In the first two years of its tenure, what have been the guiding foreign policy priorities of KP Oli government?
There is continuation on some issues, while we have made adjustments on some other issues. Some fundamentals of foreign policy remain unchanged. For example, given our geopolitical situation, we have to maintain strict neutrality, as advised by our founding father. Non-alignment, UN charter and Panchsheel are issues on which there is continuation. Another important continuation is in not allowing our soil to be used against any country.
But foreign policy priorities also keep changing as per our domestic needs. In the past, there was political conflict, so achieving peace and making it sustainable was our priority. We told the international community that our key priority was achieving peace and so they should support us.
After the completion of the major parts of the peace process, constitution drafting was our priority. After the promulgation of the new constitution, we formed a strong and stable government. Now, after having institutionalized and consolidated political gains, we are on the path of economic prosperity. Prosperity is a key government as well as foreign policy agenda. The changes in domestic policy should be clearly reflected in the country’s foreign policy. In this context, we have to know what is happening at the regional and global levels. We have to catch up with the changes in our immediate neighborhood too. Foreign policy is a dynamic field and we have to continuously make adjustments. But at the heart of it, foreign policy is always an extended form of domestic policy.
Diversification seems to be the central theme of the government foreign policy. What does this entail? For one, closer ties with China appear to be the priority.
We are always guided by our national requirements and needs. In this period, two issues drove us towards diversification. First, we were too dependent on outside power, and suffered for it. So we sought to diversify our options. We signed the Transit and Transport Agreement with China in 2016. It was a major breakthrough because before that, third-country trade was possible only via India. But only policy-level decision was not sufficient; there was a need to make it workable. We signed subsequent agreements, including protocol, to make the agreements feasible.
Another important aspect is building necessary infrastructure to ensure our access to transit facilities. This could have been difficult 50 years ago but today’s Tibet is largely developed and much changed. Now, there are better road, rail and other infrastructures in Tibet and if we can benefit from them, why not? Inter-independency is a reality in today’s globalizing world. We have to look through the lens of comparative advantages. But first you have to be better connected.
What kind of connectivity are you talking about?
We want to be connected through railways, waterways, roads, and other means. In the past, due to the strict electricity guidelines imposed by India, there was confusion about our possible electricity markets. We successfully eased the restrictions and now there is a favorable environment for electricity trading. When it comes to energy cooperation, we have made good progress with Bangladesh. Nepal, Bangladesh and India are close to trilateral electricity cooperation. We should always look at the broader context. If there are more options, we can bring more investment and be in a better place in marketing our products.
Nepal government seems intent on building the inter-country railway while China seems to be emphasizing the roads. Is this the right reading?
I humbly request you to follow the official documents. When it comes to railway, the agreement we forged stands. Now we are in the phase of preparing the Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the railway. Apparently China was not too keen on it but then during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Nepal visit, the two countries actually signed an agreement on the DPR, and the two sides are now working on preparing the DPR. The proposed Raxaul-Kathmandu railway line has also gotten momentum. We need both roads and railway. It is not a question of choosing one over the other. We all know that it takes comparatively less time to build roads than to build railway. We also know that bringing a railway is a difficult task given our difficult geographical terrains. The roads will be completed soon but it does not mean that the railway will not progress for the same reason. Both the projects will move ahead simultaneously.
Another burning issue right now is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Nepal compact. Why so much confusion over it?
The process of MCC began in 2011 and we signed it in 2017 September. The incumbent government is fully committed to all points of the MCC agreement. This is about continuity of the agreement signed with a country. One month ago, I was in Washington DC and conversed with high-level government officials there, including President Trump’s advisor who follows this region. They categorically told me that Indo-Pacific is not a formal organization. According to them, the basic concept is to name this region Indo-Pacific, and all the activities they carry out in this region fall under this broader concept. But it does not mean that the MCC is under Indo-Pacific because there are MCC projects beyond the Indo-Pacific region as well, including in Africa.
We have to be accountable to the document we have signed. We are not responsible for anything beyond that. The US has not come up with any proposal to change the agreement we signed in 2017. In a democratic and open society like ours, issues are raised from different perspectives and we have to take that in a normal way. Some issues are raised with little knowledge, some with an intent of knowing more, and some on the basis of curiosity. The Nepal Communist Party is a responsible party running the government, and Prime Minister Oli has time and again said that whatever agreement we have signed will be honored.
Are you suggesting that it really does not matter if the MCC falls under the Indo-Pacific Strategy?
There is no clarity on the meaning of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. What is Indo-Pacific? What do they want from it? They tell us it is a concept according to which the Indo-Pacific region should be open, free, and where democracies are promoted. It has not taken any organizational shape. If they broadly explain that whatever they do in this region bilaterally is under Indo-Pacific, what can we do until and unless they come up with an organizational shape? Again, we are responsible for the agreement and nothing else. When we signed the MCC compact in 2017, there was no mention of Indo-Pacific. It is a five-year project and Nepal chose construction of transmission lines and upgrade of roads under the MCC grants.
Lastly, you were a member of Nepali half of the Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG). What do you make of India’s delay in receiving the report?
I do not want to comment much on it because right now I am not in the EPG. What I will say is that the EPG process was initiated at the highest political level. A consensual report has been prepared covering all areas of bilateral relations. We agreed to submit the final report to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi first. What we didn’t expect was the kind of indifference we now see from India. Still, I am hopeful that the EPG report will be received as soon as possible.