PM Dahal faces foreign policy challenges of Himalayan scale

KATHMANDU – Nepali politics saw a series of dramatic upheavals after the results of November 20 elections came out. The election outcome was unexpected, even more unexpected was the way the government formation process panned out. Although the Nepali Congress emerged as the largest party, the head of the third largest party, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, won the prime ministerial race.

Who engineered the new alliance at the eleventh hour? It was KP Sharma Oli, the chairman of the second-largest party, CPN-UML. Oli dismantled the pre-poll five-party alliance under the NC, offering Dahal an olive branch and making many believe that Oli had won the political game, at least the round at hand.

On Dec 25, Dahal was elected the prime minister for the third time in 15 years and on January 10, he won 99 percent parliamentary approval. At least on the surface, it appears the defeated NC boss Deuba is beginning a course correction by giving Dahal his party’s vote of confidence.

The unexpected domestic political events of recent weeks have by and large dismayed the people with the hope of political stability dashed. Nepali leaders have lost self-esteem. There is, however, a glimmer of hope. Unlike in his previous two stints as prime minister, Dahal is seeking to send a new and positive message this time, pledging to dedicate his full focus on established government priorities. We can give him the benefit of the doubt for that.

What the new administration achieves in its first 100 days should give us a clear picture of the shape of things to come.  We all know that the major issue facing Nepal is poor governance, PM Dahal has pointed this out correctly and pledged that addressing this issue will be one of his top priorities. It will be interesting to see how he implements his vision.

However, this article will not focus further on Prime Minister Dahal’s domestic front, rather it will look at his exterior and peripheral challenges. With political parties dividing the society, Nepal’s foreign policy priorities are subject to interpretation, (mis)guided somehow by tradition or practice.

Allowing the major parties’ manifestos to speak for themselves will lead to the development of consensus-based policies and goals. Our parties have prioritized India and China vis-a-vis foreign policy visions and that’s indeed encouraging.

Against this backdrop, I believe it is necessary to begin by highlighting Prime Minister Dahal’s major challenges.

Of course, the neighbors come first. Maintaining balanced relations with both India and China may be the most challenging task for him. In the light of Prime Minister Dahal’s earlier controversies, maintaining a balanced neighborhood policy remains a big issue, given that he had displayed unstable and inconsistent policy toward both neighbors in the past. On account of this factor, political and diplomatic authorities in both India and China do not fully trust him.

Furthermore, this government is essentially the result of a communist alliance. It is well known that Nepal’s northern neighbor, China, sympathizes with the communist government. Though there is no evidence that the Chinese side had a role in the formation of this government, the policies and activities adopted by the Chinese government shortly afterward demonstrate Beijing’s pleased response.

The response of Nepal’s southern neighbor is also worth pondering over. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his senior officials congratulated Dahal with diplomatic civility. The underlying expressions of Delhi’s strategic analysts have plainly observed China’s support for the Dahal-led government.

PM Dahal will confront a significant challenge in maintaining equitable relations with China and India in such a setting. He needs to maintain a balance, but not absolute balance.

China is a world power, while India is an Asian power. China and India have the world’s second and fifth largest economies, respectively. Various studies predict that China will overtake the United States as the world’s greatest economy by 2033. On the other hand, India, by that time, will be the world’s third largest economy. It indicates that Asians (at least a section of them) are driving the world, making the concept of the “Asian Century” a reality.

It must dawn on the new prime minister that India and China are more than just Nepal’s neighbors. They are also global forces and world players. Dealing with them entails maintaining friendly relations with two powerful nations. Nepal’s neighbors maintain economic cooperation while continuing their geopolitical competition as rivals. Such a scenario is quite challenging for Nepal.

Prime Minister Dahal should ensure that none of his government’s actions or decisions are taken on behalf of any country. He must win the trust of both the countries by making issue-based decisions that prioritize national interest. India and China’s legitimate issues and difficulties should also be discussed and addressed.

Nepalis do not want their prime minister to serve their neighbors’ interests. Prime Minister Dahal should not interact with his neighbors based on his party’s ideology. Nepal should not choose China over India or vice-versa if it is to achieve the national aim of growth and prosperity.

Nepal should decide what kind of financial assistance it requires from its friends. Prime Minister Dahal is well aware that Nepal’s infrastructure requires huge investment. India and China have contributed to our big infrastructure projects, but their contributions have also raised doubts. Nepal has signed the Chinese BRI, although it is not a loan-based initiative. What happens if we are unable to repay the loan to China? This appears to be a difficult undertaking.

Yes, both India and China congratulated Dahal on his appointment and indicated their desire to collaborate for strengthening relations with Nepal. But those words of goodwill were more like a routine diplomatic courtesy. China’s overwhelming joy is somewhat worrying. The decision to open the Kerung-Rasuwa border, as well as the railway survey team that arrived in Nepal the day after Dahal became prime minister reflect Beijing’s hopeful thinking.

India and China will strive to protect their national interests while dealing with Nepal. After all, the basic objective of foreign policy is to protect national interest. All nations try to safeguard their national interest in today’s world. Furthermore, at a time when Nepal has emerged as the epicenter of the geopolitical rivalry of great powers, Dahal, in his third term as PM, should be very very cautious in dealing with peripheral and global powers and their interests.

-This article first appeared in The Annapurna Express


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