Nepal’s unwavering commitment to SAARC

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Nepal’s unwavering commitment to SAARC

From its inception Nepal has been playing an active role in the SAARC process. Even back in the 1970s King Birendra was busy sketching out a framework for the regional body

Deepening and widening regional cooperation has always been Nepal’s foreign policy priority. That is why it has actively promoted regional and sub-regional bodies. Nepal is a member of multiple regional bodies such South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) established in 2002. Nepal also joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner in 2016.

The country aspires to make those regional platforms effective and result-oriented. SAARC, the oldest among them, was formed in 1985. From its inception Nepal has been playing an active role in the SAARC process. Even back in the 1970s King Birendra was busy sketching out a framework for the regional body.

Addressing a gathering of foreign delegates at the 26th Colombo Plan Consultative Meeting in Kathmandu in 1977, King Birendra had pitched the idea of tapping nature for mutual benefit of Nepal, India, China, Bhutan Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. At the time, King Birendra’s focus was on collaboration on water resources. 

“Acknowledging Nepal’s vital role in the formation of the regional body, member countries had agreed to keep SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu,” says former diplomat Bhek Bahadur Thapa. According to him, SAARC came into being mainly at the behest of Nepal and Bangladesh, at a time other countries were mostly unenthusiastic. Bangladesh had proposed to have the secretariat in Dhaka, but King Birendra insisted on keeping it in Kathmandu.

Along with the Secretariat, two vital centers—the SAARC Tuberculosis Centre and SAARC Information Center—were also established in Nepal. Nepal had held the third summit of SAARC in 1987, the same year its secretariat was established in Kathmandu, in what was a milestone in strengthening the institutional framework of SAARC. 

A major aspect of Nepal’s engagement in the SAARC process is its desire to bring China on board. Since 2005 China has been serving as an observer in the regional body. But Nepal is in favor of having China as a full SAARC member. From 2005-to 2006, King Gyanendra has lobbied for the same, much to India’s chagrin.

Says political analyst Lokraj Baral, it is an open secret that King Gyanendra, isolated by the international community, tried to bring China into the SAARC in order to balance India. According to Baral, it was the first time Nepal formally pushed for China’s membership but the idea fell through due to lack of consensus.

But Nepal’s push to bring China as a member of the regional body continued even after Nepal became a republic. For instance, in 2014, just before the 18th summit in Kathmandu, Nepal’s Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat and Foreign Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey had spoken in favor of elevating China’s role. Pandey had said that if all members agreed, Nepal would have no problem in making China a SAARC member. Even in official negotiations, Nepal had raised this issue.

As a SAARC member state, Nepal has taken a lead in several areas. Former Ambassador Madhuban Prasad Poudel, who served as a director in SAARC Secretariat from 1999 to 2002, says Nepal initially pushed agriculture, health and population, postal services and metrology as priority areas.

Nepal has been a strong advocate of sub-regional cooperation under the broader SAARC framework. Since 1990, Nepal had been continuously raising the issue. Its wish was fulfilled at the 10th SAARC Summit in Colombo in 1998. “With the objective of enhancing regional solidarity and promoting overall development within SAARC,” the summit communique read, “the Heads of State or Government encouraged the development of specific projects relevant to the individual needs of three or more [states].”

Subsequently, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal requested the assistance of the Asian Development Bank to facilitate economic cooperation, writes Sangita Thapaliyal, a New Delhi-based South Asian expert, in her journal article published by India International Center. This request, according to her, led to the implementation of South Asian sub-region programs in 2001. This request, however, did not bear any fruit. 

Nepal also actively promoted sub-regional cooperation known as BBIN (Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, and Nepal) which aims to connect the major cities of four countries by a bus service. Nepal was one of the first countries to complete the domestic procedures to implement the agreement. Then, in the 2002 SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, Nepal proposed a SAARC award to honor the outstanding work of individuals and organizations within the region in the fields of peace, development, poverty alleviation, and regional cooperation.

At the 15th SAARC Summit in 2008 in Colombo, Nepal offered to host the ministerial meeting on poverty alleviation in South Asia. Earlier, the 11th Summit in Kathmandu had decided to reconstitute the Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation, with Nepal as its convener and Bangladesh as co-convener. Member countries requested Nepal to come up with a concept note. According to Poudel, Nepal has always taken a lead on poverty alleviation in the region.  

The 2010 sixteenth SAARC summit in Thimpu was held under the theme of a Green and Happy South Asia. At this summit, Nepal took the initiative to organize a ministerial meeting of mountainous countries in Kathmandu in the same year. Then, at the 18th SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu, Nepal played an active role in initiating cooperation in the field of migration, cooperatives, and social protection.

Nepal has also been playing a proactive role in tourism-promotion in the region. Nepal hosted the tourism minister’s meeting in January 2011 which reviewed the progress made in the SAARC action plan on tourism-promotion. 

Nepal has been continuously pushing for strengthening the SAARC process. Since 2014, Nepal has been serving as a chair of SAARC. 

India has of late prioritized BIMSTEC over SAARC but Nepali leaders maintain that one cannot substitute another. At both bilateral and multilateral platforms, Nepal has been raising the issue of revival of the SAARC process. Nepal is of the view that India and Pakistan should put their differences aside for the benefit of the whole region.