Print Edition - 2018-12-31  |  2018 The Year of Promises

Swinging for the fences—and striking out

  • After years of political instability, the government under KP Sharma Oli with sweeping powers was expected to provide good governance and policy coherence. But frequent flip-flopping on foreign policy decisions has weaken the country’s credibility.
- ANIL GIRI

Dec 31, 2018-

KP Sharma Oli came in as prime minister amid high hopes for Nepal’s foreign policy. Oli’s rhetoric had been bombastic, promising a revision of Nepal’s relations with its immediate neighbours India and China, along with the countries that receive Nepali labour and other important actors like the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Despite some advances in Nepal’s foreign relations beyond the traditional India-China divide, analysts say that the Oli administration’s foreign policy has been filled with “confusion and a lack of clarity” from the very beginning.

Prime Minister Oli visited Costa Rica in early October and invited several heads of state and government from a number of East Asian nations for the controversial Asia-Pacific Summit in early December. Oli is also scheduled to address the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in the third week of January. This is the first time any Nepali head of government has been invited to the forum.

Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali also visited the US in an official capacity after 17 years at an invitation from the US Secretary of State. As part of the Oli administration’s engagement with major powers, Gyawali also visited the EU headquarters twice in the last 10 months.

However, for many, the administration’s successes have not lived up to Oli’s rhetoric and plans when he first came into office. A string of controversies—the Asia-Pacific Summit, organised by a controversial religious organisation; the BIMSTEC joint military drill; delays in implementing pacts and memorandums of understanding signed with India and China; failure to fill vacant ambassadorial appointments to key diplomatic missions; and most importantly, losing the trust and confidence of the two neighbours—has marred any advances that the Oli government has made in diversifying and strengthening its foreign policy.

“The present leadership has failed to understand the gravity of our location,” said Dinesh Bhattarai, a former ambassador and advisor to two former prime ministers. “The administration has also failed to decide collectively what it wants to pursue and pitch to the larger international community.”

In Oli’s initial days in office, there was a perception that a pro-Beijing government was in the offing in Kathmandu. Oli visited China, sealed some more important deals related to infrastructure, connectivity, energy, transmission line, trade, commerce and investment. Nepal and China agreed on a common text for the Protocol to the Trade and Transit Agreement—it provides Nepal access to the northern seaports—signed with China by Oli during his visit to Beijing in 2016 in the wake of the Indian blockade, which many described as “another cornerstone for Nepal-China ties.”

However, Kathmandu and Beijing have yet to find an investment modality that will place Nepal within China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative. The only progress so far has been handing over the pre-feasibility study for the Kerung-Kathmandu Cross Border Railway. But even there, both sides have yet to agree on a financing modality for the detailed project report of the Kerung-Kathmandu rail.

Despite this level of engagement with China, Oli, like most of his predecessors, chose India for his maiden foreign visit, a symbolic move that has long been the sitting government’s foreign policy direction. Oli also made some important deals with New Delhi and reciprocally, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal, removed an Indian field office in Biratnagar, signed a deal for a cross-border rail link and expedited work for inland water navigation from Indian rivers to the Nepal border. After years of political instability and governments that lasted for nine months on average, the international community had high hopes that the Oli government would be able to provide good governance and policy coherence in Nepal, said Nischal Nath Pandey, director of the Centre for South Asian Studies. However, Pandey said swinging left and right without any semblance of balance will weaken the country’s credibility.

“There is a need to rise above partisan politics and focus on merit while making appointments,” he said. “The coming year will definitely present greater challenges to Nepal on the foreign policy spectrum.”

Other officials have said that to capitalise on its neighbours, Nepal needs a coordinated approach that includes its security apparatus.

“An effective foreign policy is a collective and joint effort of all state apparatuses but in our case, we do little homework and don’t include many stakeholders in the consultation process,” said retired Nepal Army General Binoj Basnyat. “National security and foreign policy need to move forward hand-in-hand.”

Published: 31-12-2018 11:14

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