Trump’s Asia Policy Leaves Nepal In A Tight Spot?
Ritu Raj Subedi
Nepal and the United States of America had shared fraternal bonhomie before they evolved into modern nation states. This relation was not marked by any formal communication between the governments or people of the two nations but it was guided by the spirit of liberation and independence. Coincidently, both had faced a common enemy – the Britishers - at one point of history. The American colonised states were fighting against the British government while Gorkhali soldiers under their ablest commander Prithvi Narayan Shah faced off the British East India Company, with the latter posing as a big hurdle to the unification of divided Nepal. As the Gorkhalis successfully repelled the invading British Company in the difficult terraced hills of Sindhuli in central Nepal, it became a source of inspiration for American revolutionaries. This miraculous victory found space in the famous pamphlet Common Sense (1776) of Thomas Paine, one of the American founding fathers and revolutionaries. Paine mentioned the defeat of British at the hands of Gorkhalis as a big confidence booster for the American people. He wrote: “...Suppressors were experiencing defeat and lost morale.....”
Nepal and the U.S. established their diplomatic relations in 1947 when Nepal was virtually isolated from the external world, with its people in agitation for democracy and freedom. The then Rana Prime Minister Padma Shumsher said that opening of diplomatic ties with the US was very ‘important” for Nepal. In more than 71-years-long history of bilateral interactions, Nepal-U.S. relations have been smooth, as a string of political systems and governments came and went in-between. One interesting fact is that virtually all Nepali leaders ranging from autocratic Rana rulers to authoritarian monarchs to democratic and communist PMs have been in good books of Washington, considered the nerve-centre of world’s economic and military power.
Nonetheless, it is Nepal’s critical geopolitical position that enabled it to gain traction with the US presidents during the Cold War era marked by stiff rivalry between the then Soviet Union and the US. India was an ally of the then USSR while China was a communist country, a natural ideological foe of the US. So Nepal was an obvious choice of the US in the great power game in the region. In 1967, US president Lyndon B Johnson personally received king Mahendra in Washington during the latter’s state visit to the U.S. Huge crowds of Americans had lined up on two sides of the road, scrambling to have a glimpse of the Nepali monarch. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan spread out a red carpet to king Birendra, terming his concept of ‘Zone of Peace’ as innovative approach towards peace and development. Reagan even noted that ‘Nepal’s future will not be held back by using scarce resources for military purposes,’ indicating that Nepal’s engagement with any military or strategic alliance does not do any good for the impoverished nation.
Even if the US put Harvard-taught Nepali king on a pedestal, he did not lose diplomatic sanity when it came to maintaining sound relations with the neighbours. In 1974, he instructed the Nepal Army to suppress the Khampa rebels who had set up camps in Mustang to launch guerrilla warfare to ‘recapture’ Tibet. NA retired major general Rajendra Thapa recalls that Dalai Lama wanted to split Mustang district from Nepal and develop it as the base camp to conduct insurrection in Tibet. “For this, the US and Indian intelligence agencies, CIA, IB and RAW, had jointly provided training to Khampa rebels under the title of ‘Establishment 22’ at Chakrata of Dehradun, India,” writes Thapa. This nasty episode is a testimony to the fact that Nepal hardly supports any move that causes instability in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China as such an act is deemed as the betrayal of Panchsheel (five principles of peaceful coexistence) and One-China policy that Nepal has been unwaveringly maintaining since the establishment of diplomatic relations with China in 1955.
But again, under President Donald Trump, Nepal is being dragged into a trilateral geopolitical conflict that does not only violate its non-alignment policy but also harms its national interest. Trump administration has egged on Nepal to be an active player in his Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) with attractive economic package. The details of IPS are yet to be furnished but Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) that Trump approved on the last day of 2018 is likely to bring security dilemma to Nepal. The Act seeks to fund for the cause of Tibetan refugees living here, which directly contravene Nepal’s One-China policy that has strictly forbidden any organization from carrying out activities involving Tibetan refugees.
It states, ‘fund shall be made available for nongovernmental organizations to support activities preserving cultural traditions and promoting sustainable development, education, and environmental conservation in Tibetan communities in the Tibet Autonomous Region and in other Tibetan communities in China, India, and Nepal.’ It is believed that around 20,000 Tibetan refugees have been living in different parts of the country. Existing laws of country prevent any organisations from carrying out activities involving refugees living here or mobilising them against neighbouring nations.
The IRIA considers Nepal as democratic partner, along with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, while recognising India as a major defence partner of the US in the Indo-Pacific region. It authorises to be appropriated $210 million for each fiscal year from 2019 to 2023 “to promote democracy, strengthen civil society, human rights, rule of law, transparency, and accountability in the Indo-Pacific region”. Nepal’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Gyawali has already spurned the idea that Nepal can be a part of Indo-Pacific Strategy but his ministry has not commented on the ARIA unanimously approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the US in early December.
The US’ policy to enlist Nepal’s backing for meeting its grand Asian geopolitical strategy poses greater security challenge to the Himalayan nation which is struggling to balance India and China that are competing to increase their ‘sphere of influence’ here through economic aid, investment, public diplomacy and political-cultural exchanges. The US has recently ramped up diplomatic moves to bring the former into its Indo-Pacific design so as to check China’s growing influence here. Nepal has already signed China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with a view to overcome its critical infrastructure deficit. Nepal has just come out of the prolonged transition and found a stable government in decades. It is in dire need of economic development and expects generous support from neighbours and friendly nations to achieve inclusive economic growth. The US as an old friend of Nepal should contribute to building its real economy instead of engaging it in a strategic game that weakens its ability to deliver lasting peace, development and prosperity to its citizens.
(Subedi is Deputy Executive Editor of The Rising Nepal. He writes regularly on politics, foreign affairs and other contemporary issues.)