Nepal Foreign Policy: She Must Tread A Fine Line

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Dev Raj Dahal

A nation’s balancing act implies keeping self in some distance from immediate neighbours and distant powers and at times defying their certain surly policies so as to maintain its internal autonomy and external sovereignty in international relations. The evolution of polycentric world order has increased the tolerance of big powers to the freedom of small nations. Balancing act, as a rational conduct of a nation, bears profit to build its ability to protect self and its citizens, fulfil their needs and ease secure adaptation. Wedged between India and China, Nepal cannot risk suffering from their economic, political and strategic rivalry including those of other distant great powers.

Now the actors, the rules and site of great game are shifting. The relative decline of the Atlantic powers and rise of China, India, Japan, South Korea and the East Asia region and increasing Easternisation processes have received bigger geopolitical gaze and weight. Their growing technological, economic and diplomatic clouts have turned them pro-active. This shifting pivotal site has entailed the redefinition of the Westphalian system of world politics requiring Nepal to balance self in a tormenting time.

The Asian states’ demands for raw materials, energy and market for their modernisation drives have amplified. Each nation wants to secure their smooth supplies and overcome the scarcity. This power shift has also altered the site of cooperation, competition and conflict to Asia both for theory and policy. The return of geopolitics has left the notion of Westphalian sovereignty of state and non-interference in other’s the internal affairs feeble and febrile while Nepal’s each political movement for democracy fused domestic and foreign policy and legitimacy that too altered the disjuncture of internal and external realms.

The fraternal aid to regime change, international jurisdiction to protect human rights and regional and global economic integration have increased interdependence, reduced the scope for unilateral manoeuvre and weakened the state-centric order.

Policy innovation

Policy innovation is a must in the complex adaptive requirements of the state and non-state mosaic actors often driven by irreconcilable interests. Each nation has to think in terms of other’s interest, choice and action, not in terms of politics but the statecraft. In this context, Nepal’s definition of national interest cannot be based entirely on the failed shock therapy adventure of neo-liberalism that had created a chasm between leaders and electorates and stoked cultural, ethnic, religious and sub-national distinctions, not national unity rooted in civic nationalism. In such a situation, exercise of national sovereignty requires Nepal’s better economic clout, leverage and competitiveness and intellectual resources to conceptualise foreign policy.

How can Nepal build trust with neighbours to minimise their insecurity dilemma arising out of rival aspirations, spirals of misperception about each other’s intention and self-image and perform balancing act to avert infection while fostering mutual interest? The imposition of Indian blockade against democratic regime of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, which was determined to promulgate the new constitution, indicates that regime compatibility alone cannot promote mutual peace.
The Indian regime acting in an anti-Westphalian manner prescribed Nepal not to promulgate new constitution, supported the substratum of Nepali state – Madhesi agitation – and preferred it a buffer role. Any defying ability of Nepal demands the consolidation of statehood to keep its symbiosis with the economy and diverse citizens in a national space.

Nepal’s membership in the international regimes such as UN, nonalignment, SAARC, BIMSTEC, etc. based on Westphalian sovereign equality of nations is fumbling. For it, a cooperative regime restricts the unilateral action of hegemonic power and improves its freedom of maneuver. The international community now asserts that the Westphalian principles are inadequate to protect human rights, international obligations, environment and global common. A new framework of collaboration, a global social contract, is needed for better governance. This also shows that prevention of internal turmoil requires the control of geopolitical penetration in its internal affairs.

The historical adaptability and resilience of Nepal are the virtues attached to being a small nation housing diversity and holding primary concern on survival, stability, progress and independent identity. National interests are guiding constants for Nepal that transcend ideological compatibility with other nations. Obviously, the frame of national identity of Nepal is defined by culture, language, values, tradition, history, symbols, etc. whose preservation surmounts ideological affinity. They also define the basis of national self-determination of politics, law and development policies, its own way of life and the vitality of aspirations to balance internal and external imperatives.

With strategic geography, tremendous natural resource endowment and heterogeneous, Nepal has pursued a foreign policy of genuine nonalignment to maintain the classical image of a “yam between two bounders” depicted by its unifier King Prithvi Narayan Shah. His advice helped to deftly maintain a balance between imperial China and British India. The Rana regime vaguely deviated from the nation’s balancing act and partly aligned with the British India without losing freedom of manoeuvre. This policy was adopted because Nepal needed to improve its independent image by getting British recognition to its sovereignty, demarcate the border, reclaim some of the lost territory in the western part, modernise its admin and security to enlarge the state’s outreach in society mainly in matters of tax improvement and provide a semblance of rule of law under Civil Code.

Nepal began to open itself to the outside world following the collapse of Rana rule and embraced the constitutional tradition of politics. The nation welcomed development aid from as many nations as possible to modernise the society and diversify security, development, trade, aid, tourism and international relations. Yet, perpetual governmental instability and undue partisan mentality of leadership so far have strained the élan vital for its foreign policy efficacy.

Nepal’s open border with India, Nepal-India peace and friendship treaty, Gorkha recruitment in Indian and British armies, Arms Assistance Agreement and leaders’ acculturation lured it more to India and the West than China and shaped matching worldview. Yet, India, like the British East India Company, sought Nepal to serve as an anti-Westphalian buffer where its clout can restrain China’s influence. India’s membership in QUAD called by the Chinese policy makers an Asian version of NATO aims to constrain it in the Himalayas and South China Sea. Now China’s ascent, its global assertiveness and outreach have entailed Nepal to house new imperatives rather than stay estranged, neutralise its influence or confront it.

China, like many Western states, has provided Nepal a leverage to improve the scale of international relations, development support, cope with new security challenges including pandemic. Only a stable Nepal can address the security dilemma of neighbours. It has scaled up comprehensive strategic partnership and multi-dimensional connectivity with China like India. It is careful in not expanding Western activities inimical to China, accepted one-China policy and does not share the Western version of its spread of coronavirus, human rights abuses in Tibet, Xinxiang, Hong Kong, etc. and debt-trap diplomacy. Nepal has evolved closer military ties and organises regular military drill as it does with India and the West affirming a balance.

China is the largest foreign investor in Nepal, second largest trading nation after India and a major donor for its development. This does not mean that Nepal is falling entirely into the Chinese orbit. It persists on leveraging its old ties with India, US, Japan, Australia, Europe and labour receiving nations and moving into a post-national order. Most of its policies are still drafted by Bretton Woods institutions, not China, though it is a member of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and BRI. Nepal’s Prime Minister K. P. Oli eschewed his participation in Boao forum for Asia and left the execution of transit agreement and BRI projects teetering yet also recoiled from passing the American MCC endorsing the US request to become lynchpin of Indo-Pacific strategy. The nation must exit from this maladaptive plan and initiate trust-building efforts.

At this time global powers are contesting a complex geopolitical game in Nepal. In this context present regime’s aspiration to reset Nepal’s international relations, expand its diplomatic space to be heard and heeded to in global platform and persuade the US to see Nepal though its own eyes, not through the Indian ones needs shared strategic motive. Nepali political leaders had often invited India for regime survival or change while also feared meddling and sought to keep it at equidistance. The government has successfully navigated the multi-polarity of the fractious leaders around the need to reclaim the Nepali territory of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulek occupied by India and unanimously passed the new map by the legislature.

But it has yet to set the negotiated foot with hesitant India and also pursue it to accept EPG report aimed at improving bilateral ties. The Indian image of regional leviathan engaged in micromanagement and leader-oriented policy are evident from the recent joint statement of five Nepali ex-prime ministers who opposed its meddling and favoured national self-determination in internal affairs. It appears that this statement comes more out of fear of the setback of the outcome of 12-point agreement they signed in Delhi and recover from the fallen image than a concrete road map for restoring the reasons of the state. Nepal can satisfy vital defensive need of neighbours as a link nation, not bond self in great powers’ offensive strategy which can drag its policy into controversy, polarise the nation and suffocate its freedom of manoeuvre.


The US interest to assume global leadership and trust building measures in NATO, EU, G-7, democratic allies and Russia are premised on China as a challenge. It has realised the need to support infrastructural development of developing nations like China. Yet both nations are caught in a tangled web that neither can renounce. In this sense, Chinese cooperation is vital to create rule-based international order, prevent the polarisation of world politics and cope with common challenges of climate change, pandemic, global poverty, terrorism and nuclear proliferation. In this time of uncertainty, Nepal can revive the old cliché of equidistance between the US and Russia and between India and China and explore the option to return from multiple brinks. This, however, requires it to utilise its historical wisdom in statecraft, intrinsic power and resources – strategic geography, natural resource endowment, cultural richness and bulging youth population – and get a better diplomatic bargain for the nation’s overall progress.

To live in peace with great neighbours is a condition to its enduring links with the distant powers, respond to changing geopolitical condition, thwart the adverse extension of external policy and ensure success beyond never-ending struggle for survival. Nepali political leaders need to be trained in public and national interests so that they need not be disciplined every time by the verdict of the Supreme Court on meta issues and restore the image and efficacy of legislature, the locus of popular sovereignty. Similarly, the vital national interest of Nepal, above all the subsidiary identities, can be well secured through national consensus on vital issues, socialisation of diverse people into citizens and make foreign policy stand above personal, partisan and regime interest of leadership.

Diversification of policy can free Nepal from being object of other state’s policy while banding with likeminded nations can offer it an option to struggle for justice. The wisdom for Nepal is to evade friction with any important power, keep moderate temper, secure global status and identity, perk up credibility to national and international duties and increase the stake of international community on its sovereignty, order and peace. This is the safest way to pursue its own distinct balancing act and assert a strong national identity.

– The Rising Nepal

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