Timeline of Major Events
|May 16||PM Modi arrives in Lumbini for the occasion of Buddha Purnima.|
|May 17||India appoints Naveen Shrivastava as its new ambassador to Nepal.|
|May 20||US Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Uzra Zeya arrives in Kathmandu on a three day visit.|
|May 21||US Under Secretary Uzra Zeya visits Tibetan leaders and Tibetan refugee camps in Kathmandu.|
|May 25||Virtual meeting of 14th meeting of Nepal-China Diplomatic Consultation Mechanism.|
Nepal – United States
On May 16, The State Department of the United States announced that the U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan issues Uzra Zeya will be travelling to Nepal and India. Her visit would be the first visit of a US undersecretary to Nepal in over a decade. The statement also outlined that the purpose of her visit was to “deepen cooperation on human rights and democratic governance goals and to advance humanitarian priorities. However, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal said that the delegation arriving alongside Zeya would discuss projects being undertaken between Nepal and the US and other bilateral talks. Similarly, Tibetan leaders in Nepal divulged that they would be meeting with the Under Secretary a day prior to her arrival. However, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that the Nepali government was not aware of such meetings. The discrepancy between American statements and Nepal’s official positions appear odd.
She arrived in Kathmandu on May 20 for a three-day visit. On May 21 she interacted with Tibetan leaders in Jawalakhel before visiting Tibetan refugee camps in Kathmandu. According to the media, this has caught China’s attention. It was reported that Chinese officials expressed concerns regarding the visit of US Under Secretary Uzra Zeya to Tibetan camps in Kathmandu. During the 14th meeting of Nepal-China Bilateral Consultative Mechanism. According to officials present in the meeting, Nepal maintained its commitment to the One-China policy and not allowing its soil to be used for anti-Chinese activity.
Her visit came at a time where United States has been exerting pressure to provide identity cards to Tibetan refugees living in Nepal. Nepal has been treating the Tibetan issue with caution acknowledging that Tibet is China’s internal matter which makes the matter geopolitically sensitive issue. Therefore, the matter of issuing refugee cards to Tibetan refugees could result in major repercussions for Nepal and its bilateral ties with China.
The flurry of high level foreign visits and engagements indicates that the ratification of the MCC compact has elevated bilateral relations between Nepal and the United States. In addition, Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is scheduled to visit Washington in mid-July. This is also a good opportunity for Nepal to capitalise on the United States’ increasing geopolitical interests and engagements towards fulfilment of Nepal’s national interests, pursuit of economic advancement and infrastructure development.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his fifth visit to Nepal when he visited Lumbini on May 17, on the occasion of Buddha Jayanti at the invitation of UNESCO. New Delhi has recognized the need to better bilateral ties with Nepal, which in the recent past had soured. Prime Minister Modi arrived in Lumbini on a helicopter bypassing the Gautam Buddha International Airport that was inaugurated by his Nepali counterpart Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba earlier that morning. Various media reports said that this was a symbolic demonstration of India’s dissatisfaction with the presence of infrastructure built by a Chinese company in the Southern border of Nepal.
During his visit, Prime Minister Modi participated in the Buddha Purnima celebrations by visiting the Maya Devi temple where he offered water to a Bodhi tree sapling that he had gifted on his visit in 2014. He also visited the India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage where he laid the foundation stone. Prime Minister Modi’s comment corroborating Lumbini being the birthplace of Buddha also seemed to bring to a close the longstanding debacle in Nepal-India relations. Religious and cultural affiliation has long been a thread connecting Nepal and India with citizens on both sides travelling across the border for Hindu pilgrimage. Modi seems to have found another binding thread in the promotion of Buddhism to pursue soft diplomacy in Nepal. Prime Minister Modi highlighted that “Buddha is beyond geographical boundaries, he is for everyone, and he belongs to everyone“. The growing and strengthening friendship between India and Nepal will work for the benefit of the entire humanity amid the kind of global situation that is emerging today. Analysts have also remarked that “Prime Minister Modi’s visit should be seen in the context of India’s continued tradition of regular high level exchanges between India and Nepal in furtherance of our Neighbourhood First policy”.
Nepal and India signed six Memorandum of Understanding related to cooperation and collaboration in the academic field and energy sector during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Lumbini: Both leaders also recognised Lumbini in Nepal and Kushinagar in India as sister cities. Despite significant symbolic gestures from India indicating improving ties after a period of difficulty, major bilateral issues remain unaddressed. For instance, a joint statement released during Modi’s first visit to Nepal in 2014 outlined the resolution of Nepal’s request for three additional air passages for aircrafts to enter Nepal within the next six months. However, the issue remains unresolved. Moreover, the visit failed to address outstanding bilateral issues such as the border row at Kalapani which demonstrates a persistent problem of diplomatic non-communication over bilateral issues and lack of follow through on agreements between Nepal and India.
It is a noteworthy fact that a day after Modi’s visit, Naveen Srivastava, currently serving as additional secretary in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, was announced to become the next Indian Ambassador to Nepal. What makes his appointment noteable is due to his integral role in diplomatic and military dialogues with China to mitigate the tenison’s caused by military skirmishes at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). He has also served as consul general in Shanghai. he appointment of a China expert as India’s ambassador to Nepal also indicates that New Delhi has carefully noticed China’s increasing presence in Nepal and taken measures to downsize China’s growing influence in Nepal. Nepal has once again found itself amidst heightened geopolitical activity with increased engagement with both India and the United States. While such positive developments after a period of difficulty with both countries is desirable for Nepal, it must avoid mistakes of the past and respond in a way that it can capitalise off of great power interest. Nepal must avoid blindsiding China and tread with caution regarding issues of Tibetan refugees. This is an opportunity to formulate a synthesised, consistent and balanced foreign policy that best serves Nepal’s national interests and development goals.