Print Edition - 2016-12-29  |  Yearender 2016

Accidental Diplomats

  • Nepal’s conduct of international relations has been characterised by blundering
Nepal needs to review its foreign policy instruments and redefine foreign policy goals as per changing geo-political dynamics

Dec 29, 2016-Nepali diplomacy in 2016 was distinguished by instability and lack of coherence and consistency. A glaring example of this clumsiness was seen during the postponement of the 19th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) scheduled to be held in Pakistan. Saarc Chair Nepal issued three different statements in as many days and only helped to spread utter confusion. The foreign policy establishment has blamed the political leadership for the fiasco. Nishchal Nath Pandey, director of the Centre for South Asian Studies, said, “We have chosen to push away our responsibility citing the Indo-Pak dispute.” So we can say that it has been a mundane and ordinary year for Nepal in terms of diplomacy, as no significant progress or achievement was made politically, internally or in other ways.

Foreign employment blues continue to hover within the walls of the Foreign and Labour ministries. Our migration diplomacy has largely failed to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers forced to work in blue-collar jobs. Situated between two Asian giants, Nepal needs to maintain a very delicate balance while conducting foreign policy. It has paid a hefty price in the past for tilting towards the south or the north unnecessarily. A recent meeting between Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba and a Tibetan leader in Goa, India gave a very bad taste in Nepal-China ties even though Nepal has been repeatedly expressing its unflinching commitment towards a one-China policy. 

Security and foreign policy expert Geja Sharma Wagle said, “It has been a highly eventful year and a diplomatic debacle in terms of Nepal’s international relations, in particular with the neighbouring countries, India and China. The erstwhile KP Oli-led government had unpleasant relations with India, so it has been a serious diplomatic setback for both Nepal and India. The Prachanda-led government has a trust deficit with another neighbour, China. As a result, the much-awaited planned visit of the Chinese president to Nepal fizzled out.” 

Meanwhile, Nepal-India relations witnessed a historical low ebb due to the unprecedented suffering caused to the Nepali people by India’s economic blockade following the protests mounted by Madhes-based parties against the new constitution. Nepal tried to defend the constitution at various global platforms and garner international support against the Indian blockade, but it could not effectively mobilise its embassies and foreign policy instruments.

Nepal has failed to host any significant foreign leaders from outside India and China. Visits by heads of state or government from Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Asia have not happened for a long time. Some progress has been made at multilateral forums like the UN, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and a few others; but due to our lethargic working style, we have not been able to fully exploit these opportunities. There have been calls from sections of society that Nepal needs to review its foreign policy instruments and redefine foreign policy goals as per changing geo-political dynamics. “Nepal should revise its foreign policy by clearly defining its principles, objectives and priorities and making it more country specific and comprehensive so that it can benefit without compromising its national interests,” Wagle said.

Partisan and petty interests have been allowed to supersede foreign policy priorities as we lack a common document or national consensus on this front. For this to happen, political stability is a key necessity since we have been witnessing frequent government changes in the last two and a half decades. “Frequent changes of government have cast a long shadow in our diplomacy,” said Pandey. “We have to give priority to merit and abandon the culture of appointing cadres to important positions,” he added. 

Despite many ups and downs, there were some positive developments on the foreign policy front in 2016. The formation of an Eminent Persons Group on Nepal-India relations was a positive step. Nepal and India have agreed to clear bottlenecks in India-funded projects. They have also created an oversight mechanism whose first meeting has taken place. Relations with India at the political level have still not become warmer, but engagements at the technical and bureaucratic levels seem to be expanding as more than three dozen meetings of various bilateral mechanisms have been held. 

Relations with the northern neighbour China moved a step ahead during Oli’s visit to Beijing where he signed more than three dozen agreements. However, none of them have been implemented as China has been repeatedly postponing meetings of various key mechanisms. But things are not all dismal. A lot can be done if the political leadership shuns short-sightedness and rises above partisan politics. What we require is a common, adjustable, farsighted and comprehensive foreign policy to suit the changed global and regional context. 

Published: 29-12-2016 10:14

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