The strategic interest in Nepal seems to be growing by the day, be it the interest of India, China, the US, or the Europeans. But our prime minister was recently in Baku to take part in the NAM Summit. How do you see these twin developments?
On the issue of NAM, it has to account for its own relevance. First, consider the nomenclature. Non- aligned against whom? This is the big unanswered question. The moment we say non-alignment, it means non-alignment with certain powers. It was at the time of Cold War when certain countries came together under the visionary leadership of leaders like Nehru, Sukarno and Tito that the NAM was created. They thought of a group that would not align with the US or the USSR. But after the Cold War, there are no more two superpowers. So why nonalignment? Second, in the multi-polar world, countries like India and China are coming up and there is a larger space for Germany and Brazil, and Russia is resurgent. In that context, where is NAM going to be?
Third, we are hanging on to a past relic. This was also evident in India’s approach. PM Narendra Modi has already skipped two NAM summits. This year he sent a ceremonial vice-president. We also sent our vice-president to the previous NAM summit. This time, despite his ill health, PM Oli decided to attend himself. It was taxing on his health because it was a very short trip. We have not been able to sell the idea that the head of government himself has to participate. But, yes, the summit gives you a platform to interact with global leaders and to forge personal ties with other heads of government and heads of the state.
The Oli government says it adheres to NAM principles as it is still not aligned to any big power, for instance the US, China or India. Can’t non-alignment be defined that way?
Well, it can be. This year’s NAM summit took place in Azerbaijan in the Caucasus. We don’t have any embassy in the Caucasus. So it was a good opportunity to understand the Caucasia region and Central Asia. Those countries have a lot of energy and gas which could be brought to South Asia. If we aspire to expand our foreign relation we can think of new embassies in Central Asia. The countries there should also be encouraged to open embassies here. That way the summit in Baku was an opportunity to expand the horizon of Nepal’s foreign policy. But there was no interaction between Nepal and those countries.
But PM Oli saw it fit to meet the Venezuelan President, didn’t he?
This government has tried to have good relations with countries with left governments. It was evident during the PM’s visits to Vietnam and Cambodia, and in his meeting top leaders from North Korea and Venezuela.
But don’t you think it is still a good idea for comparably smaller powers like Nepal to band together under NAM to protect their interests against the big powers?
But by sending its vice-president, India has signalled that NAM is more a ceremonial body. So it has significance, it has history, but it is more ceremonial, and has more of a symbolic value. We could have done a similar thing. But the fact that our executive prime minister participated in the summit obviously gave us an opportunity to interact with global leaders. But as far as the utility of NAM is concerned, it is diminishing very fast.
Again, what about the idea of smaller countries coming together to safeguard their interests?
We no longer live in a bipolar world with two superpowers and are slowly entering a multi-polar world. As I mentioned earlier, there is resurgence of Russia, India and China. The US under Trump shows some unpredictability but right now it is nonetheless the sole superpower. I do not think NAM’s current leadership is up to handling the challenges of this multi-polar world. NAM was initiated by some visionary leaders but they are now all gone. The current NAM leaders do not have that kind of international personality. For NAM to be significant, it has to have an economic component as well. Also, if you look at multilateral institutions like United Nations, WTO, and NAM, they are facing a problem today because everybody is now talking about ‘my country first’. The United Nations is having a serious fund-crunch. There are reports that it may not be able to pay its staff. If the UN is so neglected, does NAM stand a chance?
One concept that is closely linked to NAM is Panchasheel. After his return from NAM summit, our Foreign Minister said Panchsheel principles like peaceful coexistence and sovereignty are still relevant for Nepal.
Panchasheel was actually mooted between India and China for their peaceful coexistence. I have a slightly different take on it. Indo-Nepal relations go back to the time of Ram and Sita, and much before Panchsheel was even thought of. So how can we have India-Nepal relation based on Panchsheel? Second, our constitution says that our foreign policy is based on the UN charter and Panchsheel, and so we apparently have to abide by it. But we have to look at the practical side of things as well. Our relations with both India and China date back to pre-historic times. Now, we are trying to build connectivity through railway, roads and optical fibers. There is now a direct flight between Kathmandu and Beijing. Foreign policy parameters are also changing. We should not get bogged down with old concepts like NAM.
But NAM is also a platform for Nepal to assert its sovereignty. Our prime minister for instance got prominent space in Baku.
Yes, we have to be active in these multilateral organizations but let us make sure we also have correct representations there. Our diplomats are also highly qualified, not only to project our international image but also to ensure that our economic needs are met.
Who is setting Nepal’s foreign policy priorities right now?
It is the prime minister. It is a top-heavy structure. All vital positions are occupied by Nepal Communist Party. Do NCP leaders have expertise in every field, from economics to literature, from academicians to foreign policy, virtually everything? This is where the problem lies. It looks like NCP does not need expertise from outside.
In the end, how to you evaluate the foreign policy of Oli government in its 20 months in office?
There are both plus points and minus points. The plus points are: the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping which took place after a long hiatus, the government pushing hard for better connectivity with both the neighbors, Nepal being heard and taken seriously by foreign partners because we have become more active, and the visit by Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali to Washington.
On the minus side, the core issues remain. Nepali flights are still banned in European countries. Even though Visit Nepal Year is approaching we have not been able to solve this issue. Our foreign missions remain inactive and there is no clear ToR of some embassies. Regarding Indo-Nepal relation, why has the EPG report not been submitted to the two prime ministers? Why couldn’t we have provided for submitting the final report to the two foreign ministers instead? Some of these core issues remain unsettled.