Rethinking Nepal’s foreign policy for stability and economic gain

By Trilok Sharma (KATHMANDU, 7 April) – Last Saturday, if you are one who loves to know and hear something on nation’s foreign policy from foreign affairs pundits and missed to participate in the conference ‘Revisiting Nepal Foreign Policy in Changing Global Power Structure,’ you really missed something big.  The conference was jointly organized by Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs (AIDIA) and Mid-Western University (MSU) where some 30 eminent foreign affairs experts, including two from India and one from China, expressed their insightful views on contemporary Nepal’s foreign policy.

The organizers claimed this to be the first mega event one of this kind in the history of Nepal. Later on, some speakers too supported this claim.

Just five days ago of this mega event, the main opposition party CPN-UML had also organized similar type of gathering of experts from different areas to take their opinions in order to design 25-year party’s road map which could lift the sick Nepal to next level. Chairman of the party, KP Sharma Oli, set a precedence by assembling emminent personalities from diverse areas to sketch the map for Nepal’s development and prosperity.

Saturday’s conference was scheduled to be inaugurated by  Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’.  Organizers, think tanks, media and participants were eagerly waiting for PM to arrive. A call then rang in organizer mobile informing inability of PM to attend the program because of unforeseen urgent meeting. As the day was April 01, this was the one biggest and unexpected April fool for those waiting eyes, especially to organizers.

“I am not even a bit frustrated. I know the political culture of our country and is always fully prepared to face this type of difficult situation,” Sunil KC, CEO and founder of AIDIA reacted to me before he moved to podium to deliver his welcome speech. What he said was only half truth, as I could easily sense the sudden fall in brightness of his face. Also, the vice-chancellor of co-organizer MSU Prof. Dr. Upendra Kumar Koirala remarked after this unexpected call during his inauguration speech as “entire modus operandi of program has changed now.”

The good aspect of this happening was that though at eleventh hour the guilt-ridden PM Prachanda firmly realized this is not the right program for him to go now and inaugurate. The PM has been blamed by Nepali intelligentsia for compromising on Nepal’s foreign policy during his official visit to India in September last year and practicing the diplomacy of ‘No’ with northern neighbor. Urgent meeting was just one good excuse. If not, the informer would have mentioned the nature of such meeting which is more important than that historical conference.

Throughout the day, all the panelists drew attention and got applaud of intellectual participants with their insightful presentation.

Majority of panelists agreed that the high time has come for Nepal to revisit its foreign policy that dates back to architect of modern Nepal King Prithivi Narayan Shah, which says – Nepal is a ‘yam’ between two boulders. Unanimously, they also agreed by blaming that it is the power hunger Nepali politicians who most of the time keeps on deviating from nation’s foreign policy to go and stay longer in power.

“Nowadays I don’t enjoy very much in participating the programs of this kind. I am tired of repeating the same thing time and again. The only thing that encourages me to take part and share my knowledge and experiences is the growing interest of new generation in foreign affairs,” opined Shambhu Ram Shimkhada, a career diplomat and former permanent representative of Nepal to United Nations.

Not only Simkhada but many other notable panelists including Madhu Raman Acharya (former foreign secretary), Ramesh Nath Pandey (former foreign minister) and  Prof. Madhukar SJB Rana (former finance minister) too had shared similar opinion that top political leadership of Nepal has always turned deaf to experts advice on foreign affairs.

“International law is my domain and it is already 30-year that I am in this field. However, till date no government has called me to seek advice on legal issues,” Prof. Yubaraj Sangroula, former attorney general and executive director of Kathmandu School of Law, remarked expressing his dissatisfaction with major political actors.

What these experts said is the bitter truth. Like all developed nations, our both next door neighbors- India and China too have many government funded think tanks institutes which play crucial role in making and shaping of nation’s foreign policy. Sadly, it is Nepal, where scholars of particular field bear no respect if they have no political cap on their head. Those who are affiliated with political parties are mostly mediocre sycophant experts whom the top leaders prefer to listen ignoring the best ones. This is one good reason why diplomacy of Nepal has been so ineffective for such a long time.

Given the current pitiable state of affairs- five months long unofficial economic blockade, more than one-and-half year long ongoing Madhes unrest, increasing role of invisible hands inside nation- clearly suggests the high time has come for Nepal to pick up the valuable outcomes from Saturday’s conference or organize similar kind of conference to review Nepal’s current policies and relations vis-à-vis with its neighbors.

Once the foreign policy is defined from such all party conference based on consensus of national interest grounded on domestic needs and priorities, buffer state Nepal can be Mongolia or even better than it in short span of time.

Like Nepal, Mongolia too lays in between two great powers- China and Russia. With strong leadership with smart diplomacy, the state is tactically balancing her relations with both immediate neighbors, exceeding current GDP more than twice of Nepal and assuming greater role in word politics.

To focus more on diplomacy and tactically balance the influence of both neighbors, in 2010 the incumbent Maoist Centre chief and PM of Nepal  Prachanda first floated the idea of trilateral cooperation making Nepal a transit route for facilitating India-China foreign trade. Beijing expressed its willingness and is still positive in this regard. It is India who not even wants to bring the notion of ‘trilateralism’ in debate.

Although India has not made any such official statement, in Saturday’s conference Nepali experts got a clear hint behind this India’s reluctance. “India is already struggling with $45bn trade deficit with China. Trilateralism will surely increase this figure,” Pankaj Jha made clear with this remark to Nepali side in his presentation, an associate professor of Jindal School of International Affairs, who further added “Cheap Chinese products have already shutdown silk and toy industries in India.”

To make Nepal proud and capable nation, instead of trilateral cooperation model Jha suggested for “equanimity” engagement. Let Nepali experts do necessary homework and list down the possible areas in which it wants to work closely with both neighbors.

Jha’s this idea sounds realistic and can be put in practice without provoking any neighbors.  Of course, there will be some level of completion in doing investment and completing the project in time. This is positive competition and is welcome.

With growing urge for peace and prosperity of Nepal, India too needs to change its dominating foreign policy directed towards Nepal and help Nepal to formulate and practice its neighborhood policy independently. If trilateral cooperation is not in her favor, she now needs to open herself on Jha’s idea of equanimity engagement or any other possible symbiotic bilateral model proposed by Nepali experts.

Due to India’s one after another micro and macro management attempt, Nepal has already suffered a lot. If she continues to do so, there is high chance that Nepali leadership may think on changing the direction of traditionally Delhi inclined Nepal’s foreign policy. A step in this direction has already been taken by former PM KP Sharma Oli by signing landmark trade and transit deal during his official China visit.

Meanwhile, Nepal too should not forget its historically special bilateral relation with India characterized not only by open border but by close cultural affinity and overlapping ethnic and linguistic identities while drawing nation specific foreign policy in the pursuit of New Nepal.

Sharma is an executive member of Nepal-China Mutual Cooperation Society (NCMCS) and general member of AIDIA.



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