Nepal’s international stakes are increasing. A Nepali national is shot dead on the Indo-Pakistan border, fighting for India. Another day, an Iraqi military base where at least a dozen Nepalis work is bombed. In the fear that the US-Iran conflict could escalate, oil prices increase and folks in Kathmandu can be seen lining up outside petrol pumps. The same day, Nepal deports 122 Chinese nationals, on controversial grounds. These days, as a part of the government’s ‘diversification’ policy, our prime minister visits not just India and China but even seemingly inconsequential countries for Nepal like Costa Rica and Cambodia. Nepal depends on income from the Gulf. A record number of Nepali students study in the US and Australia.
This sort of forced globalization presents Nepal with all kinds of foreign policy challenges. If Nepalis are killed in an Iranian bombing in Iraq inside a base controlled by the US, who do we hold to account? If those sent to China are tortured, how will Nepal be answerable? Can India hang someone nabbed from Nepal on suspicion of terrorism? If, tomorrow, there is a direct conflict between our BRI and IPS commitments, how do we settle it?
Last week, Indian strategic thinker C. Raja Mohan, in an interview with Kantipur daily, advised Nepali leaders to ditch their ideological lenses and take a ‘horses for courses’ approach to diplomacy. If an outside power is ready to invest in sectors Nepal deems important, why be queasy about accepting the help? It’s not that easy. First, it is unclear what is strategic and what is not. The MCC grant may help Nepal build roads and electricity infrastructure it needs. But what if it also entails unforeseen obligations down the line?
Similarly, were the Chinese nationals sent north ‘deported’ or ‘extradited’? What were their crimes, if any? Was Nepal pressured into forgoing due process by the Chinese? If Nepal accepts BRI help, won’t it be even more beholden to China? Or to the Americans for accepting the MCC compact: What if the Americans ask for greater freedoms for Tibetans in Nepal, and the Chinese are dead opposed to it?
Besides our recent outreach to India, China and the US, Nepal is now also looking to engage Russia, and has even invited its president to visit. But doesn’t Nepal risk overextending itself in the process, earning the trust of none but the ire of even its limited number of friends abroad?
The outgoing Indian envoy Manjeev Singh Puri liked to talk about the impact of globalization on Nepalis. In this globalizing world, India would supposedly be okay with Nepal’s greater engagement with other powers. Nepal, he advised, should also decouple its relations with India and China, and do what it thinks is in its best interest. But if the course prescribed by the business-like Puri in Nepal was right, why has the outlook of the Indian establishment steadily hardened on Nepal over the past year? Forget settling Kalapani, why hasn’t India even accepted the EPG report formed with mutual consent?
Whether with the Indians, the Chinese, or the Americans, it’s easy to preach to a small power. Given the checkered history of big-power rivalry in Nepal, it is also natural for Nepalis to be skeptic.