Print Edition - 2018-03-18  |  Free the Words

Nepal’s foreign policy debate

  • Putting one’s own house in order is important for building a stable and constructive foreign policy

Mar 18, 2018-

After taking the oath of office for the second time, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli received the Prime Minister of Pakistan Shahid Khaqan Abbasi earlier this month as the first state guest. Before he was sworn in as PM, India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj also visited Nepal and met Oli—who was then in waiting to be the next PM—and other leaders from different political parties. PM Abbasi and PM Oli discussed China’s dream project, the Belt and Road Initiative and most importantly, talked about revitalising Saarc—the last 2016 Islamabad summit was deferred due to Indo-Pak tensions. Swaraj’s visit purportedly did not have a specific agenda, but was defined as a meeting with ‘friends of a friendly country’. 

Both of these visits were significant, and importance was given to the regional media coverage and analysis concerning the two visits. But opinion and analysis have often been speculative and aimed at drawing popular attention to such high profile visits. Whatever the reactions of the media and opinion generators, what concrete achievements Nepal gains from such visits is the question Nepalis should ponder upon. 

The aim of foreign policy is to identify national interests and implement various tools to pursue such interests. What are Nepal’s national interests? And how have various actors of Nepal’s foreign policy institutions acted to secure national interests? Identifying or defining what would work in the interests of the country is a domestic issue and achieving those interests depends upon engagement with various other actors/states in the international community. Has Nepal defined its core national interests and does it have consensus from all stake holders domestically? Does Nepal have the necessary tools and sufficient capacity to gainfully achieve what it wants?     

Domestic considerations

It would be naïve to assume that Nepal does not have a set of defined national interests, but they certainly lack clarity. Nepal has been a mere participant in the regional and global power play and thus has never been an actor in effecting policies in its favour. Therefore, it is important that it clearly identifies and defines its national interest. Besides sovereignty, territorial integrity, security, development, trade and cooperation, national interests also concern many other issues such as energy cooperation, food security, and environmental concerns. It is an ever evolving concept and Nepal needs competent human resources to identify, update and consistently pursue it. But prior to this, achieving political stability, consensus among various actors and managing public perception is crucial. 

In the absence of political stability, a coherent policy is very hard to achieve. Frequent changes of government have not only dissuaded political establishments from the main agendas of foreign policy goals, but have created space for personal and vested interests. A number of unfavourable treaties and agreements that political establishments of all ideological hues have signed over the years are testimony to this. Politicians of various political parties have even accused each other of compromising Nepal’s core interests for personal and parties’ gains. 

This is bound to happen when there is a lack of deliberation on core foreign policy matters across different political parties and in Parliament. Deliberations of this kind have either not taken place or there have been only half-hearted efforts to reach a consensus among various stake holders. Thus, implementation of such policies has not worked in Nepal’s interests on many occasions. 

In an era of free press and expression, public perception matters; politicians have used popular sentiments for garnering support. But this can be a risky business. In the recent past, there was a huge surge of anti-India sentiments among certain sections of people in Nepal, especially after the promulgation of the Constitution in 2015 and the subsequent unofficial blockade by India. The incumbent ruling party CPN (UML) used this very platform to garner votes in the elections and emerged victorious. Pitting one neighbour against the other has not worked in Nepal’s interests in the past nor is it likely to in the future. Therefore, putting one’s own house in order is important for building a stable and constructive foreign policy. 

Foreign policy goals

There is an increasing urgency for Nepal to sufficiently expend its energy, resources and efforts in managing its two neighbours—China and India. China and India have outstanding 

differences but their diplomatic channels have been open and more vibrant than ever. They compete as well as cooperate. Therefore, it would be not only unwise, but also childish to play one against the other. Nepal’s immediate and long term interests lie in cooperating with its immediate neighbours. 

Finally, PM Oli’s new government has enough strength to formulate a new and dynamic foreign policy based on national interests without being over ambitious. But there’s an acute need to strengthen the capacity of diplomats, give proper direction and have faith in them. At the same time, the political leadership needs to also show a great deal of maturity and harbour knowledge of the functioning of world politics at large.  

Mandal studies International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India  

Published: 18-03-2018 08:15

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