I decided to take this responsibility with a couple of objectives in mind. First, the IFA is the sole government think tank working on diplomacy, foreign policy and security issues. The tragedy is that in the 26 years since its establishment, it has gotten progressively weaker. I have some ideas about reforming it.
Second, we have some conventional issues that lack proper research. We need to provide support to the government through in-depth analysis and policy recommendations on international relations, strategic affairs and security issues. Even on Kalapani, there has not been much in-depth and evidence-based research on the Nepali side. Such research would have helped government agencies to come up with compelling arguments at the negotiating table. So we plan to develop this organization as a platform for researchers.
Third, we cannot compete with big countries on hard power and economy. We can protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity only through astute diplomacy. Now we are facing a host of new issues and challenges related to the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and India’s ‘Neighborhood first’ policy. We have to groom the new generation for research on all these issues. This organization can play a vital role on this front as well.
You mentioned Kalapani. Does the IFA have specific plans related to it?
Kalapani is an old issue. Regarding disputed border areas, we have sufficient evidence. But we have not been able to organize all the pieces of evidence in a systematic way. First, we have to identity the encroached areas. We have heard the British Library has some relevant documents. We have to collect evidence from 1816 (at the time of the Sugauli Treaty) by coordinating with our diplomatic missions abroad. We are planning to organize a workshop with experts from various sectors. We will form an expert panel which can assemble various pieces of evidence. We can submit the workshop document as policy recommendation to the government and also use it for academic purposes.
PM Oli says the government is still busy collecting evidence on Kalapani. But the public sentiment is that it should be resolved immediately.
It is a crucial issue as the scale of encroachment in Kalapani is very high. Nepal is a small country and the relations between two of our big neighbors are not so cordial. In case of some geopolitical confrontation between them, there could be further encroachments, and we plan to identify such risk areas. Our first job is to identity encroached areas and the second is to flag high-risk areas.
There is perpetual speculation about a resource crunch, both human and financial, at the IFA. What has been your assessment?
It has just been a week since I joined the office. What I feel is that this organization’s usefulness is increasing. So the government should be generous in providing human and financial resources.
On a separate note, how do you evaluate the Oli government’s foreign policy?
Over the past 70 years, our focus was more on addressing the genuine security interests of our two big neighbors, and maintaining a delicate balance between them.
With China’s rise in recent decades, new dynamics have been added to Nepal’s geopolitics. The US invited Nepal’s foreign minister after 17 years and said that Nepal can play a vital role in the Indo-Pacific region.
The world order is shifting to the East and Nepal occupies a highly strategic space. The traditional two-way rivalry has been converted into a three-way rivalry. We can feel the magnitude of American involvement with its offer of the $500 million MCC grant. Handling this three-way rivalry won’t be easy.
As someone who closely studies Nepal-China ties, help us understand the new ‘strategic partnership’ between them.
The term ‘alliance’ was frequently used during the Cold War. After that, American President Bill Clinton started using the term ‘strategic’ during his tenure. Barack Obama used the term ‘engagement’ and his ‘Pivot to Asia’ was all about greater engagement with the continent. Now the Trump administration is reverting to an old terminology.
In essence, ‘strategic partnership’ is a new form of an ‘alliance’, a word that countries today prefer not to use. Strategic partnership entails giving due importance to a country. It suggests deep engagement between two countries. In that sense, strategic partnership is a vague terminology as it could entail military, economic and cultural cooperation. ‘Strategic’ does not mean only military partnership.
But there is suspicion that China wants to deepen military engagement with Nepal under the guise of a strategic partnership.
That is not true. Our engagement with China cannot be at both political and military levels. Now the key area of cooperation is economic. China is now facing many challenges, and its focus now is economic or development partnership. China could have identified Nepal as an important economic partner.
The BRI, new agreements on trade and transit, and other Chinese aid are closely linked to economic partnership. Now there could be a question about the difference in the nature of the American IPS and Nepal’s strategic partnership with China. Given our location and economic limitations, we cannot afford military partnership with any country. Not only Nepal, other American allies in Asia have also clarified that they cannot join the IPS in a way that affects their economic collaboration with China.
You mean Nepal-China strategic partnership is strictly economic?
Yes. China has pledged to help us become a land-linked country, an example of economic collaboration. Bilateral military exercises with India, China and the US are important for us. But our military engagement should not be targeted against any particular country. We have a cautious approach to the IPS as it aims to contain China. Geopolitically, we are in a sensitive area, we share a border with China, and we shelter Tibetan refugees. That is why we have to have a ‘wait and see’ approach with regard to the IPS. We should not rush in matters that have strong military components.
But won’t shunning the IPS and embracing the BRI pose problems for Nepal?
All the initiatives of world powers have strategic implications. Economic diplomacy also has a strategic purpose. There is no free lunch. Nepal has already joined the BRI, which China says is an economic project, and that its key components are connectivity, economic collaboration and investment. But the IPS mentions strengthening all 26 countries in this region in terms of security, economic assistance and bilateral exchanges. As the IPS states military engagement and the US itself has defined it as a military project, we cannot compare it with the BRI. Yes, tomorrow we could discover that the BRI too has security components. But for now, we have to give China the ssbenefit of the doubt.