March Analysis: International Relations and Foreign Affairs

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Foreign engagements have ramped up and Nepal has once again found itself in a geopolitical focus in the context of intensifying great power rivalry. The parliamentary ratification of MCC after much debate came as a moral and informational warfare defeat for China in Nepal. The announcement of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave rise to speculations over the visit’s motives ranging from the agenda to push the BRI framework to China’s expression of displeasure at the ratification of the compact. While certain comments regarding “Nepal’s model of governance” and “China’s strong opposition to geopolitical games” raised eyebrows, the visit was rather symbolic with little headway on BRI and other outstanding bilateral issues. The foreign Minister’s visit to South Asian countries also reiterated China’s aim to maintain influence with countries in the region and to double down on guarding against the instigation from outside forces. Members of the diplomatic community made a noteworthy visit and joined the Tibetan community in celebrating their New Year (Lhosar).

Timeline of Major Events

Date Events
17 MarchNepali officials confirmed the arrival of a US delegation team of 25 after the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
21 MarchNepali delegation led by UML leader Bishnu Paudel left for the ‘Economic Cooperation and Cultural Exchange’ program organized in Kunming, China.
24 MarchPrime Minister Deuba’s visit to India from April 1-3 is announced.
25 MarchChinese Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi arrived in Nepal

Chinese Foreign Minister’s Visit to Nepal: Symbolic and Stern

Photo: RSS

Nepal pulled itself out of a geopolitical muck after the MCC compact was finally ratified in the parliament after generating great controversy domestically and internationally, forcing the Nepali government to put the program on hold for years. The politicization of the compact had also caused visible American frustration with Nepal with American officials threatening adverse effects on Nepal’s other development partnerships with the United States. However, the eventual ratification saw the thawing of stressed relations.

China was visibly unimpressed and unhappy about MCC from the very start. As reported by various Nepali media outlets, certain provocations from the Chinese side contributed to the MCC fiasco in Nepal. For instance, the likes of Lila Mani Pokhrel , former ambassador of Nepal to China was vocally in opposition to MCC. American officials also alluded that China was behind the disinformation campaign against MCC that roused the masses to eventually protest against the compact in the streets. However, the parliamentary ratification of MCC even under such tense circumstances demonstrates that Chinese machinations against the passing of the compact in Nepal eventually failed despite successfully sowing the seeds of doubt.

It was speculated that the ratification of the compact would invite negative reactions from China including an aggressive push for the BRI initiative. Speculations only continued to intensify after China’s State Counselor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Nepal was announced. However, Wang Yi’s visit appeared more symbolic despite Nepal’s foreign ministry calling his visit a “milestone” in Nepal-China relations. For instance, while furthering Nepal’s participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative was one of the core agendas of the visit, nothing materialized in forwarding the implementation plan of the project that was signed in 2017. However, Nepal and China on Saturday signed nine agreements and documents related to non-BRI endeavors.

Certain statements made by the Foreign Minister also managed to raise eyebrows in Kathmandu. Wang Yi’s statement that “China supports all parties and factions in bearing in mind the fundamental and long-term interests of the Nepali people, conducting inclusive consultation, and making concerted efforts to jointly explore a governance model that is conducive to maintaining political stability, promoting economic growth, and improving people’s wellbeing” demonstrates China’s desire to see a communist government in Nepal and simultaneous mistrust in the current coalition government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba.

While Wang Yi’s statement that “ China supports Nepal in pursuing independent domestic and foreign policies, it will oppose geopolitical games in Nepal” demonstrates that China has now openly established itself as an active player in Nepal. The statement also comes as a direct message to its strategic rivals (United States and India) also actively engaging in Nepal. It can also be observed that China has moved away from subliminal and metaphorical messaging to direct messaging of its strategic interests and motives.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that “China’s friendly policy is open to all parties and party factions, and the people of Nepal”. However, only leaders from the UML were invited to attend the ‘Economic Cooperation and Cultural Exchange‘ program organized in Kunming, China. The delegation of four was led by Bishnu Paudel, often credited for playing a central role in the unification of UML and Marxist Center in 2018. The Nepali delegation left for China on March 21, a few days before China’s State Counselor and Foreign Minister was scheduled to visit Nepal. This contradicts the foreign minister’s statement of China’s willfulness to engage with non-communist leaders and parties.

The Foreign Minister’s visit has been interpreted in various ways. Nepali analysts have described Wang Yi’s South Asian tour as a “engaging despite odds” type of diplomacy wherein the Chinese demeanor has been accommodating despite outstanding issues in the region. Wang Yi’s trip also shows China’s aim to strengthen diplomatic relations to maintain influence with countries in the South Asian region and to double down on guarding against the instigation from outside forces. His trip to Nepal on the heels of the ratification of MCC also signals that China is seeking assurances that Nepal’s position on China’s key strategic interests such as the adherence to the One-China Policy and its position on Tibetan refugees have not changed.

Foreign engagements have ramped up and Nepal has once again found itself in a geopolitical focus in the context of intensifying great power rivalry. Prime Minister Deuba is scheduled to visit India on April 1 while Nepal is set to host an American delegation of 25 thereafter. It has become increasingly apparent that geopolitical influences have affected the decision making processes rather than it just being a matter of domestic politicking. Therefore, it is unlikely that Nepal will solely decide the direction of the current international engagements. Moreover, While the ratification of the MCC compact in Nepal after much debate is definitely a moral defeat for China, its other implications are yet to be seen.

Tibetan Refugees in Nepal:

Members of the diplomatic community such as American Ambassador to Nepal Randy W. Berry, British Ambassador Nicola Pollitt, Swiss Ambassador Elisabeth von Capeller and Australian Ambassador Felicity Volk joined the Tibetan community in celebrating their New Year (Lhosar) on March 5 in Jawalakhel. This is a noteworthy visit as Tibet remains a sensitive issue for China  while the US-China relationship has entered a period of great uncertainty and instability. In the age of media, optics are important. Therefore, the optics of members of the diplomatic community celebrating with Tibetan refugees are difficult to cannot be ignored. Tibet remains a sensitive topic for Nepal due to geopolitical strings attached. Nepal acknowledges Tibet as China’s internal issue and adheres to One-China policy after the establishment of diplomatic ties in China in 1995. As a result, Tibetan refugees in Nepal were rejected refugee identification after 1995.  Recently, when the GoN decided to allow Bhutanese refugees to carry out specific types of business ventures “in order to lessen the financial burden of refugees” along with renewal of their refugee status, it sparked conversation over the status of Tibetan refugees. Tibetan refugees and human rights organizations have time and again argued that the lack of identity documents has resulted in the denial of basic human rights of refugees. However, GoN is undecided on issuing refugee cards to the children of Tibetan refugees and those who were left out of registration since 1995.

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