Print Edition - 2018-10-13  |  On Saturday

Three-legged race

  • Shambhu Ram Simkhada’s new book provides a much needed vantage point to view Nepal’s foreign affairs
- ACHYUT WAGLE

Oct 13, 2018-

The diplomatic history of modern Nepal is over two centuries old, if measured from the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom in 1816. However, beyond the official operational frame, literature that impartially critiques Nepal’s foreign policy paradigms, priorities and practices is sparse. Some seminal theoretical basis to Nepal’s foreign policy operations were provided by a series of essays published by the doyen of Nepal’s foreign policy, Sardar Yadu Nath Khanal, who served as Nepal’s ambassador to India, China and the USA, as well as foreign secretary, in the 1950s and 1960s. (These essays were later published as a collection in 1988.) Some valuable insights and experiences of handling Nepal’s foreign policy could also be found in the books and publications of Rishikesh Shaha, Nepal’s first permanent representative to the United Nations. Later, diplomats like Pradeep Khatiwada, Dinesh Bhattarai and Madhuban Paudel added a couple of noteworthy publications on the subject.

Clearly, there is a dearth of both reference and research literature that provides an impartial account of Nepal’s diplomatic history, generates meaningful discourse on the topic and thereby, helps chart out better policies based on evidences and experiences. There are several reasons for this gap. During the Rana and Panchayat regimes, any critical policy evaluation could be interpreted as criticism of the era’s absolute rulers. Therefore, no foreign service functionary dared risk retribution by venturing into writing an honest evaluation of policy direction. Furthermore, since the preference of every regime so far has invariably been to appoint more sycophants and cronies to key diplomatic assignments, knowledge production from them is obviously unthinkable. And, the overall inclination of our regular foreign service cadres has been to peaceably retire, rather than invite controversy by exposing truths through writings and publications.

Amid all these odds and the resigned approach of almost all our diplomats and foreign service mandarins, past and present, Nepal’s former permanent resident to UN agencies in Geneva and ambassador to Switzerland in late 1990s, Shambhu Ram Simkhada, as a welcome endeavour, has recently come out with a book entitled Nepal, India and China Relations in the 21st Century. The focus of the book on Nepal’s neighbourhood diplomacy is a pragmatic one. First, Nepal has only two contiguous neighbours: India and China. Therefore, for obvious civilisational, geographical and practical reasons, Nepal’s diplomacy has been historically preoccupied with these two large, powerful nations. Second, Nepal’s future foreign policy and diplomatic engagement are also likely to be overburdened in managing relations with these two neighbours, not only because of its unalterable geographical reality of being sandwiched between these two, but also because both of these countries have now become the second and third largest global economic powerhouses. Thus, the global strategic epicentre has shifted from the West to Asia. Whether they choose to compete or cooperate to advance their respective economic as well as strategic interests, Nepal will be at the vortex, for better or worse, impacted first. Therefore, Nepal-India-China (NIC) trilateralism, as conceived by the book, at least in theory, is a natural trajectory for the sub-continent’s future diplomacy in general and Nepal in particular.

Nepal’s foreign policy plank and resources have so far been predominantly exhausted in asserting its sovereignty, regime security of the political force in power, and on being grateful to some merciful if not generous proceeds by a few powerful nations, including the immediate neighbours. But in the 21st century, as Simkhada views it, when each powerful country is keen to extend its own strategic stake through specialised instruments and modus operandi, small countries like Nepal are forced to calibrate their foreign policy edifice accordingly. For example, to Nepal’s north, China is implementing its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as an overarching instrument for global diplomacy while to the south, India is executing its ‘neighbourhood first’ and ‘act East’ policies. Nepal certainly expects not to be left economically behind when both neighbours accelerate their paths to progress. That is exactly where Nepal’s diplomatic endeavours and priorities now need to focus on, and NIC trilateralism could certainly be a means to that end.

As regards to the structure and content of the book, this is essentially a compilation of about three dozen newspaper and journal articles, along with conference and seminar proceedings written or presented by the author over two decades. A duly trained academic in international relations with practical exposure to diplomatic responsibilities, Simkhada has presented his views, ideas and references in a highly nuanced diplomatic tone. The book is rich in information, not only on Nepal’s neighbours but also on the evolution of Nepal’s comprehensively independent foreign policy and its global diplomacy, mainly during the last half century.

The book, as mentioned above, placidly pitches for trilateralism to be Nepal’s future course of diplomacy. But it has seemingly failed to recognise the fact that the euphemism of NIC trilateralism is increasingly becoming a mirage as both China and India compete to create or retain their sphere of geostrategic influence, instead of cooperating to create a dignified functional space for smaller economies in the neighbourhood. Therefore, to translate trilateralism into reality, Nepal’s foreign policy maneuverings alone will not be enough until the other two parties agree to collaborate and cooperate. And, any meaningful initiative to this end requires serious homework, strategies and a work plan on our part as well. This is where a seasoned diplomat like Simkhada falls far short of expectation.

Experience has it that Nepal often pays a huge price for its inability to create lobby groups for backchannel diplomacy, both in New Delhi and Beijing. Lately, Nepal’s diplomatic engagement appears to be obsessively skewed in appeasing the neighbouring countries, signaling a withdrawal from the global arena but without any tangible outcome. It is high time that the country’s intelligentsia alerted decision-makers to a course correction so that Nepal does not lose age-old friends and partners while neighbours grow overtly influential.

The book, divided into five parts, has dealt only with the past. Another part, a way forward, with recommendations for improving Nepal’s future foreign policy would have added a jewel to the author’s crown. Frequent typographic errors and syntactical clumsiness could also have been avoided with a little more attention. Regardless, with relevant quotes from eminent global personalities and citations from reputed publications, the book provides a much needed vantage point on Nepal’s foreign affairs for students, academic researchers and practitioners of international relations.

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Book: Nepal, India and China

Relations in the 21st Century

Author: Shambhu Ram Simkhada

Publisher: Bindu Simkhada

Price : Rs 750

Published: 13-10-2018 08:22

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