe saying pullout letter sent to the USForeign Ministry is yet to write to the US. American embassy says it acknowledges Nepali Cabinet’s public statements regarding its desire not to move forward on the SPP.
Confusion does not seem to end over the United States government’s State Partnership Program even a week after the Nepal government decided not to move ahead on it.
On Monday, Home Minister Khand created further confusion.
While speaking at the National Assembly on behalf of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who is also the defence minister, Khand said the Nepal government decided on June 20 not to move ahead on the SPP and that a letter to this effect has been already written [to the United States] through the Foreign Ministry.
Some sections of the media were quick to pick up the piece of information, as it came from the home minister, and reported that Nepal has written to the US seeking an end to its participation in the SPP.
“Whether Nepal is part of the State Partnership Program for the exchange and assistance between the Nepali and US Armies has been the subject of a nationwide debate and has been seriously debated in the House as well,” said Khand. “The Council of Ministers has already decided that Nepal won’t move ahead on the State Partnership Program. We have sent the decision [to the US] through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
Nepal’s participation in the SPP has become a topic of hot debate in Nepal, with parties from the opposition as well as ruling coalition demanding that the government must terminate its association with the SPP.
That Nepal is part of the SPP became clear only recently after the US embassy in Kathmandu said that Nepal’s application was accepted in 2019 following two requests in 2015 and 2017.
Talking to the Post after the National Assembly meeting, Khand clarified that he only mentioned that the decision taken by the Cabinet has been forwarded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“I have not said more than that,” he said. “The decision taken by the Cabinet has been forwarded to the Foreign Ministry. Now it is up to the Foreign Ministry to take further action as per the government decision.”
As the Post reported last week, a letter regarding the Cabinet decision was dispatched to the Foreign Ministry only on Thursday.
The copy of the letter from the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers, which is seen by the Post, says “as per the Work Procedure Regulation-2064 BS and its Section 29, the Cabinet decision on not to move ahead on the United States of America’s State Partnership Program is forwarded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
The letter dated June 23 is undersigned by Chief Secretary Shanker Das Bairagi and is addressed to Foreign Secretary Bharat Raj Poudyal.
Despite receiving the letter regarding the Cabinet decision of June 20 to stall the SPP process, the Foreign Ministry, however, has not taken any step yet.
Though government officials have claimed that Nepal has never been part of the SPP, an Indo-Pacific Strategy Report published in February 2019 mentioned Nepal as a new entrant.
There, however, had been no controversy over it until some sections of the media two weeks ago published a document calling it a draft agreement between the Nepal Army and the Utah National Guard of the United States.
The US embassy in Kathmandu reacted, dubbing the document “fake” and making it clear that Nepal joined the SPP in 2019.
Opposition and ruling parties launched a blame-game while the International Relations Committee of the parliament on June 18 summoned Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka and Army Chief Prabhu Ram Sharma. Both denied Nepal’s participation in the SPP.
Prime Minister Deuba skipped the House committee meeting.
The government denied its association with the SPP, but it appeared to be in the dark about how it can get out of it if Nepal, as the US claims, is indeed part of the American military scheme.
It was the US embassy again that put out a statement to further clarify the SPP, in which it also said any country can terminate its partnership in the SPP by writing to the US government.
It came like a godsend for the government.
Amid widespread criticism, the Cabinet came up with the vague decision on June 20.
The Cabinet decision only states that Nepal will not be part of the SPP and does not direct the Ministry of Foreign Affairs whether to write [to the US] or not, according to two knowledgeable sources.
Sources told the Post last week that the US embassy might have conveyed, informally, its displeasure to the Nepali leadership over the Cabinet decision on the SPP.
Officials, however, say the government has not sent any official communication to the embassy regarding the Cabinet decision.
According to the officials, on Thursday, Manual P Micaller, charge d'Affaires at the US embassy in Kathmandu, had a meeting with Chief Secretary Bairagi.
“We don’t have details of the meeting,” said an official. “Probably the chief secretary communicated the government's decision, but we cannot say for sure.”
The Europe and America Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has prepared a draft to be sent to the US, according to sources.
But the political leadership has not given the green light, hence no decision has been taken yet, according to another official at the Foreign Ministry. The official refused to share the content of the draft, citing sensitivity of the matter.
Another Foreign Ministry official said that no letter has been sent to the US yet.
Asked about Minister Khand’a statement in the National Assembly, the official quipped: “It would be better if you asked the minister.”
Rita Dhital, deputy spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said she was not aware of the development and the statement made by Minister Khand.
Foreign policy experts say ministers and officials need to be careful while making statements when it comes to diplomatic and sensitive matters concerning friendly countries.
“We have to maintain good relations with the United States and other friendly countries and we should be careful not to irritate them,” said Dinesh Bhattarai, who has served as foreign relations adviser to two prime ministers.
“Our neighbors must be watching carefully. In addition, I do not see any reason why the government should not write to the US mentioning the cabinet decision,” said Bhattarai, who has also served as Nepal’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva. “While the government should tell the Americans about its position, it should also maintain good relations with the US.”
According to Bhattarai, Nepal can make good use of Army Chief Sharma’s (current) visit and Prime Minister Deuba’s upcoming visit to the US to clear the air on the SPP and controversy surrounding it in Nepal.
Meanwhile, the US embassy in Kathmandu said that it has no official knowledge of the Nepal government’s decision on the SPP.
“We acknowledge the Nepali Cabinet’s public statements regarding its desire not to move forward on the State Partnership Program,” the embassy said in a brief email response to the Post. “SPP events can occur only with the approval of the government of Nepal.”