Kathmandu’s cognoscenti suffer from low esteem about Nepal’s geostrategic importance. However, the international community also does not give the Nepali state due recognition.
It is time to change the narrative. True, Nepal’s world standing suffered during its internal conflict, which unfortunately got dubbed a ‘civil war’ by ill-informed foreign journalists and scholars. The United Mission to Nepal (UNMIN) painted an exaggerated picture of the Kathmandu establishment as regressive, oppressive and status-quoist. That vision still colours the West’s outlook.
While this bias is distressing, it is the role of our colossal northern and southern neighbours that have a direct bearing on Kathmandu’s self-perception and its sense of agency. Unfortunately, escalating tension between Beijing and New Delhi constricts the wriggle room for Nepal’s diplomacy, with its two major political parties required to take sides.
New Delhi’s nervousness regarding Beijing’s plans in Nepal is leading to a dumbing down of foreign policy in Kathmandu as well. And Beijing’s intentions to become a player in Nepal’s domestic politics needs to be checked by Kathmandu’s commentators, diplomats and politicians.
Much of Nepal’s politics of the modern era has been spent trying to ward off New Delhi’s interventionist arm. Faced with India’s overwhelming presence, Kathmandu over past decades has leaned over backwards to exaggerate China’s importance. But things have changed in the past five years, as the influence of a rising China becomes palpable.
The arrival of the Tibet Train in Kerung and the prospect of cross-Himalaya connectivity have suddenly brought mainland China closer. At the same time, Beijing has jettisoned the Himalayan spheres of influence policy that had existed since Chou En-lai, who sagaciously told Nepali leaders to maintain good relations with New Delhi.
China’s current ambassador in Kathmandu Hou Yanqi, obviously acting upon instructions, is on overdrive trying to convince leaders of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) to stay together, and the Nepali polity has been lax in alerting her that this activism is inappropriate. If such direct political involvement continues, Beijing is sure to face a backlash similar to the one New Delhi has had to deal with. China should learn from India’s mistakes in Nepal.
For its part, Kathmandu should appreciate its own international standing because it may be surprised to learn that there is little to be embarrassed about. We just need to abandon our constant social media-led self-flagellation about how inept and feckless we are.
Look where we are at: Nepal has managed a peace-process that is more or less homegrown. In all likelihood, the country will get its first full-term prime minister since the Rana regime ended in 1950, and this relative stability had a healing effect, even if Prime Minister K P Oli’s government keeps goofing badly on governance.
Nepal is one of the few countries in the modern era which has succeeded in adopting a progressive Constitution through a Constituent Assembly, with the main challenge lying not in its provisions but in its implementation. Figures tell us that the quality of representative democracy is better in Nepal than in the neighbourhood, though it will take stringent watch-dogging to keep it so.
Nepal is deeply engaged in international peacekeeping, and in a region with so many ongoing and just-past internal conflicts, it is the only country which has an ongoing truth and reconciliation process – even though transition justice remains a mirage. Nepal’s ‘soft power’ potential is as yet un-recognised by its own citizens, let alone deployed for the good of self and others.
Commentators tend to look at the sudden downturn in relations between global and regional powers as a zero-sum game, as if Kathmandu can do nothing but be trampled. There is another way to look at it. Nepal is a country to be reckoned with as the US, China, India and others at the global high table seek to carve out their spheres of influence.
Nepal’s position amidst this push and pull must be one of self-confident independence – publicly rejecting demands to take sides, refusing to accept that an enemy of an enemy is a friend. Through its long history of non-colonised independence and geopolitical neutrality, Nepal is capable of charting a course of geopolitical equidistance and socio-economic engagement.
Indeed, resisting both Beijing’s and New Delhi’s urgings to take sides, Kathmandu must take the lead on the true ‘middle path’, emanating not from frightened neutrality but a disavowal of the need to prove loyalty to any one power.
While we should be happy about the flurry of visits to Kathmandu from the North and South, not all the arrivals have been welcome. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi might have sought to embarrass Prime Minister Oli by sending the head of his spy outfit as a special emissary, but the overture ended up insulting the Nepali state and people. The Indian Army Chief who arrived for the traditional courtesy visit had earlier implied that Nepal’s stance on Limpiyadhura was at the ‘behest’ of China.
Not to be outdone, on 29 November the Chinese are sending State Councillor and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe to Kathmandu. What was wrong with sending State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi? To both New Delhi and Beijing, Kathmandu’s message should be: ‘We have had enough of being perceived only through your security lens.’
After dispatching a spy and a general, India is finally sending its Nepali-speaking Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringhla to Kathmandu this week. New Delhi will find a trustworthy friend in Kathmandu when it ends its trail of intervention. Nepal can and will never be part of any anti-India cabal, but Nepal’s foreign policy is its own.
The newfound confidence in Kathmandu despite the ongoing political shenanigans within the ruling NCP means that Nepal is able to stake its position. The message that Harsh Shringla can take back from Kathmandu is that it is time for Prime Minister Modi to make a conciliatory visit to Nepal to start mending the frayed relationship. Beijing is invited to take notes.