The KP Oli government has made ‘diversification’ a central plank of its foreign policy. But what does it mean? Talking to APEX, former foreign minister Ramesh Nath Pandey said there is no such thing as diversification in foreign policy. As far as sovereign countries are concerned, they only have national interests. Pandey does not get how enhancing relations with marginal countries like Costa Rica, Cambodia and Vietnam will protect Nepal’s interests. The government does not see it that way.
As foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali has tried to explain, in this globalizing world, diversification means establishing fruitful relations with as many countries as possible. Didn’t Nepal amply witness the disastrous consequences of overreliance on a single country during the 2015-16 blockade? Thus increasing connectivity of every kind with China, Nepal’s only other neighbor, is at the heart of this diversification policy. But the policy is not limited to China. Nepal surely wins if we can bring more Buddhist tourists from Cambodia and Vietnam to Lumbini. Or if Costa Rica votes in Nepal’s favor on a crucial UN election. Not just that. The more countries we interact with regularly, the greater will be the international support in another blockade-like situation.
In this, the calculations of the Oli government also mirror the South Asian strategy of the Trump administration. After India and China, the US is easily Nepal’s most important international partner, and if Nepal wants to diversify, it must have a healthy working relation with the world’s sole superpower. So the Americans too are welcome to the new Nepal of Oli’s imagination. Likewise, the new American Indo-Pacific Strategy entails closer cooperation in South Asia with the likes of Nepal and Bangladesh where India and China compete for influence. The American strategy is to strengthen India’s hand against China.
But diversification of Nepal’s foreign policy that king Mahendra first mooted back in the 1950s, and is now being pushed by PM Oli, is also a risky proposition. How does Nepal balance the American demand for greater freedoms for Tibetan refugees in Nepal with China’s absolute abhorrence of the idea? As their tech war intensifies, do we import technology from China or the US? How do we choose between Huawei and Google, for example? With Nepal now an official BRI partner, how do we deal with India’s suspicion about the initiative? And how will Nepal reconcile its greater engagement with the US with the old Indian wish that western presence in Nepal be minimal?
Nepal’s foreign policy apparatus seems ill-equipped to maintain such a delicate balance when it is not even aware of Nepali MPs taking part in a Tibet-related conference abroad. On May 23, Narendra Modi led the BJP to another thumping majority in Indian national elections. No one really knows what kind of foreign policy the new Modi government will adopt, or how it will work with the US or China on regional issues. Diversification into remote countries is all and good. But right now, Nepal has its hands full with the three traditional powers.