The Munshi Khana, the precursor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had a narrow remit during the Ranarchy. It handled a few correspondences with British India, Tibet and China. But its primary duty was to closely watch the activities of the British resident in Kathmandu, and to keep him in good humor. Rana rulers knew their days were numbered without British support.
The Munshi Khana morphed into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1951, a year after the advent of democracy. Hemmed in between a rampaging communist China and a newly independent and insecure India, Nepal suddenly felt the need to widen its diplomatic outreach beyond its two immediate neighbors. The new rulers of Nepal realized that a rapid expansion of foreign relations was perhaps the only sure way to preserve the country’s long sovereign existence: The Nepali mission in London was upgraded to an embassy, and diplomatic relations established with the US (1947) and France (1949) in quick succession. This outreach gained further momentum in the 1950s.
The country now seems headed in the opposite direction. The government of KP Sharma Oli is acting like it needs no other foreign friend besides China. Paradoxically, its stated foreign policy mantra is diversification. Now we hear the government is reviewing the country’s foreign policy.
This is nothing new. Sher Bahadur Deuba, Oli’s immediate predecessor as prime minister, had formed a task force under Shreedhar Khatri for the same purpose. The task force submitted its report after nine grueling months of study. No one knows what happened to the report. This suggests such revisions are no more than PR exercises.
As things stand, the best of policies will be worthless if Nepal cannot change the growing perception that it is turning into a Chinese client state. A central question of our new foreign policy, if we are serious about its revision, must be: how do we import China’s growth model without also importing its ideology? And how do we assure an insecure India that is increasingly paranoid about Chinese designs in South Asia of Nepal’s good faith?
The same calculations factored into Nepal’s outreach to the western world in the late 1940s and 1950s. Yet the Oli regime seems to have completely missed history’s lesson. Nepal sought closer ties with the US, not because it was enamored with American capitalist worldview. It did so to keep our two neighbors honest. But the ruling Nepal Communist Party wants to minimize Nepal’s engagement with the US—while it continues to strengthen ties with China’s CCP.
The Americans aren’t going away. The more they feel constrained in Nepal, the more they will rely on India to pursue their interests here, be it under the rubric of IPS or Quad. Surely, it’s in Nepal’s interest to deal with the US directly than through India. (Remember the 2015-16 blockade and the helpless Nepali pleas to the Americans to stop seeing us through Indian lens?)
If Nepal does not want to be dragged into a military or strategic alliance, as the Oli government keeps telling us—and with regional organizations like SAARC and BIMSTEC barely functioning—there is no alternative to enhancing Nepal’s bilateral ties. This means fostering closer relations not just with the US, but also with other big- and medium-size powers around the globe.