Foreign policy flux

  • As long as our leaders seek patronage from foreign powers, Nepal can only exercise limited sovereignty

Jan 3, 2017-

Connecting the dots of some of last weeks’ incidents may help frame a tentative view on Nepal’s foreign policy realities, challenges and opportunities:

Foreign Minister Prakash Saran Mahat hastily called a press conference to defend himself from the allegation that visiting Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Liu Qibao cancelled his meeting with Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba, reportedly angered by Mahat playing cosy host to his Mongolian counterpart in Kathmandu. In recent months, China and Mongolia are at loggerheads over Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia.

There were media reports that the foreign ministry is working to redefine Nepal’s foreign policy ‘to align’ it with the changed regional and global context. It is also said to be charting benchmarks to ensure that ambassadorial appointments are based on some form of merit.

A London-based Nepali journalist lamented that Nepal is off the international radar screen. Therefore, international news media are interested, if at all, only in stories on mountaineering, tourism, disasters, Tibetan refugee movements or human trafficking, not Nepali politics.

Clichéd phrase

Most of Nepal’s diplomatic moves, like hosting the Mongolian foreign minister in Kathmandu to the utter dislike of China, do not follow any foreign policy norm or framework. The fact of the matter is that Nepal does not have a foreign policy that is up-to-date, realistically articulated, pragmatic and that serves national objectives. And despite repeated tall claims about Nepal’s global reach and importance, entire diplomatic energy is exhausted in managing largely reactive ‘concerns’ of the two powerful and gigantic neighbours.

‘Balanced diplomacy’ is a misnomer. Three-fourth of Nepal’s total trade (including informal) takes place with India. There is complete dependence on India for supply of essential commodities including petroleum, 90 percent dependence for transit and, currently, more than 50 percent dependence for electricity supply. Nepali political leaders of all hues have often sought favour from the Indian establishment for their regime security or to gain power. Of late, Chinese strategic interests, investments, exports and tourist flows in Nepal are growing fast. But the entire gamut of engagement is incomparable to that of India. And it is unlikely to change significantly in the foreseeable future unless there is a frequent repetition of Indian 

follies like the imposition of blockades. 

Historical realm

The coinage of the phrase ‘balanced diplomacy’ appears to have a historical legacy of a ‘neutral foreign policy’ articulated for the first time by BP Koirala in 1959. Koirala, at a time of heightened cold war tensions and rise of Mao’s communism in China, had sought to stay away not only from armed blocs like the NATO or the Warsaw Pact, but also from ideological leanings towards capitalism or communism. 

The paradigm of neutrality had global connotations. The non-aligned movement, of which Koirala himself was a prominent figure, provided a face to this particular form of neutrality. This legacy was carried over by king Mahendra in the heydays of the partyless Panchayat polity. The term ‘balanced’ crept in when king Birendra used his ‘Zone of Peace’ proposal as the main weapon of Nepal’s foreign policy for 15 years since his coronation in 1976. The term 

‘balanced’ apparently has a shrunken scope as compared to neutrality. The reinstatement of democracy in 1990 also failed to correct this fallacy, which pushed Nepal to the current predicament of weighing each of her diplomatic acts to ‘balance’ one neighbour against the other.

It is interesting that from a vulnerable and poor country like Nepal, its powerful neighbours have a number of rather impossible expectations and (perceived) security threats. Often diverging interests of India and China and their increased competition to expand eco-political influence in the region have left Nepal in a state of indecisiveness and directionlessness. It increasingly appears impossible to please both. As such, the platitude of a balancing act or balanced diplomacy is unlikely to achieve Nepal’s foreign policy objectives.

Specific objectives

The objectives of Nepal’s foreign policy spelt out so far are to enhance international dignity and to maintain the country’s sovereignty, integrity and independence. There is little to contest these verbose and practically flimsy statements. But Nepal has ceased to make its presence felt in the international arena, let alone exert influence to serve its national interests or enhance its dignity. The growing imperviousness of the international community to even severe crises like the economic blockade is indication enough that Nepal is left only to the mercy of its two neighbours. And the oft-vented anger of these neighbours, like the recent one by China for the present government’s alleged tilt to India and, by India for the Nepali leadership’s failure to accommodate provisions in new constitution as suggested by New Delhi, has led to further chaos in Nepali foreign policy. 

No doubt, Nepal clearly needs a departure in its foreign policy in all aspects of articulation, goal-setting and execution. First among such departures must be from the ‘balanced diplomacy’ approach. Country-specific strategies must now be devised. Only this will stop the feigned anger and neglect by our neighbours to make Nepali decision-makers capitulate to their will. To reassure both our neighbours, particularly about their genuine security concerns, its crucial that governance at home is credible. That is why foreign policy is called a mere extension of domestic policy. 

The second objective must be to make economic diplomacy an overarching goal of foreign policy. Instead of expending resources on commodities with diseconomies of scale and limited competitive or comparative advantage, diplomatic focus should mainly be on harnessing Nepal’s water recourses and generating hydropower. It is high time we rethought our patterns of labour export and our diplomatic manoeuvrability vis-a-vis destination countries. 

Third, Nepal’s focus must be on managing neighbourly relations. Such management acumen must come from the political class. As long as the Nepali political class continues to seek patronage from the neighbours and other foreign powers, Nepal can exercise only limited sovereignty. And economic diplomacy will continue to be practised as ‘begging-bowl diplomacy’. 

As far as reform in foreign service is concerned, there already are quite a few good reports, but they are not implemented. There is no need for another task force or study panel to prepare similar reports. Existing reports have recommended that proven and demonstrated qualification be made the basis of ambassadorial appointment, and that missions are opened after a proper need assessment and provided with adequate human and financial resources to make them effective. Regular training to upgrade the skills of foreign service personnel is always crucial, but it is a completely ignored area. Although Nepal has its diplomatic limitations as a small and poor country, there is no reason for it to be off the global diplomatic radar screen if we chose to work right.


Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst

Published: 03-01-2017 08:22

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