Issues related to foreign policy didn’t find much space during the election campaigns of major parties this time.
Save the matter of map row with India, for which KP Sharma Oli of CPN-UML and Pushpa Kamal Dahal of CPN (Maoist Center) are competing to take credit for, all political parties are fundamentally on the same page when it comes to foreign policy. Only their priorities differ.
This could be because the November 20 election is highly unlikely to produce a single-party majority government.
Even big parties like Nepali Congress (NC) is contesting for only 91 seats under First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) category to create space for its four other electoral allies including Maoist Center. The main opposition, CPN-UML, which is fighting alone in most constituencies, is competing for over 140 seats.
So, with a hung parliament the most likely scenario, parties are expected to cobble together a coalition government, led either by Sher Bahadur Deuba of Nepali Congress, Dahal of Maoist Center, or even Oli of UML. Who will become the next prime minister depends on how the power-sharing deal among the ruling five-party alliance pans out.
With a coalition government in place, there is sure to be disagreement on Nepal’s foreign policy. If there is a government of NC and communist parties like Maoist Center, there will certainly be friction concerning ties with China.
Congress, for one, stands against taking loans under China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) to finance infrastructure projects. In its party manifesto, Deuba’s party has also mentioned about the border dispute with China in the Humla district.
A leftist party like Maoists, or UML for that matter— considered close to China—are unlikely to support NC in this regard. Both parties dismiss the alleged border dispute with China.
So, it is going to be an uphill task for the coalition government to forge a consensus on how to deal with these issues.
On issues related to India, NC and Maoists have different opinions. The Maoist party wants to push the agenda of the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty, though it has substantially eased its stance after joining the peace process in 2006. Still, the two parties have many other issues with India, where they do not see eye to eye, mainly due to their different ideological positioning.
Similarly, while the Maoists and UML may have almost the same position on dealing with India on contentious bilateral issues, the former has a more anti-US posture.
In their election manifestos, the two parties have repeated the same issues, such as maintaining a balanced ties with both India and China and sticking to non-aligned foreign policy. They however fall short of mentioning how they plan to deal with growing geopolitical tensions between China and the US.
The next government will have a tough time maintaining blanched ties with China and the West.
Chinese president XI Jinping, who has been elected for the third term, will likely adopt an even more aggressive posture in his neighborhood policy. Meanwhile, the US is set to expand its military and economic leg of its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) in Nepal as a counterweight to growing Chinese influence in Nepal and much of South Asia.
Of late, India, too, is growing wary of the American and Chinese influence in Nepal. Sources say New Delhi is desperate to revive its political influence in Kathmandu, which dwindled after 2018.
Sanjay Upadhya, a US-based foreign affairs expert, says the challenge for the next government will be to manage relations within the increasingly unstable triangle of India, China and the US.
NC has promised to engage with India and China diplomatically to address border-related disputes, while UML has injected greater rhetorical flourish in its intention to bring back Kalapani, Lipulek, Limpiyadhura and other territories.
These are not easy issues, and the ruling and opposition parties will have the responsibility not to politicize the commitments based on domestic compulsions and conveniences, says Upadhya.
Within this core challenge, he says Nepal will also have to focus on other issues, such as revitalizing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for genuine collective self-reliance.
There is also the imperative of grasping Nepal’s convergences and divergences from the experiences of neighbors like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Upadhya says it would be helpful to learn from those countries’ experiences on how best to navigate through the waters of international relations that are likely to become choppier in the days ahead.
Pursuing economic and cultural diplomacy are all challenges that depend on the political stability Nepal could generate after the elections.
Binoj Basnyat, strategic affairs analyst, says one challenge that the next government could confront is to convince the donor of national strategic benefits.
Insufficiently defined national foreign policy will swing the big powers interests to prevail through weak political postures as well as political parties to remain in power, he says. Basnyat is of the view that foreign policy approach will be different with the new administration in Nepal.