Keeping the balanceNepal’s economic relations with neighbours should be nurtured in a pragmatic manner that ensures sovereignty
As soon as a new government assumes office in Nepal, public speculation regarding the country’s external policy starts to arise. While a country’s foreign policy is not something that ought to change with changes in government, new leadership in domestic politics often adds new facets to external relations and policies. This is more so in third world countries like Nepal where domestic politics is heavily influenced by external elements. Nepal is yet to develop a firm foreign policy based on the broader national consensus. That is why Nepal’s external relations, particularly with our immediate neighbours, experiences ups and downs under different regimes. Nepal’s geopolitical reality requires the country to maintain balanced relations with both our immediate neighbours, India and China, yet we have been falling short in managing relations in an even-handed manner. Though this geopolitical imperative is understood by all, political leaders often try to exploit Nepal’s geopolitical sensitivity and use their relations with neighbours to gain political mileage at home.
The new government and recent political alignment in Nepal is also not free from suspicion and the general public is yet to be assured of its independent functioning. We know communist parties follow borrowed ideas and that their governments are likely to be inclined towards countries that embrace similar political ideologies.
Nepali Congress and other fringe parties, on the other hand, feel more of a connection to those countries that profess a liberal and democratic political system. It is this inclination that led to a lack of independence and balance in the functioning of past governments. And it is because of this history that has led to a weakening of nationalism. No government has been able to fully protect Nepal’s sovereign interest, other than in one exceptional case where the earlier KP Oli government stood firm against the Indian blockade and took steps towards opening an alternative trade and transit route via China. The people appreciated Oli’s nationalist stance and his party thus garnered a substantial number of votes in the recent parliamentary elections.
From a Nepali perspective, KP Oli’s stand against the Indian blockade and his reaching out to China for opening up an alternative trade and transit route was definitely the right step. Nepal is also attempting to buy petroleum products from China and establish links to the Chinese railway network. The problem is that some have misconstrued these events as an indication that Nepal is leaning more towards China than India. It is not. Nepal’s dependency on India for trade and transit makes us extremely vulnerable to blockades and economic pressure. So any attempts to reduce Nepal’s trade and transit dependency on a single country are always welcome and should be the top priority of every government in Nepal.
Reducing economic dependence on one country in no way means that Nepal is eschewing relations completely and aligning with another nation instead. Nepal’s economic relations with neighbours should be nurtured in a pragmatic manner, and sovereignty should be ensured in all dealings. Forming balanced relations with our immediate neighbours is fundamental to Nepal’s foreign policy. Nepal must work closely with both neighbours to promote national interests and attain much needed economic development.
Numerous problems in the past have shown that Nepal must also strive to address all structural and policy impediments in bilateral relations. For example, some bilateral agreements and understandings that were made in the 1950s and 1960s are no longer relevant at present. These irrelevant elements are proving detrimental to age old, close relations—particularly with our Southern neighbour. In an era where there is sovereign equality among all countries in the world, forming special relations with any particular country is not relevant. Therefore, any such element or legal instrument that implies a special relationship with a specific country should be scrapped.
Likewise, the international border between two sovereign countries should be regulated in line with international practices. The concept of an open border is irrelevant at present due to increased challenges posed by criminals, terrorists and illegal migration. It is no secret that the unchecked cross border migration has already caused a major political crisis and a big division within the Nepali society. Hence, regulating the open boarder should be an obvious priority of the new government and presents another opportunity for PM Oli to strengthen his nationalist credentials.
Of course, while talking about external relations and safeguarding Nepal’s national interests, one shouldn’t focus only on immediate neighbours. Other countries and communities also have a considerable influence on Nepal’s domestic politics and social structure. There are ample examples of instances where international actors have influenced Nepal’s internal issues. While these relations may also prove positive for Nepali society in some instances, there are increasing cases where humanitarian aid is being used to create rifts in the society, and where religious conversion is encouraged under the pretexts of helping the vulnerable.
The new government should deal firmly with these elements too. It is important to maintain harmonious relations with all countries and international organisations, but this does not mean that a space should be given where social sensitivity can be exploited and Nepal’s sovereignty weakened.
Regmi is a student of global diplomacy and international relations, and a freelance writer