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Learning from Nepal’s SPP fiasco

Learning from Nepal’s SPP fiasco

In the literature on foreign policy, two key issues are often cited. One, no foreign policy develops in isolation but is expanded from domestic policies. Two, national security is and should be any government’s main responsibility, even as the country’s real security depends on national unity.

After an intense national debate, discussions and political blame games, the Nepal government finally decided not to participate in the US government’s State Partnership Program (SPP). To bring uniformity in communication and harmonization in foreign policy agenda, the government has also decided to channel all correspondences to foreign missions and countries through the foreign ministry.

Both these are welcome steps. The main lesson of the SPP controversy is that it is important to build national consensus on sensitive issues such as national security and foreign policy. Otherwise, foreign powers get to influence the country’s major stakeholders in their favor.

The way the SPP issue was handled in Nepal also revealed many fault lines in our approach and communication. Nepal Army, which is primarily responsible for Nepal’s security, came into controversy because of its non-coherent communication with the public, revealing an institutional weakness.

Given the changing world order to multipolar power centers, Nepal is likely to be dragged into more security and foreign policy dilemmas. There was a similar dilemma a few years back over whether to participate in BIMSTEC’s joint military training.

Nepal still has to rely on foreign assistance or loans to support about 30 percent of its general expenditure and 100 percent of its capital expenditure. It thus needs a balanced approach to development and security. On development assistance, Nepal needs to open its arms for cooperation by keeping its national development goals at the center. On the other hand, with the exception of training and technical assistance on security matters, it needs a policy of non-alignment. It should give a clear signal to all major powers that Nepal doesn’t want to be in any security camp.

The ongoing war in Ukraine is almost a proxy war between Russia and the West. Russia is projecting itself as a leader of anti-American forces, much as it did during the Cold War. Last week, at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the end of the US-dominated unipolar world.

In the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s position was to find a mutual solution to end the war, but more recently, China is focusing on strengthening its security and trade ties with Russia. In a phone call on Putin’s birthday, Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have assured Russia of  security assistance. Recently, a new Amur River crossing has been opened to boost trade ties between Russia and China with the goal of carrying more than two million people and four million tons of cargo annually. China has increased its gas imports from Russia by 40 percent, while the European Union, the US, Canada and other countries have banned the purchase of Russian oil. Analysts say growing cooperation between Russia and China is creating a strong anti-US pole, while Russia's invasion of Ukraine could also set a pretext for China’s invasion of Taiwan.

In a few years, China and India, Nepal’s two neighbors, are set to become the world’s first and second economic powers. In recent times, in its national security agenda, the US has been prioritizing the Indo-Pacific region to check China’s global dominance. In a global power competition, both China and the US are trying to forge strategic, security, trade, and other partnerships in Asia and the Pacific.

‘The Pivot to Asia’, ‘The Policy of Strategic Rebalancing to Asia’ and ‘The Trans-Pacific Partnership for the Asia-Pacific Regional Cooperation’ were initiated by the United States under President Obama. In 2018, President Donald Trump announced an ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ aimed at curbing China’s growing dominance in the South China Sea. The US, India, Japan and Australia also revived the Quad (The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) in 2017 to curb China’s growing influence in the region.

China, meanwhile, has pushed for trade and security agreements with 10 Pacific nations, including Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Niue and Micronesia, to counter US and Australian strategic, security and economic influence in the Pacific.

In East Asia, China has close ties with Cambodia and Myanmar, and Cambodia has even provided a base for the Chinese navy. Southeast Asian countries such as Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, which have close economic and trade ties with China, are nonetheless at odds with both the US and China over their security.

Prior to the announcement of the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the revival of Quad, military training and technical assistance were considered normal. In Asia, Bangladesh, Maldives, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Mongolia have benefited from SPP. Nepal Army has traditionally been engaged with China, India, US, UK, and Pakistan on education, joint military training activities, exchanging experiences and knowledge and high-level visits.

To engage in these activities is one thing, to be a strategic partner of a global power’s military alliance-like mechanism is another. Given Nepal’s unique geopolitical position, its coming under the umbrella of any one power will not only destabilize domestic politics but also increase the danger of Nepal becoming a playground for foreign powers.

In the global competition for dominance, the major powers are also vying to increase their partnerships by packaging foreign aid, trade, transit and security assistance. The Indo-Pacific Strategy was initially a security strategy, but is now becoming more comprehensive with focus on trade, economic and other cooperation. China is also putting together a trade and security agreement with the Pacific countries.

Now, what kind of help do we accept and what kind do we reject? Although the MCC compact was a purely development project, the growing polarization between China and the United States had a direct impact on its approval. Given its need for development assistance and its geopolitical location, the country needs to redefine its policy of non-alignment. Nepal, in fact, should adopt a policy of alignment and cooperation with all major powers on its development, prosperity and progress. On the other hand, Nepal should strictly adhere to a policy of nonalignment on any security and defense partnerships.

Another important lesson from the SPP controversy is that Nepal should focus on strengthening its civil-military relationships. Nepal Army was blamed for the SPP fiasco by politicians, including former prime ministers and ministers. Civilian supremacy over the military also depends on the strategic, security and technical knowledge and skills of the two sides. In Nepal, the army has been pursuing military diplomacy for years on its own and most of the military's proposals, including budgets and promotions, have been formally approved by the civilian leadership, without much oversight and discussion.

Political leaders’ blaming of the military and the army’s inability to defend itself highlights Nepal’s weak military-civilian relationship. Going forward, policy issues, such as security and foreign policy, should be decided at the political level, while technical matters, such as training and knowledge exchanges, should be decided at the military leadership level.

The latest government decision seems to have put a full stop on SPP controversy, but a key question remains: How could we effectively communicate Nepal’s decision not to be a part of SPP without jeopardizing the traditional military and development ties with the US? One option could be to organize a high-level all-party meeting to discuss the government’s decision and forge national consensus on Nepal’s position and messaging on national security issues.

The author is a member of the board of directors at the Institute of Foreign Affairs, Nepal