Oli’s document and his foreign policy duplicity—when in and out of powerAhead of UML’s statute convention and elections, party chair is ratcheting up his old nationalistic rhetoric, again.
A political document presented by CPN-UML chair and immediate past prime minister KP Sharma Oli recently at the party’s Standing Committee contains a number of issues that illustrate his duplicity on foreign policy matters.
Under the topic “international situation, geopolitics and our foreign policy”, Oli, who was prime minister until July 12, touches upon geopolitical flux, Myanmar coup, Afghanistan crisis after the Taliban takeover, Covid-19 pandemic, competition in the Indo-Pacific region, Nepal’s relations with China and India as well Nepal-India border issues. And some key issues stand out.
In his document, Oli has mentioned the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States but stopped short of giving his views on it. It was during Oli’s prime ministerial tenure, US officials first revealed that Nepal is part of the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy, but the UML chair has failed to make a mention of it and remains silent.
During the visit of Pradeep Gyawali, who was foreign minister in Oli’s Cabinet, to Washington, DC, in December 2019, senior US officials including Mike Pompeo, the then US secretary of state, discussed Nepal’s “central role” in a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact has lately become a hugely debated political issue in Nepal over arguments that the $500 million American grant is under the Indo-Pacific Strategy. As long as Oli was in power, he was supportive of MCC’s parliamentary ratification, but his party has refused to take any position ever since it came to the opposition.
It was Yubaraj Khatiwada, who was finance minister in the Oli Cabinet, who registered the MCC compact in Parliament. During his meeting with MCC Vice President Fatema Z Sumar in Kathmandu earlier this month, Oli told her that his party would make a position only after the ruling alliance made a position.
With regards to India and China, Oli has said that his party would opt for a balanced foreign policy. Experts have for long said that during his prime ministerial tenure, Oli vacillated between the two neighbours, initially tilting towards China and later making overturtures to India.
“India built pressure on Nepali political leadership not to promulgate the constitution, arguing that its concerns and interests were not addressed,” reads Oli’s political document. “An Indian representative who came to Nepal as a special emissary even threatened the then prime minister of Nepal and Nepali politicians against adopting the charter and warned of consequences.”
“This was an interference in the sovereign authority of any independent country, which was unacceptable,” says Oli. “But the constitution was adopted without giving two hoots [to the warnings].”
This is in reference to the visit by S Jaishankar, then foreign secretary of India. Jaishankar was in Kathmandu as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s special emissary and he had held a whirlwind of meetings with Nepali leadership days ahead of the constitution’s promulgation.
Many wonder why Oli has brought this issue up six years after the promulgation of the constitution. New Delhi did not hide its displeasure at Nepal’s constitution, as it gave a terse response, saying it had “noted” the development in Nepal. It even imposed a five-month-long border blockade, which served as the fitting agenda for Oli for the elections, which his party won.
Foreign policy experts say Nepali political leadership has maintained an uncanny trend of having two different sets of ideas regarding neighbours and that they express these ideas differently depending upon whether they are in power or in the opposition.
“Our leaders say one thing when they are in power and something else when they are out of power,” said Ramesh Nath Pandey, a former foreign minister. “They have started making the country’s foreign policy part of their internal party politics.”
Oli, who showed his tilt towards the north during his first stint in office in 2016, continued to make overtures towards the north when he returned to power in 2018. Post constitution, Oli had signed the Transit and Transportation Agreement with China in 2016 aiming to diversify Nepal’s third-country trade. The signing of the protocol on the agreement meant Nepal could access seven Chinese sea and land ports. However, no progress has been made.
During his second stint, Oli’s nationalist rhetoric, which is largely read as ratcheting up anti-India sentiments, continued when he mocked India’s national emblem from Parliament, called the Indian virus more lethal than the Chinese or any other one, and incorporated Nepal’s new map in the constitution.
The Oli government in May last year unveiled a new map of Nepal incorporating Kalapani, Limipiyadhura and Lipulekh, which India claims as its own. India denounced. Nepal and India entered a stage of cartographic war and bilateral ties hit the rock bottom.
Oli’s duplicity, however, came to the fore when he hosted Samant Goel, the chief of India’s spy agency, Research and Analysis Wing, at his official residence in Baluwatar. The details of the late-night meeting between Oli and Goel have not been made public yet. Goel’s visit, however, opened the door for high-level visits from the two countries.
Oli’s assertion last week that India had threatened Nepal not to promulgate the constitution without addressing its interests and concerns came at a time when a book by Ranjit Rae, former Indian ambassador to Nepal, was launched.
Rae was the ambassador in Kathmandu when Nepal adopted its constitution.
In his book “Kathmandu Dilemma”, Rae says “much has been written about the foreign secretary’s visit to Kathmandu after the constitution was adopted by the Constituent Assembly.”
“Nepalis sources have argued that our foreign secretary projected an arrogant body language and behaved badly with Nepali leaders. I participated in all his meetings with senior Nepali politicians, including [Sher Bahadur] Deuba, Oli and Prachanda [Pushpa Kamal Dahal], and saw no evidence of this whatsoever. In all his meetings, the foreign secretary conveyed one simple message: it was still not too late to try and bring the agitating parties on board.”
Oli has not mentioned what India's concerns and suggestions were to the Nepali political leadership that were conveyed by Jaishankar.
When Oli left office after three and a half years in power, Nepal’s foreign policy was in disarray.
Despite the resumption of visits from the south, suspicion remained, just as the north felt betrayed as the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), formation of which was largely engineered by Beijing, had broken down.
“Oli did nothing on pushing the implementation of the Transit and Transportation Agreement with China. There was a delay in signing the protocol of the agreement, a prerequisite for its implementation,” said a former official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “There was no single meeting on the implementation of the framework agreement of the Belt and Road Initiative.”
In his document, Oli, however, has waxed eloquent on China.
“China has made unprecedented achievements towards socialism with Chinese characteristics,” says Oli. “In 2020, it declared all of its citizens were lifted out of poverty… as many as 150 countries have signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative. Some powerful countries, however, have not taken China’s rise easily and have been involved in creating tensions,” Oli adds without naming which powerful countries he is referring to.
Oli has described the US pullout from Afghanistan as America’s biggest failure and defeat 50 years after the Vietnam war.
“There could be a fallout of the Afghanistan incident in South Asia and it could give rise to geopolitical tensions,” he says. “Nepal must firmly stand for non-interference, democracy, openness and regional peace.”
On relations with India, Oli has stressed addressing the bilateral issues that have historically remained, including the 1950 treaty.
“We are well aware of the concerns and interests of our neighbours,” says Oli. “And we want a similar seriousness and respect from our friends, especially the neighbours. We want to address any bilateral issue through diplomatic means.”
Oli’s 69-page document comes in the lead up to the party’s statute convention scheduled for October 1-3. It also comes ahead of polls–local elections in about six months and general elections next year.
Observers say Oli, who returned to power in 2018 riding on the nationalist plank, appears to be preparing to use similar rhetoric when the country goes to the polls. During the last elections, his party had forged an electoral alliance with the Nepal Communist Party (Maoist Centre). At that time, his party was also intact. His UML party, however, has split now with the Madhav Kumar Nepal group forming a new party. The Maoist Centre stands opposed to the UML.
Milan Tuladhar, who served as a foreign relations adviser to Jhala Nath Khanal during his tenure as prime minister, said Oli made a massive bungle when it came to foreign policy vis-a-vis India and China.
After aliniating India, Oli made a tilt towards China in his initial days in office, but in the later years, he was trying to mend fences with the south, according to Tuladhar.
“Now elections are coming and he is ratcheting up nationalistic rhetoric, his old tactic. We saw how he made efforts for a rapprochement with India,” said Tuladhar. “And we also saw how Oli always favoured the MCC, but he has made an about turn.”