Ever since Nepal’s parliament endorsed the $500 million American Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact in February, there has been a talk about Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba visiting the US. But authorities are tight-lipped about the dates and possible agendas of the visit. Foreign Ministry officials will only say that preparations are underway. The US side too has been quiet.
A high-level source at the Prime Minister’s Office tells ApEx that Deuba will definitely visit the US and the two sides are in talks to finalize the dates, most likely in the second week of August.
The exact dates and agenda will be finalized next week, says the source.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also expects the visit to take place soon. Sewa Lamsal, the ministry spokesperson, says the dates and the agendas will be made public ‘at an appropriate time.’ No confirmation could be secured from the Nepali Embassy in Washington, although Ambassador Sridhar Khatri has of late been meeting various high-level US officials.
Deuba’s imminent US visit is being keenly watched, as it is taking place against the backdrop of Nepal’s recent decision to pull out of America’s State Partnership Program, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, and the intensifying Washington-Beijing rivalry.
As this year also marks the 75th anniversary of Nepal-US diplomatic relations, high-level exchanges of visits are expected. In recent months, there has already been a series of high-level visits from the US and a few from Nepal.
Deuba’s will be the first prime ministerial-level official visit to the US in two decades. Incidentally, it was Deuba who made the last official visit to the US in 2002.
During his trip this time, Prime Minister Deuba is expected to meet US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, among other high-level officials.
Government officials were more vocal about Deuba’s US visit before the SPP controversy. But now there is a suspicion that the SPP issue may have slowed preparations. Relations between the Deuba and Biden administrations have apparently soured after Nepal’s decision to opt out of the SPP. It is said some leaders in the ruling coalition are urging Deuba not to go.
But foreign policy experts say the visit should take place, and soon, as it gives Nepal an opportunity to clear the misunderstanding over the SPP.
Dinesh Bhattarai, a foreign affairs advisor to two Nepali prime ministers, says the visit is an opportunity to brief the American side about Nepal’s position on the SPP, which helps build better understanding between the two sides.
“Prime Minister Deuba should consult political parties and experts on the issues he will take up with the American side during his visit,” he suggests.
Head of government-level visits are rare between Nepal and the US. Nepal’s prime ministers or heads of the delegation to the UN General Assembly get to meet the US presidents every year for a photo-op. But these encounters are brief and informal.
At an official level, Deuba had last visited the US from May 6-11, 2002. During that trip, he had met President George W Bush to discuss bilateral relations and the Maoist insurgency in Nepal.
No other Nepali prime minister has since been invited to the US. Before that, it was King Birendra Shah who had paid an official visit to the US in 1983.
Even foreign minister-level visits are rare. Former foreign minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali was invited for an official visit to the US at the end of 2018 after a decades-long gap.
Foreign relations experts say Deuba should take advantage of this rare opportunity. Deuba too understands the significance of his visit. He has already informed coalition partners about it and assured them he will not be signing any military pact with the Americans.
Deuba’s visit comes at a time when Beijing is increasingly opposed to American projects in Nepal. China openly opposed the MCC Nepal Compact and then lauded the Nepal government’s decision to pull out of the SPP. Similarly, through its diplomatic channels, China has expressed concerns over America’s growing engagement with Tibetan refugees in Nepal.
Nepal is getting increasingly tangled in the geopolitical rivalry between China and the US. Bhattarai says Deuba has a chance to firmly state Nepal’s position with the US leadership.
“We should convey a clear message that the US-China rivalry should not spill over into Nepal. We don’t wish to be involved in it,” he says. “The prime minister should not hesitate to make Nepal’s position clear on sensitive issues related to our neighbors.”
China already views the Deuba government as ‘pro-Western’. In February this year, Deuba was even ready to break the ruling five-party alliance to endorse the MCC compact, much to Beijing’s chagrin. And most recently, Nepal seems to have slighted the US by rejecting the SPP.
Soon after the SPP controversy erupted, Nepal Army chief Gen Prabhu Ram Sharma visited the US from 26 June to July 2 and held bilateral talks with Pentagon officials. However, there were no substantial agreements between the two sides. Ahead of his US visit, Gen Sharma had told a parliamentary committee that Nepal Army had decided not to enter the SPP as it was mentioned in the American Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) in 2019.
America has a stated policy of enhancing its ties with the countries in the Indo-Pacific region via the IPS. Unlike the previous Donald Trump administration which focused on building ties only with big countries, Biden wants smaller countries in the region on board as well. But the SPP courted controversy in Nepal for its alleged military component in the form of a defense partnership.
Along with regional, geopolitical and other issues, say experts, high-level visits to the US can also boost development collaboration.
Keshar Bahadur Bhandari, a strategic affairs analyst, says the prime minister should ask the US to increase its assistance coming to Nepal via the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
“Deuba should talk with the US side about enhancing military cooperation in the areas of capacity building and increasing resources to fight natural disasters and other crises. He should also raise the issue of increasing top-level appointments of Nepal Army personnel in UN peacekeeping missions,” Bhandari says.
As the US has expressed an interest in collaborating with Nepal on climate change, such high-level visits could also help boost international partnership to combat climate change in Nepal.
In trade and commerce, the US is one of Nepal’s more important partners. After the end of the quota system under the Multi-Fiber Agreement in 2004, export of Nepali readymade garments to the US declined significantly. Nepal has been advocating for duty-free access of its exports in American markets, especially of readymade garments. Experts say this too should figure in Deuba’s bilateral deliberations in Washington DC.