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How the big three powers view Nepal election

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

How the big three powers view Nepal election

New US Ambassador to Nepal Dean R. Thompson has just taken charge. The Chinese Embassy remains vacant since the departure of Hou Yanqi. And Indian Ambassador Naveen Srivastava, who arrived in July, is just getting a sense of Nepali politics. 

But with or without their ambassadors, these three powers– which are competing to counter each other’s influence in Kathmandu– are closely following the November 20 elections and its outcomes. 

For the new ambassadors, it is not an easy job to navigate Kathmandu’s complex political situation. At the same time, there are new developments in Beijing and Washington. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been elected for a third consecutive term, while his US counterpart Joe Biden has come up with a new national security strategy, which clearly mentions about containing China. 

In order to contain each other, they want a favorable government in Kathmandu. 

Rupak Sapkota, a Kathmandu-based foreign policy expert, says compared to the past elections, there are greater concerns among the big powers regarding the outcomes of the elections this time. 

“The case of Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) clearly showed that parliament and parliamentarians have much of a role to play on bilateral agreements and other international cooperation issues,” says Sapkota.

“It is not only about which party comes to power after the elections. This election, the big powers have shown concerns regarding the victory of some specific candidates.” 

Amid geopolitical tensions, all three powers want to see a government that will potentially advance their interests in Kathmandu. The immediate priority of the US, according to experts, is to create a conducive environment for smooth implementation of the MCC, which will formally come into operation from next August, and to push forward the State Partnership Program, which has been halted for time being.  

As for Beijing, it is obvious that it prefers to see a communist party-led government in Kathmandu and if that is not possible, it wants the left alliance to be a dominant force in the government.  At this point, China’s number one priority is to curb the growing Western influence in Kathmandu. 

“If Sher Bahadur Deuba were to become prime minister after the elections, China fears the Western influence may further increase in Nepal,” says a source close to the Chinese Embassy.

Meanwhile, India’s priority for now is to lessen the influence of Beijing in Kathmandu. 

Apart from curbing China’s role in Nepal, New Delhi also wants to see a government in Kathmandu that is willing to keep on hold the border disputes and 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty, says a former diplomat.

Nihar R Nayak, a New Delhi-based Nepal-India expert, says India prefers a government led by liberal democratic forces in Nepal, which means the continuation of the current coalition government led by the Nepali Congress. 

“Given the election manifestos of communist parties, New Delhi may not feel comfortable working with them after the elections,” says Nayak. “At the same time, as always, India is ready to work with whichever party comes to Baluwatar, but does not want much noise on map and other issues and engage on those issues diplomatically.” 

Whichever party ascends to power after elections, it will have to balance the ties with New Delhi and Beijing. This way of diplomacy is also something all major parties have in common in their election manifestos as well. 

“It is important for the new government in Kathmandu not to tilt to any powers,” says Amit Ranjan,  research fellow at the National Unity of Singapore. “Only a balancing act can better serve Kathmandu’s interests.” 

In 2017, when the left alliance secured two-third votes in national parliament, it sent a shock wave in New Delhi, while Beijing was upbeat over the victory of communist parties.

Sheng Zhang, research fellow at Chengdu Institute for World Affairs, says as Nepal faces a crucial time, the November 20 polls should elect competent leaders to lead both internal and external fronts. 

Internationally, there is a risk posed by the complicated China-US relations and the controversy over the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy and China-led Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI). Domestically, Nepali economy needs to revive and there are multiple tasks such as economic development, health care, infrastructure, education and cultural reforms. 

“The large hope that many international friends of Nepal have for the post-election time is, that no matter what the election outcome, Nepalese society and political parties, especially those in the left, should cease the polarization,” says Zhang. “Political parties of Nepal should reconcile and work together to actually improve the livelihood of the people and to handle the international challenges.”