Gaurab Shumsher Thapa
Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali recently paid an official visit to the United States (US) at the invitation of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The visit can be taken as a very important and historic one as exchange of high-level bilateral visits between Nepal and the US is rare. The timing of the visit is also significant. Nepal has entered into a phase of political stability after the promulgation of the new constitution and conduction of local, provincial and federal elections with the focus now shifting solely to socio-economic transformation of the nation.
Nepal and the US celebrated 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations last year. The US has provided continuous support for democracy and development in Nepal throughout history. Therefore, Gyawali’s visit was an apt moment to reinvigorate and revisit the bilateral ties. The visit also attracted a bit of controversy in Nepal as the deliberations between the leaders went beyond bilateral issues and touched upon other global ones including Nepal’s probable role in the Indo-Pacific and North Korean matters.
The primary objective of the foreign policy of any state is to protect and promote its national interests. The foreign policy of Nepal is guided by the principles of Panchsheel, non-alignment, UN Charter, international law and norms of world peace. While relations with its immediate neighbours India and China are naturally Nepal’s priority, its foreign policy should definitely have a scope for engagements beyond the neighbourhood to promote its national interests. In its quest for economic development after years of political turmoil, Nepal needs the support of its friends from around the world. At the same time, Nepal should also maintain a balanced approach in its foreign policy considering its sensitive geopolitical surroundings.
Among the host of bilateral issues discussed during Gyawali’s visit that mainly focused on economic cooperation and development, two non-bilateral issues caught the attention of analysts and media. The press release issued by the US State Department mentioned that Gyawali and Pompeo had discussed Nepal’s central role in a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific and the North Korean issue although both these matters were not included in the press release issued by the Nepali Embassy in Washington D.C. These issues might raise a lot of questions in terms of their objective and relevance. What role could a land-locked country like Nepal have in the Indo-Pacific or with regards to the denuclearisation in North Korea? Why did the US want to discuss these issues with Nepal? Was the Nepali side aware that these issues would figure during the meeting? Does Nepal have any clear viewpoint on these matters? All these queries should be analysed from a broad perspective of international relations.
The involvement of the US in the First World War led to the abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine, and it has been the most powerful global actor since then. The end of the Cold War established the US as the sole superpower both in terms of economy and military might. With the liberalisation of China’s economic policies bearing fruit from the onset of the 21st century, its rise as the number two economy in the world as well as the growth in its military capabilities have been astounding. The Chinese foreign policy, which traditionally did not have a globalist outlook, has gone through a historic shift under President Xi Jinping as it has adopted a highly proactive approach since the launch of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India is the largest democracy in the world and its economy is one of the fastest growing. The US and China are rivals at the global level while India and China are competing with each other for asserting their influence in South Asia. India is a natural partner in the region for the US in its strategy to compete with China. Nepal occupies a crucial geostrategic location in South Asia as it is situated between its two big, powerful and competing neighbours, India and China. Therefore, these equations lead to the fact that ties with Nepal are very important for the US from the geopolitical prism of international relations.
The term “Indo-Pacific” has gained parlance in international relations from the last decade. The origin and popularisation of the geopolitical context of the terminology can be traced to the scholars and policymakers in India, Japan, US and Australia who envisaged that strategically it was necessary to differentiate and narrow down the maritime and littoral regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans from the broader concept of Asia-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific strategy was necessitated due to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. Similarly, the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea against the US and Japan was also a factor. The election of Donald Trump as the US President led to the terminology gaining currency globally. Highlighting the strategic importance of Indo-Pacific, the US changed the name of its US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command in May, 2018. Therefore, the geopolitical setting in the Indo-Pacific could not have been more fascinating, yet dangerous.
In the upcoming decades, there can be little doubt that the quest for global supremacy will be between the US and China. The US will try to use the Indo-Pacific strategy as a countermeasure against China’s BRI. The US is aware of the importance Nepal places in its relationship with China. Nepal’s location is strategically very important from the theoretical perspective of geopolitics as it is situated between the Tibetan heartland and the Gangetic heartland of India. It is expected that the connectivity to both the northern and southern borders of Nepal will be accessible via railway links in the years ahead allowing it to become a land-linked state instead of a landlocked one. Therefore, considering these factors, the US definitely has got strategic objectives in its relations with Nepal.
Traditionally, the relationship between the US and communists around the world has not been very smooth. Nepal is among a handful of states ruled by a communist government and the only state in the world with a democratically elected communist government. The US and India would not want the Nepali government to be too close to the communist China. The US is in the middle of a trade war with China with possible damaging ramifications for both the parties if they do not exhibit caution in their approach. A lot of malice is being spread about the BRI.
However, it is for the Nepali government to prioritise the level and modality of engagement under the BRI so that our national interests are not compromised, and therefore there is no scope for getting coerced into it. The US is in the process of reconciliation with the communist North Korea and the issue of its denuclearisation has not made much headway as expected. The US is aware of several Nepali communist leaders having good relations with the North Korean regime. Considering this fact, Pompeo must have discussed the issue with Gyawali in general and not in terms of any specifics.
In today’s complex and dynamic world order, it is natural for world powers to try and influence states to help achieve their interests. The contribution of the US in Nepal’s overall development has been significant. As political stability is being established, attempts by the government to engage with states beyond their neighbourhood should not be taken otherwise as it will provide a much needed impetus to the development works to be carried out by Nepal. Relations with its immediate neighbours will always remain at the centre of Nepal’s foreign policy, but it should also be noted that it is virtually impossible for any state to remain aloof or not engage with a superpower like the US in today’s context.
Being a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement and following non-alignment as one of the guiding principles of its foreign policy, Nepal should not be a part of any sort of alliance having strategic objectives. The same was clarified by Gyawali too upon his return to Nepal.
The Indo-Pacific issue is a concern of global and regional powers. Nepal should not take much interest in such geopolitical equations. It would be better if Nepal sticks to using the broader term of Asia-Pacific rather than the new geopolitically constructed terminology of Indo-Pacific wherever needed. Nepal has a good experience in peacekeeping and peace-building measures. However, it would be premature to assume that US expects Nepal to offer its good offices or facilitation in achieving a solution to the North Korean denuclearisation issue at this stage.
The government’s desire to broaden its foreign policy engagements is a welcome step. If Nepal can translate its political stability into economic development, it will lead to the enhancement of its diplomatic image. Nepal’s crucial geographical location is such that it will continue to attract the interest of its neighbours as well as global powers. Nepal has engaged in proactive diplomacy in the past and there is no reason why it cannot do so now as well to protect and promote its national interests.