Reconstructing Nepal’s Diplomatic Self-image : Dr. Narad Bharadwaj

As the giant economic powers of Asia, China and India, discard their policy of low visibility and reach out to the world asserting their presence and role in the new global economic order, Nepal and other South Asian countries find themselves struggling to catch pace. Incontrovertibly, Nepal’s relation with the two economic powerhouses of Asia dates back to ancient history. In the past, Nepal was privileged to act as a converging point between the two great civilisations nurtured by Vedic and Confucian philosophies. It has also acted as a commercial entrepôt in the economic transaction between the two great countries.

Reconstructing self-image

As a nation, Nepal lost its diplomatic standing following the Anglo-Nepal War of 1816 and Sino- Nepal War of 1856. It has been striving to regain its self-image as an independent and sovereign country capable of playing a proactive role in regional politics ever since. Sadly, its attempt at negotiating a position of channeling the power dynamics of economic growth of its neighbours to its benefit has remained an unfulfilled dream.

Nepal, China and India had started their journey towards modernisation and development in the early 1950s almost simultaneously. Six-and-a-half decades down the road, China and India have become Asia’s emerging global economies, enabling them to occupy a distinct position in the region and their immediate neighbourhood. Though located at a vantage position to reap benefit from their economic progress, Nepal is still negotiating its path through the quagmire of under-development, political conflict and diplomatic inefficiency.

The cause of our poor diplomatic performance is the failure of the successive governments in the past two decades to develop professionalism in the field of diplomacy. The neglect with which ambassadorial appointments are treated, keeping critical ambassadorial slots vacant for years, has affected Nepal’s international visibility and status as a responsible member in the comity of nations.

When ambassadors are finally appointed, qualification regarding their diplomatic knowledge and communication skills in international languages is grossly compromised. In many cases, the ambassadors do not possess essential IT expertise. The less than expected commitment of international support for the post-earthquake reconstruction project is because of the inability of the Nepalese diplomatic corps to mobilise international resources on behalf of their governments.

In sharp contrast, our neighbours have set an ever higher mark of diplomatic standard over the years. With the ascension of Narendra Modi to power, India’s diplomatic engagement with its neighbour has received a boost, both at the economic and political levels. India has been closely supporting Nepal in the peace process and constitution making. Its present commitment to support Nepal in the post-earthquake reconstruction makes it clear that a peaceful and economically prosperous neighbourhood is essential for the safeguard of its security interests.

India’s foreign policy concerns are no longer confined around the premise of the special relationship framed by the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship and accompanying letters that defined contemporary security considerations of India. Things have changed, and India is expecting us to free ourselves from the old clichés and diplomatic stereotypes to accept the changing paradigms of modern day diplomatic obligations.

India has been reborn in its modern avatar. The newly gained position of strength and the economic muscle at its disposal have prompted it to affect a shift from moralpolitik to realpolitik, as a foreign policy analyst aptly puts. This shift typifies India’s readjustment of its strategic alliance and its conscious but unspoken competition with China for political and strategic clout in the neighbourhood.  True to its diplomatic maturity, this is best manifested in its desire to further its security concerns in as soft and unassuming way as possible.

India has already started a process of refurbishing its foreign policy framework for evolving sustainable economic and political diplomacy with its neighbors. India has increased its engagement with China. Its involvement in the AII Bank and its readiness to collaborate with the latter in the BRICS Development Bank indicate the focus of its economic priorities. Similarly, a trade agreement with Sri Lanka, its offer for similar engagements with Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as the exuberance of cordiality and brotherhood it exhibited during Nepal’s post-earthquake rescue and relief operation proves beyond doubt that it wants to seriously engage with its neighbours for restoring the trust fall it had suffered during the past decades.

On the other side, China has its own expectations justified by its rise as the second global economic as well as military superpower. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China’s diplomatic visibility has increased considerably in the Far East, South Asia and South East Asia. Traditionally, dubbed as a ‘sleeping lion’, it is now redefining itself as a ‘peaceful, amicable and civilised lion’. The effective and powerful support it provided to Nepal during the post-earthquake emergency proved this and won adoration from the Nepalese people.

Traditionally, Nepal-China relations have been guided by the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the Non-aligned Foreign Policy. In the post-1950 periods, China and Nepal held common views on major international events and stood together in their support for the national liberation and people’s emancipation movements of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

China remained a staunch supporter of Nepal’s development endeavour and tried its best to help Nepal create its industrial base. China resolutely supported Nepal’s quest for sovereignty and independence and provided invaluable assistance to create transport and other critical infrastructure. Nepal, in turn, also consistently supported China in international forums and unswervingly upheld the one China policy, clearly stating that Tibet and Taiwan were part of China and refused to have anything to do with international lobbies against China.

With the rise of two economic superpowers on either side of the Nepalese border, Nepal’s diplomatic relation with them has been moving along a complex trajectory. As two powerful neighbours unfold the landscape of their foreign policy framework, the responsibility and the need of remaining wakeful to the opportunities  thrown open for us by their astounding economic growth and the risk of falling into the temptation of playing one power against another for short-term tactical gains stands stark.

In power relation, even humanitarian and non-strategic engagements are likely to be fraught with unforeseen consequences. Geo-political considerations have become a powerful factor in the handling of diplomatic relations. This becomes clear from the misunderstanding between China and India that surfaced during the initial days of the post-earthquake rescue operation, prompting China to advise India to concern itself with rescue activities and nothing else. Similarly, Nepal’s decline to accept the Taiwanese offer for help can also be interpreted from the view point of diplomatic propriety.

With the increase in prosperity and extension of the geo-strategic reach of the two Asian powers, there is a possibility of these countries progressively augmenting the volume of support to conflict-ridden and disaster-stricken countries like Nepal. The increase in grant assistance successively by one power country to poor developing countries exerts moral pressure on another power country to do the same. This puts smaller countries like Nepal at risk of falling into the trap of temptation to seek benefit by triggering a competition between the two powers.

Time warp

We are not in a time warp as the stagnant political and development process we are stuck in may lead us to believe. A global awakening is sweeping away the cobwebs of old and musty ideas about everything including diplomacy. It is time to start reconstructing Nepal’s diplomatic self-image if we are not to look like a derelict state oblivious of the changing world and adamantly clutching at old feudalistic notions shattered by hard realities.


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