As the framers of PM Oli’s foreign policy keep emphasizing, one of the government’s central foreign policy planks is diversification. This is defined as any maneuver that increases Nepal’s ‘strategic autonomy’ by diversifying its ties away from India. Away from India, yet close not just to China and the neighborhood but seemingly to every part of the world. The greater the number of its foreign friends, the lesser the chance of Nepal being subjected to the kind of life-sapping blockades it has been subjected to by India—thrice already. But this diversification strategy is also fraught with risks.
This week, the letter of a ranking member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee asking PM Oli to stop the ratification of the finalized extradition treaty with China became public. The letter published by Kantipur, and signed by Senator Robert Menendez, warns that any removal of Tibetan refugees to China from Nepal would have a “serious negative impact on bilateral relations between the two countries.” It also “urges” PM Oli to issue documents to the Tibetans in Nepal wanting to travel to India. The Americans know such a decision would rile the Chinese.
President Xi was visibly upset during his Kathmandu visit when the extradition treaty, which he considered done and dusted, was withdrawn at the last minute. He espied a clear US hand. At the time, he had thundered in Kathmandu: “Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.” Many thought he was referring to the ‘American meddling’ in Hong Kong. But according to those in the know he was as angry about the American maneuvering to scuttle the extradition treaty, including American ambassador Randy Berry’s last-minute lobbying against the treaty. Yet the mutual legal assistance treaty that came in place of the extradition treaty could still be enough to extradite Tibetans to China. It was not lost on anyone that Xi’s Nepal visit was largely aimed at minimizing the US presence. And he succeeded, at least in part.
Coming to the present, India has appointed a new foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, a Sikkim native and a fluent Nepali speaker. Earlier, he had served as the director of the division of the external affairs ministry dealing with Nepal and Bhutan. Shringla, the ex-Indian envoy to the US, is well-versed in the geopolitics of South Asia. Coupled with the appointment of a more sober Nepal envoy—certainly compared to the ever-jovial Manjeev Singh Puri—Indian intervention in Nepal could again significantly increase.
New Delhi considers this an imperative at a time the Chinese influence in Nepal is at an all-time high and the Americans are getting uncomfortably nosy in its traditional backyard. Diversifying Nepal’s relations with China, the US, Venezuela, North Korea and every other conceivable power is all and good. But our top leaders, NCP co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal most notoriously, have repeatedly betrayed a dangerous lack of diplomatic nous, often landing the country in a spot of bother.
We already see a clear division in the NCP over the MCC compact, and the letter from the US Senator will only further inflame its critics. This could be a harbinger of graver foreign policy challenges ahead.