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Major powers and Nepal’s foreign policy

Major powers and Nepal’s foreign policy

In my previous column, I discussed how chronic political instability is affecting the conduct of our foreign policy. Here, I delve into how foreign powers, big and small alike, influence Nepal’s foreign policy. We often criticize our politicians for their lack of maturity and consistency. In most foreign policy discourses, I often hear this question: Who will believe us (read our politicians)? It is a reality that our politicians are neither serious nor have they realized their weaknesses. But it would be unjust to solely blame our politicians without considering other aspects like how foreign powers are behaving with us. Nepal’s key priorities are economic prosperity and social development. For a long time, we have been mobilizing our foreign policy to achieve these goals.

From Prithivi Narayan Shah to the current set of leaders, all have realized that Nepal is situated between India and China, understanding the difficulties of being caught between two global powerhouses. For a long time, our Rana rulers tried to live in isolation out of fear that opening up could threaten their regime. Nevertheless, they still endeavored to serve both their personal interests and national interests. After the 1950s, Nepal began diversifying its economic, security, development and trade policies or looking beyond its immediate neighbors. Let’s consider the current situation. We are conducting our foreign policy in accordance with the 2015 constitution.

Article 51 of the constitution states: “Safeguarding the freedom, sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationality, independence, and dignity of Nepal, the rights of the Nepalis, border security, economic well-being, and prosperity shall be the basic elements of the national interests of Nepal.” Nepal places economic diplomacy at the forefront of its engagement with the wider international community. We need money and technology to accelerate social development and economic prosperity. Lately, we have been vocal about our reluctance to take on significant loans, preferring grants for infrastructure development. Our stated position is that we will not align with any strategic or military blocs.

Nepal takes a neutral position in regional and international conflicts, consistently advocating for their resolution through peaceful means, with some exceptions resulting from adventurous policies of our politicians. Nepal believes in non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, non-aggression, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. For instance, Nepal opposed the Russian attack on Ukraine while maintaining a neutral stance on other issues. Many argue that this stance contradicts Nepal’s non-alignment policy, but it aligns with our stated policy. If one sovereign country attacks another, Nepal cannot remain neutral and opposes such actions but avoids taking sides.

Our message is clear: we do not wish to be embroiled in big power rivalries, and we urge major powers not to involve us in their geopolitical games. Currently, amid the Middle East crisis, we maintain the same policy. If not a zone of peace, we aspire to become a zone of investment. We have a straightforward message for major powers: we understand and protect your security and other legitimate concerns, but only a prosperous and strong Nepal can effectively address those issues, so invest in our country. Of course, challenges such as corruption and bureaucratic red tape exist, but the investment climate in Nepal is comparatively favorable, and we have big markets like India and China in close proximity. Despite getting huge support from major countries in Nepal’s social and economic development, the country is starting to feel the heat of geopolitical tensions. As these tensions escalate, there is a fear among our politicians that major powers may pull Nepal into their orbit through economic assistance. As major powers roll out strategic initiatives one after another, there are concerns that Nepal may become ensnared in a geopolitical ambush. Not only politicians, but senior bureaucrats also find themselves in awkward positions as they consolidate all bilateral issues under one strategic basket. And, there is a lack of understanding among politicians and bureaucrats about these issues, and there have been no efforts to educate them.

By closely monitoring negotiations between our leaders and major powers, we can see that our leaders are facing pressure. Whenever they engage in talks with their counterparts, they struggle to avoid committing to strategic projects outright. Since they cannot outright reject them out of fear for their regime’s stability, they attempt to reassure that Nepal could consider such initiatives after thorough study and consensus at home. Due to such apprehensions, our politicians are even hesitant to accept pure development projects without strings attached. Similarly, diplomats in Kathmandu bypass the due process in dealing with Nepal. Instead of going through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, foreign countries tend to approach political leaders and certain ministries directly seeking their consent. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may be unaware of a host of initiatives proposed by major powers. If there is institutional memory, foreign countries cannot complain about policy inconsistency or lack of ownership across governments. If all proposals go through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which remains unaffected by changes in government, it ensures policy continuity to some extent.

Our stance remains that, due to our geopolitical location and other factors, we cannot align with major powers. Whether termed neutral, non-aligned or otherwise, our bottom line is clear: we seek engagement solely on economic terms. If major powers engage with Nepal in this manner, frequent changes in government may not pose significant difficulties. Therefore, support and invest in Nepal, so that we can safeguard the security and other legitimate interests of our friends. If major powers attempt to turn Nepal into a battleground for their conflicts, it will be detrimental not only to the Nepali people but also to the major powers. We understand that our neighboring countries, both near and distant, desire to see a stable and prosperous Nepal, as it serves their interests. My request to all: we aspire to grow with you as a sovereign and peaceful country. As I mentioned in my previous opinion piece, major countries should not favor one party over another or play them against each other. Instead, they should adopt a Nepal-centric policy with the economy at the forefront. Moreover, major parties should collaborate to formulate a common position on the issues mentioned above. We want to declare Nepal as a Zone of Investment.