Beyond the borders

Nepal successfully hosted international political leaders and a regional summit this year. But if the country is to exploit the rise of India and China, it needs to set straight its foreign policy priorities

Anil Giri

Beyond the borders

Diplomacy is like a rolling stone and it always rolls on beyond the boundaries. For a small nation like Nepal, whose borders are linked with two of the biggest civilisations in Asia--India and China, which are now emerging as global economic powerhouses--the country must place utmost importance in the art of diplomacy. The year 2014 was plagued by problems in the political sphere, with the parties struggling to overcome the constitutional deadlock, but at least on the foreign-affairs front, there seemed to be some hope that Nepal would be able to sort out its issues. However, due to the lack of will on the part of politicians, weak institutional capacity and often immature behaviour exhibited by leaders and officials, Nepal failed to tap into the opportunities provided by both India and China.
Vietnam received US$ 100 million in line of credit from India in September. Within a couple of days, Vietnam settled the terms and references of the deal and completed the loan-receiving process within a few weeks. A month earlier, Nepal too had received USD one billion in line of credit from India. Since then four months have passed, but Nepal and India are yet to settle the procedure and the selection of the projects. This demonstrates Nepal’s weak diplomacy, negotiation skills, lack of sincerity and sensitivity.
“Nepal has lost its diplomatic acumen,” observes former foreign minister Ramesh Nath Pandey. “Words are expensive and we are misusing them.”  
The eagerness shown by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to strengthen relationships in the region comes as a good gesture but Nepal is failing to capture that spirit. Similar is the case with China. The new Chinese leadership is now giving equal prominence to its neighbours, including Nepal, but, once again, Nepal has failed to capitalise on that. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has so far failed to reciprocate the visit in 2012 of the outgoing Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao.
Policy and strategic shortcomings seem to be hindering Nepal from exploiting the rise of China and India in its favour. “There is confusion among our nation friends about who has the authority to represent Nepal,” says Pandey, adding that at a time when there are nationalist leaders leading in both India and China, our leadership seems lost in national agendas.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the lead agency to execute foreign policy priorities, to outline and set the agendas, pursue them at various levels, and command and implement them at multiple stages through several channels. Bizarrely, the office has been run by an acting or officiating foreign secretary for a year, as the political leaders are not heeding the urgency of the matters of diplomacy.
The Ministry has not been able to come up with a routine and is busy with mundane jobs. Several diplomatic missions, including in India, the US and the UK have remained vacant for a long time and the leadership is still not appointing ambassadors. Keeping embassies vacant for a long time is not a good sign in diplomacy; it shows that Nepal is not serious about maintaining robust relations with other countries. For example, the Nepali embassy in India has been without an ambassador for almost four years now. Still, there is no consensus on the appointment among political parties. It seems unlikely that the parties will fill this and other vacant ambassadorial posts by mid-2015, when a new power-sharing deal might be reached.
Despite hiccups in diplomatic strategies, Nepal successfully hosted an Indian Prime Minister this year after 17 years of hiatus. Ahead of Modi’s visit in the first week of August, Nepal and India also successfully convened the third meeting of the Joint Commission for the first time in 23 years. The result was over USD three billion in aid and assistance to Nepal, particularly in two mega hydropower projects and other infrastructure-related projects. And the successful conclusion -- in terms of logistics, security, management and, to some extent, substantive resolutions -- of the 18th Saarc Summit helped boost Nepal’s image in the international arena.
The visit by the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, at the end of the year also heralded the opportunity for cooperation with the world’s superpower in the coming years. A successful multilateral ministerial-level meeting on Graduation and Post-2015 Development Agenda of Asia-Pacific in Kathmandu also gave reason for officials to cheer.
Though the Nepali polity and the political elite are yet to forge a common position on foreign policy, this year, unlike in the past, they exhibited a little bit of maturity in diplomatic dealings. The opposition parties hailed Modi’s visit to Nepal and the successful completion of the Saarc Summit. But matters like the execution of the diplomatic code of conduct, including the organisation of meetings and channelisation of the correspondence through official doors remained unimplemented this year too.  
The much-touted economic diplomacy, also called the backbone of Nepal’s diplomacy, suffered this year as well. Nepal’s position in the sensitive regional geopolitics is a boon oftentimes, but can be a burden sometimes. For example, on April 3, the government, probably for the first time, gave its official position on the issue of Tibetan refugees, saying that Nepal has been respecting the principle of non-refoulement, which does not allow a state to repatriate the victims of persecution to the persecutor.
“The refugees residing in Nepal are enjoying rights as per the prevailing laws and they are expected to respect the laws of the land. Nepal has been making it clear time and again that refugees sheltered here cannot work in contravention of the domestic laws and the principled foreign policy path of the nation,” said the government in a rebuttal to a report made public by the Human Rights Watch.  
After being elected as the Prime Minister, Sushil Koirala, as per tradition, had addressed and outlined his government’s foreign policy priority on May 8, stating that Nepal’s commitment to human rights was unflinching.
Koirala also played a role in balancing the country’s ties with its two immediate neighbours. After returning from his visit to India to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Modi, Koirala flew to China to attend the inaugural ceremony of the Second China-South Asia Exposition in Kunming.
Some say this was an act of garnering moral and economic support for Nepal’s new constitution, its economic progress and the promotion of trade and tourism.
Following the third BIMSTEC Summit in Myanmar, the visit by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Chairperson of the National League for Democracy Party of Myanmar and a Nobel Laureate for Peace, added another feather in Koirala’s cap. Nepal will be hosting the next BIMSTEC summit in 2015 and although preparations have not yet begun, the country has an opportunity to show its mettle.
In June this year, the Koirala-led government was also quick to notice the escalating tension in Iraq and sent a special representative to bring home the Nepalis caught in between. The government also urged its nationals to avoid travels to war-ridden Iraq.
Nepal needs to do a lot to revamp its foreign policy. The balancing act it plays could lead the country to a path of prosperity in a short span of time. But, if Nepal fails to manage its foreign policy and to understand its sensitive geopolitical position, it might remain in isolation.

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