Let’s be realistic in our foreign relations: Prof. Acharya
Ambassador of Nepal to the United Nations 1991-1994, Jaya Raj Acharya was inspired by diplomatic luminaries such as Prof. Yadunath Khanal and Rishikesh Shah. He received his Ph. D. from Georgetown University, USA, where he was a Fulbright scholar. He was a Fellow at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, and at Harvard University in 1995-1996.
Prof. Acharya began his career as a Lecturer at Tribhuvan University in 1977; he became a professor in 1997 and retired in 2003. His books in Sanskrit, Nepali and English have been published from Nepal, India and USA. One of his books Yadunath Khanal: Jivani ra Vichar (YN Khanal: Life and thoughts) was a best-seller.
Prof. Acharya has lectured on Nepal’s literary tradition, culture, politics, foreign policy and development challenges at universities in Nepal, USA, Canada and Japan. He has travelled in about 30 countries of Asia, Europe, Africa, North and South America. He has also represented Nepal at many world summits, including the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, NAM summit in Indonesia 1992 and Second World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna 1993. He led the Nepali delegation to the UN General Assembly in 1994. A Fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington DC in 2006-2007, Prof. Acharya has an interest on Nepal’s foreign policy, especially one that focusses on Nepal’s relations with India and China.
The following are excerpts from the interview taken by Bishnu Gautam and Modnath Dhakal of The Rising Nepal on different aspects of Nepal’s foreign policy and diplomacy.
As a former permanent representative to the UN and a noted scholar of Nepal, how do you assess Nepal’s latest foreign policy - is it balanced?
It should be balanced. And you have used the right word, “balanced”. A lot of times, our leaders, swayed by emotions and misled by their ignorance, use words like “equi-distance” or “equi-proximity” when talking about our relations with India and China, but the question is: what do they mean by it? Can there be equi-distance or equi-proximity in any country’s foreign relations? Does the United States have equi-distance or equi-proximity in its relations with Canada and Mexico? Geography is one of the main determinants of any country’s foreign policy, but there are several other factors also that influence a nation’s foreign relations, such as history, culture, religion, language, economy, trade, natural resources, military strength, political system and leadership.
What has led to the weakening of Nepal’s diplomatic skills and bargaining power in the international arena?
I see mainly three lacunae: (a) lack of social and economic development in the country, (b) lack of vision on the part of the political leadership and (3) lack of professionalism and integrity among the bureaucrats.
A small land-locked country, Switzerland, surrounded by Germany, France, Italy and Austria, runs its domestic affairs and foreign policy successfully because it is a highly developed country. It is three times smaller in geography and five times smaller in population than Nepal, but it has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. Singapore that became independent only in 1965 is 719 square kilometres in area with an estimated population of 5.6 million (2016) people, but it had a visionary leader, Lee Kuan Yew. Now, look at its social and economic indicators. It is not the size of s country but the quality of leadership that makes a big difference for a country. And the lack of professionalism and integrity at the bureaucratic level also is a big factor that determines a country’s bargaining power in a country’s international relations. Nepal in recent years has suffered from these three lacunae.
What should be done to correct this flaw on the country’s foreign policy front?
First, we must be patriotic. We should put our national interest above our personal or party interest. Then we should have honesty, integrity and commitment. And we should study; we should have knowledge. There were these qualities in our leaders in the past, now it is hard to find them in our leaders today.
There is tension between our two big neighbours at a time when Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is preparing to pay an official visit to India next week. Some scholars have said that the PM should not visit India at this point. What is your view?
The tension between our two giant neighbours is beyond our control. We cannot do much about it. We are friendly with both of them and hope that the statesmen in both the countries will resolve all the issues peacefully through dialogue. I am sure they will resolve it sooner or later. Asian countries – large or small ones – do not need war. They need development.
PM Sher Bahadur Deuba is visiting India. That’s fine. He and his team need political acumen and diplomatic skills. They should understand and make our neighbours also understand that our relations with India and China are independent of each other. Nepal-India relations, Nepal-China relations and India-China relations are three independent relations that have their own logic for development. We should not mix or confuse them.
I don’t understand the logic of any scholar who thinks that PM Sher Bahadur Deuba should not be visiting India or China at the moment. Remember, B. P. Koirala visited both India and China in 1960 when relations between the two countries were on the path of deteriorating, especially after the Dalai Lama sought asylum in India in 1959. B. P. signed a protocol to scientifically delineate and demarcate the Nepal-China border. The Nepal-China Peace and Friendship treaty was also signed when Chinese Premiere Zhou En Lai visited Nepal the same year. Remember also that there was no problem on the Nepal-China border in 1962 when there was the Sino-Indian border clash for a month despite the fact that there were Indian army wireless operators at the Nepal-China border points. Why? Nepal’s neutrality was explained to both the neighbours, and they appreciated it. We should be able to do the same now also.
The PM’s India visit is to begin from August 25, and during his visit agreements and MoUs will be signed between the two countries. What do you think should be the focus of our PM during the visit?
As I said, economic development should be the priority of Nepal and India and China and all other Asian countries. Nepal should sign treaties and MoUs with other counties for its own development. Nepal and India are so closely interlinked that both can benefit from cooperation in many areas; the focus should be on tourism, hydropower generation, agriculture, education, health and infrastructure development, especially in the transportation sector. The only thing is that Nepal being a small and weaker partner should not be made to feel cheated or taken advantage of by its big neighbours. Any treaty or MoU with India or China or any other development partner should not make our people feel so. Such a feeling of the Nepali people is bad for India, China and all others. We have to learn lessons from the past and must not repeat any mistake. The recent case of flooding and inundation in Nepal’s Terai is a case. There may be problems of flooding in the bordering districts of India, too. So how can both the counties cooperate to deal with such natural catastrophes that hit them so frequently? These issues of mutual concerns should come under focus when the leaders visit each other.
Every prime minister of Nepal is in a hurry to pay a visit to India once elected to the top post, but Indian prime ministers hardly visit Nepal. Why don’t Indian and even Chinese executive heads visit Nepal frequently?
You are right. There is a weakness on the part of Nepal. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal in 2014 after a gap of 17 years on the Indian side whereas all Nepali PMs visited both India and China. Regardless of the size of the countries, there should be a general perception and practice of equality in their relations. The visits must be dignified and purposeful. They must be result-oriented.
You know what Mao Zedong said to B. P. Koirala during his conversation with him in 1960? He said: “We have received two of your prime ministers separately, and our premiere should visit you, making it equal. We thank you very much. It is excellent that we are to set up an embassy in your capital this year. You may set up an embassy here, too…”
This time, Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang visited Nepal just days before PM Deuba’s visit to India. Was it a mere coincidence or does it carry a special meaning?
China is becoming a world power, and it is behaving like it. We should not be surprised about it. In fact, we should expect that kind of behaviour from China. The visit of the Chinese Vice-Premier is not a mere coincidental happening. The Chinese are a very realistic and pragmatic people. They know their priorities very well. Neighbouring countries are on the list of their top priorities. The Chinese Vice-Premier’s visit to Nepal does have special significance. There is no doubt about that.
In which areas should Nepal seek assistance from our close neighbours?
As I said before, Nepal’s top priority should be its economic development. So the areas of focus for assistance from any friendly country should be tourism, hydropower generation, agriculture, education, health and infrastructure development, especially in the transportation sector. Development in these sectors will be good not only for Nepal but for India and China as well. After all they are the fastest growing economies, and they will definitely reap greater benefits from our development in those sectors. Nepal should not only be a bridge between those economies but also be a beneficiary by using the assistance of those countries properly for its own internal economic growth.
What suggestions do you have for our policymakers, especially on Nepal’s foreign policy?
We should be realistic, dignified and patriotic, keeping the interest of the nation on top. Foreign policy is the extension of domestic policy. So we should ask ourselves, what kind of society do we want to develop in our own country? Nepal’s security or foreign policy should have the following priorities: (1) balanced socio-economic development of the country, (2) balanced relations with the immediate neighbours, (3) dignified presence and role in the United Nations, especially in its Peacekeeping Missions, (4) friendly and fruitful relations with global powers, such as the USA and EU and countries like Japan, (5) productive relations with countries where millions of Nepalis are working and sending remittance from, and (6) meaningful role in organisations such as SAARC, BIMSTEC and NAM. If we have a clear sense of priority, conducting diplomacy will be easier than otherwise.
Diplomacy is an art of negotiation that involves give and take. There is no one-way traffic in diplomacy. So we should be clear about what we can give and what we want to take. Sometimes, we run the risk of losing a pound of flesh to our neighbours for a very small gain, and then we regret as in the recent past. Both India and China know what they want in and from Nepal. Does the Nepali leadership really know what it wants from them? How is it going to get what it wants from them? Let’s be clear about it. There is no such thing as a free lunch as they say. If we visit the foreign countries with this kind of awareness, there is less chance of being duped.