US engagement in Nepal

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

US engagement in Nepal

According to the US State Department, the primary American objectives in Nepal are strengthening good governance, democratic values, and security and stability

Victoria Nuland, US under secretary of state for political affairs, arrived in Kathmandu on Sunday to “engage with the new government on the broad agenda of the US partnership with Nepal”.

It will be the first high-level visit of a foreign official since the formation of a new government under Pushpa Kamal Dahal in December last year.

According to the US State Department, the primary American objectives in Nepal are strengthening good governance, democratic values, and security and stability.

Supporting inclusive, equitable economic growth; a clean, resilient energy future; and helping Nepal become more self-reliant, independent, and resilient as it confronts global challenges are other US objectives in Nepal.

A senior US official says Nuland’s daylong visit will focus on all key areas of US-Nepal partnership.

Nepal’s parliament ratified the US’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact in February last year, and Washington clearly attaches high priority on its successful implementation.

The $500m grant is aimed at expanding Nepal’s electricity transmission infrastructure and improving its road maintenance regime. The MCC projects will enter their execution phase from August.

Some say the MCC is Washington’s response to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. And in the run-up to the MCC endorsement by Nepali parliament, there have been protests, led by pro-Beijing political forces and their leaders, against the US program. The US still suspects that the project development could face hindrances—all the more so because the current government is led by the Maoist party with the backing of CPN-UML, another leftist force, as a major coalition partner.  Nuland’s trip also bears high significance amid growing US-China competition to increase their sphere of influence in South Asia. Nepal, which shares borders with China and India, has strategic importance for both Washington and Beijing. In this context, Kamal Dev Bhattarai spoke to foreign policy experts to solicit their views on Nuland’s visit.

Who is Nuland?

Victoria Nuland was sworn-in as Under Secretary for Political Affairs in April 2021. Prior to that, she was senior counselor at the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategic advisory and commercial diplomacy firm based in Washington, DC.  She was also a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, distinguished practitioner in grand strategy at Yale University, and a member of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy. A US diplomat for 33 years, Nuland served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs from September 2013 until January 2017 under President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. She was State Department spokesperson during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure, and US ambassador to NATO during President George W. Bush’s second term (2005-2008). Nuland served as special envoy and chief negotiator on the Treaty on Conventional Arms Control in Europe from 2010-2011, and as deputy national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney (2003-2005). In addition to two tours at NATO in Brussels, she has served overseas in Russia, China and Mongolia, and in various assignments at the State Department in Washington. Nuland has a BA in history from Brown University.

Reading into the high-profile visit

Engaging Maoist-led govt 

Sanjaya Upadhyay, US-based foreign policy expert

I believe the underlying message the United States wants to send to Nepal at this juncture is that Washington is fully vested in securing its interests in this country. In that regard, Nuland’s visit is aimed at engaging the new Maoist-led government, especially amid suspenseful circumstances of its formation. She can be expected to convey the US commitment to strengthening its bilateral partnership with Nepal in all its dimensions. Washington might want to gauge Nepal’s commitment, specifically the extent of the importance the disparate coalition government attaches to relations with the United States. Washington is anxious to see the smooth implementation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact along with other projects the United States has funded in the country.

Nuland can also be expected to affirm her government’s desire to see a strengthening of the democratic process in Nepal amid growing popular disillusionment here. She might want to nudge Nepal toward completing the long-delayed task of promoting transitional justice. Advancing the cause of deprived and disadvantaged communities, and ensuring the rights of refugees as an intrinsic part of the democratization process could also be part of her message to the new government. Heightening US competition with China in recent years gives the US greater strategic incentives to strengthen its engagement with South Asia, where Chinese influence has been growing.

Long-term engagement

Mrigendra Bahadur Karki, executive director, CNAS

Since the establishment of ties between the two countries in 1947, the US has been continuously and consistently engaging with Nepal, despite repeated regime change in Nepal. The US has a long-term vision and has a recorded history of how it wants to engage with Nepal. In Nepal, we view our relationship with the US through the prism of some specific events and phenomenon, which is flawed. Regarding the US engagement with Nepal, the importance of our geopolitical location is already there. As far as the visit of Nuland is concerned, her major purpose is to convey the US position on bilateral, regional and international issues and read the mind of the newly-formed government under Pushpa Kamal Dahal. At this point, it is a major responsibility of both Nepal and US governments to fully implement the MCC and complete it within the five-year deadline.

Geopolitics at centerstage

Chandra Dev Bhatta, geopolitical analyst

Nepal’s engagement with the US has increased in recent years in more ways than one and at various levels. This demands frequent exchanges of visits not from one side but from both sides, which sadly has not been the case.

Yet, it certainly becomes important for a superpower like the US, for whom all the countries are equally important irrespective of their size, to maintain the status quo, and Nepal certainly cannot be left out in that context. Likewise, evolving geopolitics in Asia further demands US engagements to look into the re-emerging power relations in the Himalayan Asia, where Nepal remains an important country. This particular visit is taking place at a time when Kathmandu has a new government and the MCC project is just underway with more initiatives in the pipeline. With the new government in Kathmandu looking very shaky, chances are such that many things may either fall apart or would not move into the right direction. The current state of affairs in Nepal and the evolving geopolitics in the region demands better understanding of the situation, which makes this visit only natural.

An assessment visit

Rupak Sapkota, foreign policy expert

Before the November 20 elections, it was widely presumed that the Nepali Congress-Maoist coalition would remain intact. But that didn’t happen. External forces are keenly watching the foreign policy priorities and orientation of the new government. I think the key purpose of this visit is to read the mind of the new government regarding its policy toward America. As a key coalition partner of the erstwhile government, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal facilitated the endorsement of the MCC. So, I think the US is ready to work with the new government. In a way, it is an assessment visit from the US side. America seems confident that the US-Nepal bilateral relationship will move ahead under Dahal’s leadership. The prime minister and other leaders should convey their clear message that Nepal wants to stay away from the US-China geostrategic rivalry and wants to engage with all powers on economic terms. From our side, we have to be frank and candid about our priorities.

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