In recent years, Nepal has become strategically significant in the eyes of key global players like China, America, and India. This has been the result of increasing tensions between China and America playing out in a test of the will between the Belt and Road Initiative and the Indo-Pacific Strategy. This significance has been followed by heightened diplomatic engagements that pressure Nepal to constantly choose sides between these mammoth states.
Akin to this, Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s statement was released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry that Nepal firmly “adheres to the non-alignment policy, disapproves of the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’, and opposes any attempt to stop the development of China”. Immediately there was consternation from the US Embassy in Nepal that sought clarification from both Dahal and the Chinese Embassy. The US embassy spokesperson also expressed bewilderment at having to learn of Nepal’s stance from statements issued from Beijing.
While Nepal officially claims to follow a non-alignment policy, there has been considerable confusion as to where its loyalties lie in the recent discourse, both from popular news agencies and official statements from various politicians. With regard to US-Nepal ties, Foreign Minister Gyawali’s visit to the US to meet Mike Pompeo seems to be at the root of the most recent disarray. The duo supposedly discussed America’s US policy and Nepal’s role in a free and open Indo-Pacific. Since then, the US State Department issued a statement stating Nepal is part of the US-led initiative and officials that visited Nepal echoed the same sentiment. This, however, was refuted by Gyawali who claimed that there was no specific talk on the Indo Pacific Strategy and all reports that claim that Nepal has joined the Indo-Pacific are false.
In response to the US Embassy, Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s spokesperson clarified that Dahal, in his meeting with Wang, stated that Nepal will not be part of any strategy that targets China or any other country as it would violate its non-interference clause under non-alignment. Clinton Brown, the spokesperson at the US embassy further clarified that there has been a misunderstanding that the Indo-Pacific is similar to a military alliance. Emphasizing that US intentions in Nepal have been selfless and development oriented, Brown stated, “We are all for a free and independent Asia-Pacific.”
Amid such contentious statements, it is important to realize that Nepal’s inability to deal with diplomatic dexterity with neutrality is going to have real-time consequences on key agreements and projects. The Millennium Challenge Cooperation, a grant by the US is a multi-billion dollar investment grant to develop major infrastructure projects. The recent debate over Nepal’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific Strategy has created deep polarization. Leaders close to Dahal protested that the recent framework around the MCC has been closely linked to the Indo-Pacific strategy, while those close to Oli accuse the latter of being an obstruction to its own party. If the ratification of this agreement had taken place as planned, the 400-KV Butwal-Gorakhpur Electricity Transmission Line project would have received the push it needed to be built in the near future. Dev Gurung, the NCP Whip, suggested a fresh round of negotiations between the US and Nepal to clarify if this agreement would bring the added pressure of the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
In conclusion, what we see now is realpolitik playing out in the international realm and directly affecting Nepal’s decision and law-making capability. With close ties to China and immense pressure from the same, this most recent controversy with the US raises a crucial question. Will Nepal be able to toe the line between neutrality and its strategic interests? Even if it does, where will our priorities fall when our strategic interests cause development to take the back burner? Keeping these questions in mind, we must reshape our foreign policy to keep our interests at the top in the face of such complex interactions.
Author: Natasha Todi