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Foreign policy amid political instability

Foreign policy amid political instability

There is no shortage of discussion in Kathmandu on the changing geopolitical landscape and the challenges Nepal currently faces in its external relations. Although serious research and publications are lacking, Kathmandu-based think tanks somehow manage to secure financial resources to organize programs at upscale hotels. Lately, there has been a boom in the number of foreign strategic and geopolitical experts visiting Kathmandu on the invitation of universities, think tanks and media houses, among others. These international and regional experts often visit Kathmandu to attend seminars and talk programs on geopolitics and foreign policy.

Although political leaders also participate in such programs as keynote speakers, only a few have the appetite and enthusiasm to listen to expert opinions. The main arguments of foreign policy watchers in Kathmandu can be summarized in the following points: there should be a national consensus among parties, at least on foreign policy issues; Nepal should strike a balance between India and China while maintaining cordial ties with the US; and Nepal should prioritize economic issues over strategic ones when dealing with major powers. While examining the election manifestos of major political parties, it seems all parties have the same position on foreign relations, as they all emphasize an independent foreign policy; balanced and cordial relationships with both neighbors; adherence to non-alignment and Panchsheel; and engagement with major powers on economic terms, among others. 

However, there are differences in the tone, tenor, and conduct of foreign policy between the Nepali Congress (NC) and major communist parties, particularly CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center), which have been in power for the past three decades. To illustrate these differences, let's consider some recent examples. Nepal voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022, but communist parties opposed it, stating that it goes against Nepal's policy of non-alignment. While some former foreign ministers from left parties said it was okay, dominant communist leaders saw it as a tilt toward the West. Many communist leaders support Putin's justification of the attack, which is why Russia is engaging with communist leaders, not NC leaders. When it comes to China, communist parties, mainly CPN (Maoist Center), are a step ahead and more vocal than NC in upholding the one-China policy. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, during his China visit last year, made a commitment on the one-China principle (previously policy) and said Nepal stands against Taiwan independence. He often repeats the same statements in Kathmandu. We do not hear such statements from NC leaders. 

Earlier, in 2018, the then Nepal Communist Party-led government supported Hong Kong's new security laws. Another issue is the reported border encroachment by China in Humla district. NC formed both government-level and party-level panels to investigate this matter, but communist government and party leaders often reiterate that there is no border encroachment by China at all. 

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is another case in point. Though the basic framework of BRI was signed by NC's foreign minister Prakash Sharan Mahat in 2017, the party is less interested in its implementation. Some leaders are openly opposing it. NC leaders may disagree, but it is clear the party is not as enthusiastic about BRI as communist parties. With India, communist parties are more vocal about some disputed issues such as the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty, the Eminent Persons' Group (EPG) report and border disputes. These issues have also been mentioned in the Common Minimum Program (CMP) of the present coalition government. However, the NC is not as vocal about those agendas. Instead, some NC leaders have started saying that there is no need to amend the 1950 treaty, and the party has not taken ownership of the EPG report. 

Regarding the US, fringe communist parties often criticize the US as an imperialist power. While mainstream communist parties do not directly subscribe to these views, there are differences between NC and communist parties on democracy and US policies. Communist parties are skeptical about America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. They all were against the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) program in Nepal initially. While NC openly supported, lobbied, and was even ready to break the alliance with Maoists to get the MCC endorsed by Parliament, left parties either opposed it or sat on the fence. Whether one agrees or disagrees, there is now more cordiality between China and Nepal's communist parties. China is engaging with NC at least at the government level. Over the past few years, it is a bitter reality that there is a lack of trust between NC and China, and between India and communist parties. The relationship between NC and China is not so cordial, mainly after 2015-2016, though Chinese leaders and scholars often remind NC about the role played by BP Koirala in laying the basic foundation between the two countries.

Additionally, political parties have highly politicized issues relating to major countries. This has been further exacerbated by coalition governments and political instability. It is futile to expect any substantial progress when parties with different views and political ideologies form a coalition government. There is a tendency among parties not to take ownership of agreements or understandings signed by governments led by other parties. $Due to the sudden changes of foreign ministers, if not the government itself, foreign powers are finding it very difficult to deal with Nepal. All this has eroded trust in the political parties and successive governments. There is no common vision or guiding document on how Nepal wants to engage with major powers in the changing geopolitical situation. 

No wonder, Nepal has not been successful in reaping the benefits from the economic rise of India and China. What is worrying is, there is no sign of improvement in the near future. There will not be political stability for at least next four years because parties have already agreed to lead the government by turns. Even after the 2027 elections, political stability remains elusive, as the possibility of a single party getting a majority is slim. If parties are responsible, they should deal with this issue seriously. Parties should refrain from taking sides or positions on big-power rivalry and should not politicize development issues; instead, they should focus only on economic engagement. However, there is slim hope with the current set of leaders whose only aim and ambition seems to be grabbing power by appeasing external power centers. The current polarization in the political landscape must be stopped without delay.