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Nepal struggles to balance ties with three major powers

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Nepal struggles to balance ties with three major powers

Experts say Nepal should stop giving into diplomatic arm-twisting by foreign powers and engage them with a clear roadmap

India, China and the US have stepped up their engagements with Nepal in recent months. There has been a series of diplomatic exchanges and visits to and from these countries, which some foreign affairs experts say is unprecedented. 

But these are unprecedented times. China-US rivalry for global supremacy is at an all-time high. India, meanwhile, has its own set of security and economic concerns as its influence in South Asia, its old stomping ground, is fast waning due to China’s aggressive economic diplomacy.  

Nepal is in a tight spot as it seeks to maintain a balanced relations with India, China and the US all at the same time, says Arun Subedi, foreign affairs advisor to Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba

“China’s expectations, for instance, have gone up recently. It is seeking our support in the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other issues,” he says. 

Recently, China’s top legislature Li Zhanshu spent four days in Nepal. During his stay, he met with Nepali leaders and discussed a wide range of issues. 

China’s concern that Nepal is tilting towards the West, particularly under the current leadership of the Nepali Congress, is no secret. It is also obvious that Beijing wants to implant a strong foothold in Kathmandu. One of his key agendas of Li’s recent visit was inking an agreement that allows cooperation between Nepal’s parliament and China’s National People’s Congress, a rubber stamp parliament of China. 

From the Nepali leaders, the top Chinese leader got the oft-repeated reassurance that they are committed to ‘One China’ policy, that they won’t allow Nepali soil to be used for any anti-China activities.

Soon after Li’s visit, Chinese state media Xinhua reported that Nepal supports China’s position on Taiwan and Xinjiang. 

“He [Li] thanked the Nepalese side for unswervingly adhering to the One-China principle, and supporting China’s position on the Taiwan question and issues concerning Tibet, Xinjiang and human rights,” wrote Xinhua.

The Deuba government is reportedly unhappy with what was reported by the Chinese media, for it has the potential of causing rifts with India and the US.   

Earlier, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi had written an article stating that Nepal actively supports the Global Development Initiative and China’s Global Security Initiatives. Then, too, the Nepal government was put ill at ease. 

But on both occasions, the government made no effort to clarify the matter. 

Deuba’s foreign affairs advisor Subedi, who is known to be critical of Chinese policies, is of the view that Nepal should revisit its long-standing non-alignment policy to get out from the current diplomatic tangle involving multiple parties.

Foreign policy experts say for Kathmandu, maintaining a balanced ties with the US and China has become more of a demanding job than between India and China in recent times.  

The dust-up between Beijing and Washington over whether Nepal should or should not join the US-sponsored Millennium Corporation Challenge and State Partnership Program show how deep Kathmandu is caught up in the geopolitical rivalry of these two giants.

Amid growing tensions between China and US, India too has stepped up its engagements with Nepal and other South Asian countries, like Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka, to retain its traditional sphere of influence. 

Time and again, India has voiced its concern regarding China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, warning that it is a debt trap diplomacy that upended Sri Lanka’s economy. 

All the while Nepal’s leadership is caught in a paralyzing indecision on matters vital to the country’s foreign policy. One of the major reasons for this indecision is the divergent views, ideology and priority within the ruling five-party coalition. 

The Nepali Congress has historically supported India and the West. The CPN (Maoist Center), on the other hand, is more inclined towards China. Political analysts say you get indecisive when parties with diametrically opposite ideologies are placed in the governing seat.

If this situation persists, they say future projects by big countries in Nepal can easily plunge into a controversy. 

Rajan Bhattarai, foreign affairs advisor to former prime minister KP Sharma Oli, blames the current government for failing to maintain a balanced relationship with China, India and the US. 

“This government has taken the approach of appeasing one power at the cost of antagonizing the other,” he says. “If we do not correct the course, the balance will tip irrevocably.”  

A source at the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers says the government has been facing increasing pressures from Beijing, New Delhi and Washington.  

“They are taking the liberty of issuing press statements saying that Nepal supports some specific agendas or projects.”

The source adds like India did in the past, now China and the US are trying to dictate how Nepal should conduct its foreign policy.  

Experts on political affairs and foreign relations say Nepali leadership should stop giving into diplomatic arm-twisting by the forign powers and come up with a clear roadmap to engage with them.   

Don McLain Gill,  a Philippines-based geopolitical analyst and author specializing in Indo-Pacific affairs, says small states must be able to provide major powers with a less ambiguous roadmap of engagement without fearing the loss of support from either state.

“This does not mean that small states should seek to disturb the balance. Rather, they should aim to maintain the status quo without further exacerbating the balance of power,” he says. “This will provide them with a more conducive environment for growth, development, and security.”  

In the era of great power competition, they say smaller countries like Nepal, there is not much that small countries can do, says Zhiqun Zhu, professor of political science and international relations as well as the inaugural director of the China Institute, at Bucknell University, US.

“The best strategy for small countries in South Asia and elsewhere is perhaps to focus on domestic development and not get involved in the great power rivalry.” 

And if some small countries prefer to be more vocal, he says: “Perhaps, they can learn from Singapore and tell the two great powers to not force them to choose sides and resolve their differences peacefully.”