Foreign policy imperatives for Nepal

A strong National Security Advisory Board led by the National Security Advisor that oversees strategic issues should be immediately set up

Last month, the High Level For­eign Policy Review Task Force submitted its recommendations to the then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. The government has not yet made the report pub­lic; however, it has elicited enough curiosity and debate on how Nepal’s foreign policy should be driven and what its priorities should be as the country adopts a federal structure. Nepal’s location is a strategic asset rather than a liability. The ‘Strategic Vision’ must reformulate Nepal’s geostrategic and geo-economic pri­orities. This can only come from a coherent ‘National Security Strat­egy’. But Nepal has not only failed to formulate it, it has also not reori­ented itself to a changing global power structure.Neighborhood First

 

Nepal should adopt ‘Neighbor­hood First’ as a foreign-policy prior­ity. Media reports suggest the Task Force recommended the same. While the rhetoric of ‘special rela­tions with India’, popularly used by democratic parties, has drawn criti­cism for favoring one neighbor, the ‘Policy of Equidistance’ advocated by the left parties is not compatible with Nepal’s geopolitical realities either. In such a situation, the pol­icy of ‘neighborhood first’ can be apt, whereby Nepal can embrace a ‘balanced’ foreign policy to serve its national interest.

 

Nepal enjoys excellent historical, political and socio-cultural bonds with India. At the same time, Chi­na’s economic might presents an opportunity for Nepal to pursue rapid economic development. How­ever, the two neighbors—India and China—are hostile to each other and their prime concern—security—over­laps in Nepal. In such a situation, it is a herculean task for the tiny Himalayan nation to balance them. The best Nepal can do is address their genuine security concerns, assuring them that Nepal would not be used against them and asking them to refrain from interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs. Nepal should reaffirm that a stable Nepal is also in their interest, as only a stable neighbor can properly address their concerns.

 

This is where a powerful National Security Advisor becomes impera­tive. The government should imme­diately set up a strong National Security Advisory Board led by the National Security Advisor that over­sees strategic issues and advises the prime minister on all matters relat­ing to internal and external threats.

 

Nepal’s second foreign-policy priority should be its “extended neighbors”, the countries with which it has strong economic ties and those where a large number of Nepali migrants work, such as the South East Asian and Gulf countries. ‘Extended neighbors’ can include SAARC countries other than India. Similarly, “Great Powers” and other friendly countries could be Nepal’s third foreign-policy priority.

 

Challenges

 

Two major challenges are the diffi­culty in formulating and implement­ing a coherent foreign policy in a fragmented and unstable political setting characterized by a poverty of strategic thinking, and dealing with a fluid and rapidly evolving regional context with shrinking space for an autonomous approach.

 

Similarly, foreign aid management would be another challenge. The new federal structure will also add to the complexities as the aid to the local level will have to be channeled through Kathmandu. To speed up the country’s economic growth, the government should give special con­cessions to sectors like hydropower and infrastructure.

 

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is going to be an important pillar of Chinese foreign policy for the next decade. It is yet to be seen how Nepal deals with the BRI with­out displeasing the southern neigh­bor. Nepal should assure India that Nepal’s engagement with China is purely for its economic interest and that it is not party to China’s plan of ‘encircling India’, unlike what India perceives. Moreover, Nepal can also express interest in the freedom cor­ridor/quadrilateral that India, Japan, the US and Australia have initiated.

 

Other important areas to deal with are terrorism, climate change, disarmament, traffick­ing of drugs, women and chil­dren. Climate change is a pressing issue and countries like Nepal are particularly vulnerable. Apart from these, Nepal has made remarkable contribution to the UN Peacekeep­ing operations, which has improved Nepal’s international image. Simi­larly, a Hindu pilgrimage circuit, a Buddhist circuit and Gorkha Regi­ments can be effective soft power tools. Surprisingly, Nepal has failed to make good use of its soft power.

 

Way ahead

 

There is a dire need to reorient Nepal’s foreign policy with the changing global power structure, keeping all four aspects—political, economic, security and institu­tion-building—into consideration. The political parties should reach a basic consensus and formulate a coherent foreign policy. Nepal can’t be stable and prosperous without a comprehensive security framework. Nepal also needs to pay urgent attention to institu­tion-building. Each ministry should invest in research and development. The foreign ministry should estab­lish well-funded research institutes. The Institute of Foreign Affairs is in a pathetic state. Honing of diplomatic and negotiation skills is a must for Nepal’s young diplomats. All these are important steps for the democ­ratization of Nepal’s foreign policy.

 

BY Dr PRAMOD JAISWAL

 

The author is editor of the new book “Revisiting Nepal’s Foreign Pol­icy in Contemporary Global Power Structure” published from New Delhi