With 75 years of the establishment of diplomatic ties, relationship with the US has been significant in Nepal’s foreign policy. The long-established relationship has undergone transformations over the years, guided by shifts in global hegemony and consequent shifts in strategic interests. The most recent developments concern controversies related to MCC and SPP, and the conflict for hegemony between US and China.
At the opportune moment of heightened debates surrounding the State Partnership Program (SPP), on 22nd July 2022, Centre for Social Inclusion and Federalism (CESIF) hosted a seminar – “Geopolitics and Nepal’s Military Diplomacy” – at Alice Conference, Bakhundole, Lalitpur. About 70 participants attended the event including politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats, former army personnel, journalists and reporters, and scholars of various fields.
The first session on Military Diplomacy of Nepal covered various topics, the summary of which is provided below:
Discussant panel of the first session included the former COAS of the Nepal Army General Gaurav Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, Chairperson of Janata Samajbadi Party and Former Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav, Maj. Gen Purna Bahadur Silwal, and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and founding chairperson of Nepal Centre for Security Governance (NCSG) Dr. Deepak Prakash Bhatt. The session was moderated by senior journalist and current affairs editor at The Annapurna Express Kamal Dev Bhattarai.
The themes covered during the panel discussion have been summarized as follows:
The role of the Nepal Army in Diplomacy
General Gaurav Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana began the panel discussions by highlighting that a sophisticated world view is an effective armor in the changing world order. He argued that while it seems to be absent in Nepal’s policy makers and decision makers, the Nepal Army has acknowledged the necessity to adapt. He added that from an academic perspective, military diplomacy is a recent term because initially the objective of military-to-military undertaking was to facilitate communication between two militaries and was not considered to be an extension of foreign policy. However, it has become the need of the hour. The General argued that while military is known as a hard power tool, it can also be used as a soft power tool to achieve broader foreign policy objectives.
With regards to Nepal’s military diplomacy with the United States, he said it was a one-way street until the 1990’s. For instance, Nepal received military vehicles and communication sets from the United States in the 1960’s in the context of the cold war. Similarly, Nepal began receiving small arms such as M16 in the early 2000’s in the context of the War on Terror, and the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal. However, Nepal and United States armies began to collaborate on various fronts. For instance, military exchanges and trainings both in Nepal and the USA to facilitate cross training at the unit level, exchange tactics, techniques, and skills, etc. among others. He highlighted that the establishment of such ties had passed scrutiny and received government sanctions through due process. He also said that the case of SPP should be considered as a similar day to day activity between the two armies and need not be unnecessarily politicized.
The General argued that dissonance among various ministries and leaders on SPP resulted in the national frenzy and politicization of the matter and urged the need for robust mechanisms to boost coordination between relevant ministries and organizations. He also said that it is important to understand that the “Nepal Army is an instrument of the state and not the state itself. Therefore, there is no need for confusion on the form of diplomacy or what state institution’s agenda it is, as long as it is for the national interest of the country”.
Civilian perspective on Military Diplomacy of Nepal
Dr. Deepak Prakash Bhatt began his statement by saying that Military Diplomacy is a very relevant topic in the discourse as the context of the world continues to change. He argued that the interface between relevant ministries and Nepal Army lack oversight and those agencies are responsible for the lack of coordination and even during policy making. He also said that Nepal lacks an active mechanism to discuss the overall security issues of the country. In agreement with the previous speaker, he said that differences among political leaders and parties over topic such as MCC and SPP is also the reason why these issues are often blown out of proportion instead of having a conducive discussion. He said that while Nepal believes in pluralism so it is natural to find differences in political belief over foreign policy and other issues, there is a lack in the very will to find consensus over these issues.
Dr. Bhatt said that defense diplomacy should be a formal part of Nepal’s foreign policy because peace and security is an important component of Nepal’s foreign policy and military is an integral component in its pursuit. However, the system and structures are weak and the lack of timely discussions puts civilians and other institutions in confusion, eventually causing frenzy. Furthermore, Political instability, lack of consensus on broad national policies, coupled with absence of institutional memory transfer among Nepali institutions has hindered Nepal’s pursuit of national interests.
The Objective of Nepal’s Military Diplomacy
Major General Purna Bahadur Silwal began his statement by saying that military diplomacy is another resource of the state to achieve national interests of Nepal. Military is a part major means to fulfil national interests along with diplomacy, information, and economic means. He cited the example of Ukraine’s robust military diplomacy even during the time of war. He also mentioned how the Minister of defense of India is the part and parcel of Indian diplomacy which has played a vital role in bolstering India’s foreign policy achievements.
Major General Silwal said that the objective of Nepal’s military diplomacy is to modernize, build capacity, and professionalize. He said that Nepal has been engaging with foreign countries in various ways to achieve national interests and supplement broader diplomacy through the stationing of military attaches in different parts of the world, diplomatic activities such as exchange of personnel for military training and exchanging skillsets, joint military exercises, bilateral meeting including ambassadors, military aid and purchase of military hardware, etc.
He argued that strong military to military ties between two countries can be leveraged to achieve broader foreign policy objectives. For instance, during the earthquake, military diplomacy facilitated the arrival, response activities and departure of friendly foreign countries such as India, China, and USA. Similarly, effective diplomatic intervention made by the Nepal Army played a significant role in the lifting of the economic blockade of 2015. Furthermore, Nepal’s significant contribution in peacekeeping missions in the United Nations has played a particularly notable role in enhancing Nepal’s image in the world.
General Gaurav Shumsher Jung Bahadur said that while Military is known as a hard power tool, it can also be used as a soft power tool to achieve broader foreign policy objectives. Maj. Gen Purna Bahadur Silwal also said that strong military ties between two countries can be leveraged to achieve broader foreign policy objectives. Chairperson of Janata Samajbadi Party and Former Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav said that Nepal must abide by its non-alignment policy and reject proposals for military partnership with foreign countries. Once again highlighting the need to formally incorporate military diplomacy in Nepal’s foreign policy, Major General Silwal said that “when traditional methods retire, military diplomacy prevails”.
Diplomacy for the pursuit of national interests
Hon’ble Upendra Yadav said that the MCC debacle brought into light the intensification of geopolitical competition in Nepal such as the misinformation campaigns and attempts to influence Nepal’s decision making on issues pertaining to its national interest. However, Nepal must adhere to one of the core tenets of its foreign policy – to not allow its territory to be used by a foreign country and against another country and it the same vein clarify its position to all its bilateral partners that it refuses to establish any form of formal security, strategic partnership with a foreign country.
He also said that it is normal for deepening military ties with a foreign country to sound off alarms. However, military relations and diplomacy should be promoted and partnerships should be continued through due process. He highlighted that the government has and should continue to reassure its bilateral partners and especially its neighbors that all decisions related to its partners will be taken for Nepal’s own national interests and not against anyone.
As a part of the ruling coalition government, Hon’ble Upendra Yadav said that Nepali political parties differ in their view of international relations and foreign policy and have thus often been unsuccessful in forging consensus on matters of foreign policy, security, and economic development. He also argued that our national security policy has not come into the public discourse either. He said that what Nepal is currently seeing the ramifications of the lack of consensus, institutional difference, lack of understanding, and half take statements on matters such as MCC and SPP.