In the past few weeks top Nepali politicians faced immense pressure from the US and China over its preparations for parliamentary ratification of the MCC compact.
As political parties vacillated on endorsing the compact, it was the Americans who first warned Nepali leaders to either push the pact through the parliament or risk bilateral ties. Soon after, China too weighed in. In a series of video conferences, mainly with communist leaders, China urged caution over the compact. In breaking with its traditional quiet diplomacy, the northern neighbor became vocal this time, issuing a series of anti-MCC statements.
Both America and China violated diplomatic protocols by trying to force Nepali leaders to toe their respective lines. The Nepal government, meanwhile, did not issue any statement pinpointing the undiplomatic conducts of the US and China.
Nepali leaders are often blamed for inviting intervention in the country’s internal affairs. The immaturity of Nepal’s top leaders in dealing with big powers, many fear, could cost the country dear. In one example, Kathmandu-based diplomats often complain that Nepali politicians say one thing in private and do the opposite in public.
The MCC compact did get through the parliament but ahead of its endorsement, party leaders had appraised both the US and China about their plans to pass it with interpretative declarations.
A top Nepali diplomat, who spoke with ApEx on the condition of anonymity, says Nepal asks for suggestions from China on American projects, and vice-versa. “They ask China whether to endorse an American compact. On the BRI, they ask the US. Why can’t our political leaders take their own principled stand?”
He suggests Nepali leadership practice strategic autonomy in dealing with big powers.
Former Nepali Ambassador to China Tanka Karki also believes top politicians’ poor handling of foreign policy is inviting serious problems in the conduct of international relations.
“Our leaders’ lack of consistency and maturity has eroded both their as well as the country’s credibility in the eyes of big powers,” says Karki. “Over the past few decades, our geopolitical importance for big powers has greatly increased. Our politicians have apparently failed to grasp this simple idea.”
Former Nepali Ambassador to the US Suresh Chalise cites a couple of examples to demonstrate the mishandling of sensitive issues by politicians.
“Take Budhigandaki hydropower project, which has become a victim of frequent government changes. One government awards the project to a Chinese company but the deal is then terminated soon after another government comes into power,” says Chalise.
In the next example, the former ambassador mentions the issue of the former KP Sharma Oli-led government reiterating that there are no border disputes with China.
But then when Sher Bahadur Deuba came to power, he formed a committee to investigate the border dispute with China. “Unlike the Oli government, the Deuba government found that there were indeed border issues that needed to be resolved,” says Chalise.
He adds that the controversy over the MCC compact is the most flagrant example of our politicians’ inconsistency.
“All the major parties were involved in the MCC compact process. But then some politicians started to protest against the compact. But in the end the same politicians came to its rescue when they realized they could otherwise fracture the ruling coalition,” says Chalise.
There is a tendency among Nepali politicians to exploit foreign policy issues to advance political interests, which often jeopardizes diplomatic ties. For long, they have been adopting a regime-centric or even leader-centric foreign policy.
In 2020, when Oli dissolved the House of Representatives, there was no response from India, the US, or any other country. At the time, the parties opposed to Oli’s move openly urged external powers to speak against the House dissolution.
Experts say political parties are allowing foreign powers to dictate the country’s internal affairs. If our leaders do not mend their ways and fail to forge consensus on foreign policy, external interference could increase. Big powers already directly deal with politicians instead of relevant government agencies, they say.
Chalise says balancing ties with big powers like the US and China is becoming a big challenge for Nepal.
“The effects of growing rivalry between the US and China is evident in Kathmandu as well,” he says.
Karki fears Nepal could be pushed into a very difficult situation if our politicians don’t mend their “errant ways”.
Anil Sigdel, founder of Washington DC-based Nepal Matters for America, a think tank, says the MCC compact’s endorsement has sent a strong signal to the world that Nepal is both capable of and determined to maintain its strategic autonomy and decide in its best interests.
“At a time of global and regional geopolitical stress, Nepal’s decision assumes great significance. The country should continue to convince external partners that Nepal’s engagement with one does not come at the cost of another,” he says.
To avoid the trap of growing big power rivalry, experts suggest Nepali leaders focus on economic diplomacy.
Nilanthi Samaranayake, a geopolitical analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington-based research organization that advises various arms of the American government, says Nepal should strive to chart its own path as a small state, separate from the competition between great powers.
“Focus on economic security will help Nepal and other small states in the face of great power rivalry,” she says.
According to Upendra Gautam, general secretary at China Study Center, the current mess in foreign policy was not created overnight but is a result of a series of lapses.
“Political parties are making foreign policy and international relations inseparable from internal power politics, eroding our credibility,” he says.
He says because of our political parties, foreign powers are making inroads into our politics. “Parties are inviting foreign interference in our politics, in the process weakening themselves. If we become weak, outside powers will obviously try to meddle.”
Nepali politicians have paralyzed the key foreign policy mechanisms, as was also evident in the dispute surrounding the MCC compact.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was nowhere in sight as the dispute unfolded and took a nasty turn. Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka is yet to appear in any official meeting over the compact.