Once again, Nepal is drafting a new foreign policy. Once again, the big question is: Will it be implemented?
A taskforce of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has nearly finalized Nepal’s guiding document on foreign policy, which the ministry plans to table at the cabinet meeting soon. There is growing pressure to make the ‘new foreign policy’ public and to hold extensive consultations on it among political parties and foreign policy experts. The document has thus far been prepared in hush-hush, with little public consultation.
A few weeks ago, Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali had invited a select group of ex-ambassadors and experts to solicit their views on Nepal’s foreign policy priorities in the changing domestic, regional, and international contexts. (The contents of the draft policy were not shared with the experts; they were only asked to give inputs.)
Both Foreign Minister Gyawali and Foreign Secretary Shanker Das Bairagi seem in a hurry. Gyawali fears his tenure as foreign minister could be cut short in the next cabinet-reshuffle and Bairagi is retiring as foreign secretary next month. They want to leave behind a lasting legacy by properly codifying Nepal’s foreign policy: Right now, except for constitutional provisions and established practices, Nepal has no written foreign policy document.
By the holy book
The central purpose of a country’s foreign policy is to promote its national interests, but defining such interests can be difficult. Similarly, it is hard to prioritize which of the many defined interests comes first.
Article 5 of Nepal’s 2015 constitution says: “Safeguarding of freedom, sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationality, independence and dignity of Nepal, the rights of the Nepalese people, border security, economic wellbeing, and prosperity shall be the basic elements of the national interest of Nepal.”
Likewise, says the constitution’s Directive Principles: “The State shall direct its international relations towards enhancing the dignity of the nation in the world community by maintaining international relations on the basis of sovereign equality, while safeguarding the freedom, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence and national interest of Nepal.”
The constitution further states that Nepal will conduct an independent foreign policy based on UN charter, non-alignment, Panchasheel, international law, and the norms of world peace, taking into consideration the overall interest of the nation, while remaining active in safeguarding the sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence, and national interest of Nepal. Unlike the previous national charters, the 2015 constitution envisions reviewing past bilateral treaties and agreements based on equality and mutual interest.
The communist government’s first policy and program, unveiled in May 2018, offers hints of the kind of foreign policy it wants: “We are completely free to take any domestic-international policy, decision and play the role as an independent and free country. We would believe in a good neighborly relation with our both neighboring countries.” With this in mind, “our foreign relation will be based on mutual benefit and respect, international commitment and duties, and national interest and justice. Diplomatic missions will be made active for national interest, tourism development, export, and attracting foreign investment.”
Continuity and change
Experts say the fundamentals of Nepal’s foreign policy have been unchanged since the 1769 capture of Kathmandu valley by King Prithivi Narayan Shah, completing the country’s unification campaign.
In his famous edict, Shah had said, “This kingdom is like a yam between two boulders. Great friendship should be maintained with the Chinese emperor; Friendship should also be maintained with the emperor behind the southern seas. Do not engage in offensive attack, fight if it is a must on a defensive basis.”
During its 105-year-reign, the Rana regime followed the same course. But after the end of the Ranas, King Tribhuwan adopted a policy of appeasing India, which was called ‘special relations.’ Nepal’s foreign policy underwent yet another dramatic shift after King Mahendra came into power in 1955. He strongly articulated the necessity of diversifying Nepal’s relations away from India and China. King Mahendra wanted balanced relation with the two neighbors, diversification of Nepal’s trade and economic policies beyond them, continuity of the policy of non-alignment, and neutrality in great-power conflicts.
Another decisive moment in Nepal’s political journey was the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1990. Political analyst Chandra Dev Bhatta says there have since been multiple efforts to reshape Nepal’s foreign policy.
Right after 1990, foreign policy focus shifted to helping Nepal institutionalize its nascent democracy. Then, after 2006, the priority was to secure international support for the peace and constitution process. Coming to today, the communist government says it is for a balanced approach with the two neighbors and diversification of Nepal’s trade, economic, and development relationships.
Former Foreign Secretary Madan Kumar Bhattarai reckons an ideal foreign policy is a calibrated mixture of continuity and change, with more focus on continuity. While non-alignment and neutrality in big-power conflict remain relevant even today, “we may face new domestic and international issues. Similarly, there could be changes in some of our foreign policy dimensions but its essence will remain the same,” says Bhattarai.
Speaking with Yoho Television two weeks ago, Foreign Minister Gyawali had emphasized on the need to clearly articulate Nepal’s foreign policy in a single document. He said changes in geopolitics and international politics should also be reflected in foreign policy, offering the example of the emergence of a multi-polar world and rise of China and India. Another reason for adjustment, said Gyawali, is to make foreign policy compatible with Nepal’s new federal structure.
Economic diplomacy the key
Nepal has for long talked up economic diplomacy. After the writing of the new constitution and formation of a stable regime with a five-year mandate, the new government wants to mobilize international support for the country’s economic and social development. As such, said Gyawali, economic diplomacy has a prominent position in the new foreign policy.
The NCP government has been trying to promote foreign investment and technology transfer. It even organized an investment summit in 2019. The new foreign policy aims to mobilize foreign embassies to attract foreign investment in order to realize Nepal’s dream of development and prosperity.
Sources say the new foreign policy will look to diversify Nepal’s trade, transit, and investment. In order to meet the aspiration of graduating to a middle-income country by 2030, Nepal has to maintain seven to eight percent annual growth. This calls for massive investment, around $8 billion annual FDI inflow over the next 10 years or so. The Oli government wants to bring more foreign aid, much like King Mahendra did in 1960s and 70s.
Analyst Geja Sharma Wagle suggests the NCP government’s ‘neighborhood first’ policy is basically right. “But Nepal should equally prioritize diversifying relations with the rest of the world for its economic development. Similarly, the government should have country-specific polices for India, China, US, UK, France, Russia, and identify thematic areas like economic diplomacy, public diplomacy, labor diplomacy, and environmental diplomacy,” adds Wagle.
The common perception is that over the past three decades, Nepal’s foreign policy has been hijacked by whichever party has come to power. Instead of prioritizing national interests, past governments pushed the party agenda. Experts fear there could again be attempts to shape Nepal’s foreign policy in line with the ruling party’s ideology.
The loaded 2017 election manifesto of the left alliance says: “An independent policy will be adopted which discards foreign interference in the internal affairs of the country. The tendency to surrender to foreign forces shall be discouraged. All unequal treaties and agreements signed with India including the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship will be reviewed and replaced on the basis of necessity and national interest. Diplomatic efforts will be applied to resolve border related problems and the management of border points.”
Bhatta also fears that the communist government could try to give an ideological color to foreign policy.
“To truly reset foreign policy they first have to get rid of ideological dogmas, which, frankly, I don’t see happening. We can confidently say the current regime won’t be able to come up with a foreign policy as per the needs of changing global and regional dynamics. As in the past, this government too has failed to find the rationale for a new foreign policy,” says Bhatta. He adds the manifest bias and hubris displayed by the ruling NCP leaders is coming in the way.
Make it transparent
There is a great curiosity among political and diplomatic circles on the likely foreign policy changes. After all, following the second Jana Andolan in 2006, other experts committees were formed to recommend such changes. In April 2017, the Deuba government had formed a high-level foreign policy review taskforce with experts from finance, diplomacy, law, and security. The taskforce was asked to determine Nepal’s short-term, mid-term, and long-term foreign policy priorities. The committee report was never made public. Before that, in 2007, another taskforce under former foreign secretary Murari Raj Sharma was given the same responsibility, but its report was also kept a secret. Coming to this day, instead of relying on such experts, the government this time is itself preparing a new foreign policy document.
Wagle welcomes the foreign ministry’s initiative to document Nepal’s foreign policy as Nepal thus far does not have a written, comprehensive, and integrated policy. But for such a policy to be effective, “the government should hold comprehensive consultations and build a national consensus on foreign policy,” advises Wagle. He adds that foreign policy should never be a secret document.