Posted by : Shuvangi Poudyal
The State Partnership Program (SPP) has become the new geopolitical hot potato in Nepal only a few months after the MCC debacle was laid to rest with an eventual parliamentary ratification. While SPP began as a humanitarian and disaster response training program, according to the national guard website, SPP is a “partner focused, strategically aligned” program administered by the National Guard Bureau of the United States that conducts military-to-military engagements in support of defense security goals becoming a key U.S. security cooperation tool, facilitating cooperation across all aspects of international civil-military affairs and encouraging people-to-people ties at the state level”. “The program has a focus on disaster response, aviation safety and operations, leadership development, military medical fields, and cyber defense, etc.” All hell broke loose when the Commanding General of the US Army Pacific Charles Flynn encouraged Nepal to become a part of the program in his meetings with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Nepal Army chief General Prabhu Ram Sharma.
While media reports stated “both parties were seeking a broader political consensus for signing the agreement”, news of a possible military cooperation between Nepal and the United States spread like wildfire, triggering debates over sovereignty and national integrity. The arguments around the SPP are reminiscent to the MCC compact; with people questioning whether Nepal joining the SPP would make it a part of the United States’ military alliance under the Indo-Pacific Strategy. While some have argued that agreeing to become a part of the SPP could have long term implications on Nepal’s national security and sovereignty, others argue that the program is being unnecessarily politicized when these forms of military agreements between Nepal and the United States are a continuation of bilateral engagements that have existed for decades.
The incoherence among statements made by parties involved has also emerged as a strategic fault on Nepal’s part. While the Minister for Home Affairs swiftly denied the claims and said that “Nepal is not involved in the SPP in any way nor does it have any intention to do so in the future”, the United States Embassy in Nepal followed with a statement clarifying that the SPP is not a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, however maintaining that Nepal had actually applied for the program and it was not a proposal. Nepal Army, refuted embassy claims and issued a statement outlining that it had never entered any such agreement with the US Military. However, a leaked letter published by Kantipur revealed that Nepali Army had initiated a request to be included in the United States’ State Partnership Program in 2015 making a request to then American Ambassador to Nepal, Alaina B. Teplitz in the backdrop of the disastrous earthquake of 2015.
Fractious politicians of Nepal have found yet another opportunity for blame games and one-upmanship amidst the controversy. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has maintained that the government would not sign into effect any agreement that had the potential to harm Nepal. However, leaders of the ruling coalition have put blame on CPN-UML for agreeing to be a part of the program, while UML leaders have blamed Nepali Congress for making the request when it was in charge and pushing Nepal into a geopolitical difficulty. The lack of expert discussions, inter agency coordination, and broad consensus on foreign policy across parties has caused major blows to Nepal international credibility. In what has become another political blunder for Nepal, the incident has exposed the duplicity of Nepali leaders’ and called into question the coordination, transparency and accountability of government institutions. In addition, the politicization of the involvement of Nepal Army has caused damage to the institution’s otherwise stable reputation.
The politicization of SPP could cause strain in Nepal- US ties that had only just recovered after the ratification of the highly politicized MCC that was a cause of great frustration for the United States. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba set to visit to the United States next month while the Army Chief Prabhu Ram Sharma is scheduled to visit from June 27 to July 1.