Why are so many high-ranking US officials coming to Nepal?Perhaps to get a pulse of the Dahal government and take stock of American projects here, say analysts.
Over the past few weeks, Kathmandu witnessed three high-level visits from the US, and on Tuesday evening Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra returned home after spending two days in Nepal.
These high-profile visits, which took place in the run-up to the presidential elections and at a time the future of the ruling alliance hangs in the balance over the choice of new President, have created a lot of buzz in political circles and intelligentsia.
Besides India and the US, senior officials from other countries like South Korea, the European Union and others also visited Kathmandu after the formation of the new government on December 25.
In the past two weeks, three senior American officials arrived in Kathmandu and held parleys with political leaders, government officials, civil society members, and media representatives, among others. The first to visit Kathmandu was US Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. Soon after she left, Samantha Power, the chief of the USAID, landed in Kathmandu on a two-day visit and held meetings with top officials. She left on Tuesday.
And this Monday, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) Afreen Akhter visited Kathmandu. She returned on Wednesday. Akhter’s visit was relatively low-key compared to the visits of the other two US officials.
“They [US officials] got themselves invited; we did not invite them,” a senior foreign ministry official told the Post, adding, “They come here at their own convenience and tell us their concerns and grievances.”
In some meetings, US officials also inquired about Nepal’s decision not to be part of the State Partnership Program (SPP), officials privy to the matter told the Post.
The former Sher Bahadur Deuba government had decided not to be part of SPP, which is seen as part of a security and military alliance.
Nuland, during a press briefing with some reporters, said that Nepal should protect national sovereignty while dealing with neighbours, particularly on economic partnerships.
“But just ensure when you do that, you are protecting your own sovereignty… that the deals that you apply to are good for Nepal,” she told reporters while stressing US commitment towards democratic consolidation in Nepal.
Similarly, USAID chief Power said US support for Nepal is in keeping with a spirit of enduring partnership, mutual respect and Nepali people’s right to choose their own path of progress and there there absolutely no geopolitical or security interests attached.
But Kathmandu meetings of another top official, Akhter, were relatively low-key compared to the other two as the US mission in Kathmandu did not give much information on her dealings.
Akhter met Chief of the Army Staff General Prabhu Ram Sharma and Foreign Secretary Bharat Raj Paudyal, among other officials, and discussed traditional US concerns.
Nepal Army spokesman Brigadier General Krishna Prasad Bhandari labelled the meeting between Sharma and Akhter “a courtesy call”.
Akhter was concerned about uninterrupted implementation of the projects under the Millennium Challenge Corporation that are now facing some problems in Ratmate, Lapsephedi and Dang, and whether Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal will take part in the Summit for Democracy being organised by the US President Joe Biden on March 29-30, said an official privy to Akhter’s meetings with Nepali officials.
Former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had participated in the first democracy summit hosted by Biden last year and the US wants a similar kind of participation from Nepal this year also, officials said.
It may be noted that in recent years, the US has been rallying support from countries, especially in Asia and Africa, in its attempt to counter growing Chinese influence and to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The MCC has extended $500 million grant to execute two projects in Nepal including a 300km 400 KV transmission line with three substations and maintenance of about 300 km of roads in various sections of the Mechi, Koshi and Sagarmatha highways, the Tribhuvan Rajpath, and the East-West Highway.
“Due to petty political interests and some politicians’ doublespeak, the MCC projects have been overly politicised even before the MCC compact comes into force and as a result projects are already facing problems on the ground. So the US officials have been stressing speedy implementation of the projects without any hindrance,” an official at the foreign ministry said.
But Khagda Bista, executive director of the MCA Nepal, said the project is facing some minor problems at Ratmate, Lapsephedhi and Dang but nothing that cannot be resolved. “No project in Nepal is trouble-free. We are updated on what is going on at project sites. The Department of Roads is investigating the issue of felling more trees than necessary in Dang, in violation of the environmental impact assessment,” said Bista.
Visiting US officials also keep asking for Nepal’s support for various resolutions on the Ukraine crisis in United Nations platforms. We have our certain parameters for supporting and opposing such resolutions in UN platforms, the foreign ministry official added.
Nepal had supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine in a vote in the United Nations in New York, but remained absent during a vote on suspending Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.
Officials have indicated that the US National Security Council’s Senior Director for South Asia Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher is also expected to visit Kathmandu, even as the date of her visit is to be confirmed.
Some have linked the recent high-level visits from the US (and India) to the upcoming elections of the President and revival of the old political alliance of the Nepali Congress, the CPN (Maoist Center), and the CPN (Unified Socialist), among others, but this could not be independently verified.
According to leaders, the US officials were more cautious, in sharp contrast to Indian foreign secretary Kwatra who spoke openly on the ongoing political situation in Kathmandu and the March 9 presidential election.
So those who are following the US engagements in Nepal said that besides US traditional interest in Kathmandu, there was also a geopolitical element.
The visits by senior US officials after the formation of the new government in Nepal were aimed at securing US interests in Kathmandu, said Arjun Karki, former Nepali Ambassador to the US.
“Besides raising its traditional concerns, the US has been vocal about safeguarding democracy, human rights, rights of refugees, completion of the protracted transitional justice process, and timely completion of US-funded projects, among other things.”
“The Americans also want to know the kind of policy the new government will pursue. They must be looking for reassurances from Kathmandu,” said Karki.
Chandra Dev Bhatta, a foreign policy commentator, also sees the visits by US officials in the backdrop of growing geopolitical rivalry and change of government.
“The change of government in Kathmandu has piqued the curiosity of our foreign friends and their investments and engagements are growing, along with their interests. But instead of only receiving American dignitaries, Nepal too should also arrange for reciprocal high-level visits to Washington,” said Bhatta.