Ordinary citizens and civil society have become the victims of the government’s desire for political control. There is an evident shift in the political discourse, where political parties in power are emphasising on the duties of the citizens over their rights. This is in tandem with the shift in emphasis from civil and political rights to infrastructure and economic development.
The ruling party is trying to increase its political hold over society by restricting the freedom of expression, the right to association and other basic rights. In doing so, it is using an incompatible set of logic, using defences like the need to maintain social order, end ‘feudalism’ and protect national interests. However, the government is leaving unregulated the sectors where an order is needed the most: political finance, the rule of law, foreign policy and national security. Political parties, politicians, and national security institutions are entangled in a complex maze cross-cut by foreign geo-strategic interests, corruption, impunity and illicit finance.
Geo-strategic competition is spilling over into Nepali institutions, including political parties and national security institutions, raising questions about the country’s ability to pursue its national interests.
In recent years, Nepal has become a notable arena of competition for geo-strategic interests, especially that of India, China, and the United States. The aggressive strategies pursued by these countries are likely to strain Nepal’s political stability and national interests if we are not careful. We are already seeing signs of this happening.
As has been widely discussed in the media, the United States is trying to build special relations with Nepal. This foreign policy thrust is clearly mentioned in the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act 2018. The US wants to promote its interests through economic, security and cultural engagements with Nepal. The Indo-Pacific Strategy, meanwhile, emphasizes preparedness and partnerships with Nepali security forces and political actors.
Similarly, President Xi Jinping has announced a foreign policy that seeks to assert China’s place in the global order. Similarly, the white paper on China’s Asia Pacific Security Cooperation (APCS)released in January 2017, has several significant implications for Nepal.
In India, Prime Minister Modi’s sustained political strength is seeking to create a ‘secure’ neighbourhood and establish India’s rightful place in global affairs. India considers China’s ‘edgy’ nationalism and growing influence in South Asia as threats to its economic and security interests.
The strategic objectives pursued by India, China and the US create what is known as the security dilemma. One country’s attempt to pursue its economic and security interest is seen by another as a threat.
This element will test Nepal’s quest to remain ‘neutral’ and ‘independent.’ For example, when Nepal remained neutral during the Doklam standoff between China and India, China saw it as a victory that needed to be rewarded by further economic assistance, while India saw it as a gradual waning of its influence in South Asia.
The strategies of the US, China, and India all seek to create a special relationship with Nepal, especially with the political parties and the security forces, so that Nepal can serve their strategic objectives. For example, under the strategy, all these countries want to engage with Nepal’s security forces on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, joint military exercises, training, and UN missions.
This has both advantages and disadvantages. While Nepal may be able to receive assistance and foreign aid, the conflict and competition between the three can spill over into Nepal. We are already seeing signs that the geo-strategic competition is testing the internal affairs of Nepal’s political parties and national security institutions.
Nepal’s national security institutions are pursuing relations with foreign countries and institutions in an ad-hoc manner. The Armed Police Force (APF) is an example. High-level sources say that the focus of all three foreign nations now is on the APF, given its broad mandate. While the AFP’s role in Nepal from a democratic and security policy perspective remains unclear, it continues to serve the narrow vested interests of political parties, leaders and foreign states.
This is in addition to the special type of security cooperation with China in the last 12 years. All of Nepal’s agreements with China regarding foreign aid and assistance to the security institutions in the past decade were meant to generate support for control of the Tibetan resistance movement and to further China’s strategic objectives as laid out in the APCS. Another arena where the international competition will take place is in global rule-setting institutions, including the United Nations. Given Nepal’s contribution to the UN’s peacekeeping missions, global powers would want to have close working relations with the Nepal Army as well as to shape its values and cultures.
Currently, Nepal does not have a consistent foreign policy nor a regime to look after Nepal’s national security interests. In such a situation, political parties and leaders pursue a foreign policy that serves their personal or partisan interests, which frequently contradicts Nepal’s national interests.
In order to deal with these emerging scenarios, Nepal needs to pursue a mechanism to link foreign policy with national security, coordinate and enforce national security interests across multiple government agencies, and develop a mechanism to align national security and foreign policy interests across political parties.
Since geo-strategic competition is a given, Nepal needs increased strategic knowledge along with negotiation and diplomatic skills to make sure the geo-strategic competition does not destabilise national economic and security interests including peace and stability.
Author: Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
Khanal is a research director at the Centre for Social Inclusion and Federalism (CESIF).
This article first appeared in The Kathmandu Post on June 17, 2019.