Nepal’s non-alignmentNepal expects both neighbours to understand that it is walking a tight rope while dealing with them
Nepal’s geopolitics is complex and fragile. The mixing of internal politics with geopolitics has made the conduct of foreign policy much more complex. Having gone from a violent past to a federal democratic republic, Nepal is struggling to institutionalise historic democratic changes.
It is now facing challenges of Himalayan proportions on several fronts, ranging from maintaining national unity to implementing the fundamental law of the land to promoting national development. If these challenges are viewed and analysed microscopically through several prisms both in the domestic and international context, their complexity appears even greater. This has a crucial bearing on the domestic foundations of foreign policy. Though fundamental parameters of external relations continue to remain the same, Nepal’s foreign policy has been plagued by inconsistencies and double standards and compounded by the protracted political transition. The root of this lies within and is manifested in the form of greed and fear.
The geopolitical strategy of ‘a yam between two boulders,’ adopted since the days of Prithvi Narayan Shah, was formed with the intent of keeping the country safe, protecting its independence, promoting development and maintaining a healthy and sensitive balance in foreign policy. Nepal was among the 19 countries participating in the Bangdung conference in Indonesia in 1955 that embraced five principles of Panchsheel, derived from the teachings of Lord Buddha, the enlightened son of Nepal. Panchsheel embeds principles of mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.
These time-tested principles remain true for keeping international relations harmonious. Nepal’s membership in the United Nations in 1955 was in pursuance of these principles. Nepal was formally integrated in the Belgrade summit of the non-aligned countries in 1961 as the foundation of a peaceful world order, an alternative to military blocks and rivalries in international life. The summit attended by 25 participating countries, Nepal among them, expressed the innate and intense desire of safeguarding independence and freedom in the face of a growing Cold War between the capitalist and the communist blocks of powers.
A non-aligned approach to relations with neighbours has been in practice much before Nepal’s formal integration in 1961, as is evident in the address of the then prime minister BP Koirala to the 15th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 29, 1960, when he told the world body, “We have judged every international issue on its merit without consideration of anybody’s fear or favour.” This has helped to develop and transform relations with neighbours with dignity in difficult times.
The foreign policy of any nation is a product of various factors that include geography, history, economic conditions, leaders’ ambitions, and developments in international life arising from time to time. Geopolitical realities are what largely shape a nation’s attitude towards other states. Defying geopolitical realities is to invite a situation of extraordinary ambiguity and uncertainty. Nepal’s non-alignment requires a look beyond short-term imperatives to follow a pragmatic foreign policy rooted in ground realities.
Strategy for survival
Populism and jingoism are not the answers to the complexity of Nepal’s messy politics and fragile geopolitics. They harm Nepal’s precious relations with neighbours. Political expediency in foreign policy has deeply hurt the national interest and eroded credibility. It is essential to be aware of the risks of populism and jingoism from both the right and the left.
Given its geographical location, Nepal is fully aware of its duties towards neighbours. Neither can Nepal afford to take sides, nor does it want to do so. The moment it takes sides, there will be trouble. Nepal remains non-aligned and judges every issue on its merit. It has been the long-standing policy of Nepal not to allow its territory to be used against its neighbours and friends. Nepal has consistently and categorically maintained that it will, under no circumstances, allow its soil to be used for any hostile activities against its neighbours or any other countries. Likewise, Nepal also expects other countries to be sensitive to its security and sovereignty and not allow any activities that are inimical to its interests from their territories.
With the global economic and political power shifting to the Asia-Pacific region, the world’s attention is increasingly focused on Nepal’s neighbourhood. That Nepal will be on the global strategic radar has become a contemporary reality.
If Nepal remains stuck in a cycle of instability, its progress is the first victim. There will be other grave consequences that extend beyond its borders. Nepal’s desire to maintain independence and integrity are not incompatible with Indian and Chinese concerns for their national security. Nepal’s unity, integrity, stability, and development ultimately depend on good neighbourly relations. Nepal expects both neighbours to understand that it is walking a tight rope while dealing with them. Only Nepalis know how tight the rope is.
A look across the globe shows that the world is in a mess. People are disillusioned and are losing their trust in mainstream politicians. Countries all over are witnessing a massive social awakening and radicalisation of politics amidst contradictory pulls and pressure. The 70-year-old international order is fraying at the seams. Dynamics for cooperation, competition, connectivity and conflict are more prominent than ever. The present time appears to be a renaissance of super power politics. New geopolitics is in the making, and a new world order is struggling to be born. With growing economic integration focused on China, conduct of Nepal’s foreign policy is becoming increasingly sensitive and significant.
Maintaining a relationship based on trust with neighbours is the breath of life for Nepal and holds the key to protecting and promoting national interests. There must be tolerance, harmony and peaceful co-existence to ensure the resilience of the Nepali nation. While pursuing engagements with neighbours and the international community based on Panchsheel, Nepal can add bricks to the emerging foundation of a new world order. Nepal needs to be louder and firmer in the advocacy and practice of non-alignment. In the changing global context, even if non-aligned nations lose their role at the global level, for Nepal non-alignment will still be relevant. In fact, non-alignment for Nepal is a strategy for survival as a free and independent sovereign nation.
Bhattarai, a former ambassador and foreign affairs adviser to Sushil Koirala, is a member of faculty at the Institute of Crisis Management Studies, TU