We should correct ourselves before we start blaming others
With the country struggling to come to terms with a difficult transition, there is a lot of confusion on the county’s foreign policy conduct. Separately, there has been great interest in Nepal surrounding the US presidential election and the once-in-a-decade leadership change in China. Republica’s Biswas Baral talked to Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, former foreign minister and Nepal’s ambassador to the US and India, on the state of Nepal’s foreign policy, its challenges and the implications of change in the US and China on Nepal.
How do you evaluate the evolution of Nepal’s foreign policy in over six years of transition starting 2006?
To begin with, the transition has been long and painful for Nepal. Six years is a very long time not to be able to see even a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. This said, as far as foreign policy goes, there has been continuity in certain areas. Foreign policy is guided by proper definition of national interests and a framework that enables taking a path that is good for the country, both internally and externally. It has certainly not changed for the good, for we have not been able to identify ourselves in the new context. The vision of New Nepal is only rhetoric. Unless we can be clear about where we stand ideologically, economically and in terms of our social structure, just discarding the past won’t do us any good.
In your interactions with international actors do you find their perception of Nepal has changed during this time?
In my interactions with our foreign friends, I found that, initially, they were happy that the civil conflict had come to an end. Then they started looking for a political framework with which to identify Nepal. The old structures had collapsed and there was a need to get new mandate for a new constitution. The perception is that somehow we missed that great opportunity. Four years is a long time (to come up with a constitution). Six years ago, Nepal was seen as a state that had put behind the larger conflict and charted a way towards peaceful new beginning based on rule of law, new constitution and democratic governance. But now we are surviving on a day to day basis.
The situation is so bad that current political bargaining is not aimed at charting a new future for the country, but just to avoid confrontation between political actors. The only comfort is that things could have been a lot worse. The goodwill of the international community is still there but we need to come out with a minimum program on where Nepal stands, not only in relation to a governing framework at home but also our position in the world. Things are changing rapidly and the world is becoming an increasingly challenging place. For Nepal to lose all this time represents missed opportunity.
How is the state of transition viewed in the neighborhood? Do our neighbors perceive the transition as representing some kind of threat to themselves?
Both our neighbors loom large on the world arena as economic powerhouses. They are becoming major world actors. On a bilateral basis, China’s policy towards Nepal has been stable. It has desisted from advising Nepal on its political and socioeconomic structure. Barring a few remarks of Chinese academics, you see continuity of the hands-off policy. Our relationship with India is more extensive and more challenging. The extent of communication and collaboration between the two countries is incomparable. Ever since India became independent and Nepal got rid of the Rana regime, every major political development in Nepal has either received the blessing or some kind of hidden or open disapproval of India. The 2005 12-point understanding between the Maoists and other political parties could not have been possible without India’s nod. Because of the open border, India represents both a challenge as well as a threat. We now know that Maoist leaders enjoyed sanctuary in India during the time of insurgency. How India reconciled labeling them terrorists with harboring them as political workers is still a mystery. So the relationship is close, but also very complex.
How has the role of external actors changed since 2006?
Absence of constitution and bad governance are Nepal’s unpleasant reality, which also affects our foreign policy. Only a strong ruling structure can define national interest properly and take neighbors and other friends into confidence. Everyone takes advantage of a weak structure. In this state of transition Nepal is almost without a foreign policy. Foreign powers have free hand to do whatever they wish. Sometimes the government makes noises about bringing the outsiders within diplomatic code of conduct, but when you have no foreign policy, when you are unable to definite your national interest, and the conflict within and between the parties are so intense, this is not the time to look for clarity in foreign affairs. We are unclear about who we are and where we stand. No one disputes that moving to a federal structure will lead to better governance, but federal structure based upon what? We should be clear on this. When ethnicity is looked upon as a political tool, it will probably lead Nepal not to harmonious governance but more conflict.
Has India’s interference in Nepal’s internal affairs increased in this period of prolonged transition?
My observation based upon my own tenure as Nepal’s ambassador to India is that there is a tendency of Nepali leaders to seek blessing and guidance from New Delhi. The gap is on our side, not theirs. There is this mentality among Nepali political intelligentsia not to see themselves as equals to other actors in the global community. Every time Nepal puts forth matters of its interest with India, be it on citizenship, border issues, or water resources, there are reasonable people in India who can listen. Back in 1996 Indian PM IK Gujaral had adopted the principle of ‘non-reciprocity’ with neighbors. Our trade treaty with India at the time stands out as a model. But internal conflict and this submissive mentality of individual leaders and political parties have distorted the picture. We need to correct our own behavior instead of blaming others. By and large, there has been continuity in Indian policy towards Nepal, regardless of what is happening here. India’s overall Nepal policy hasn’t altered much in the last 50 years. It is but natural to try and influence another country to suit one’s national interest. This should not be taken otherwise.
Ever since India became independent and Nepal got rid of the Rana regime, every major political development in Nepal has either received the blessing or some kind of hidden or open disapproval of India.
We now know that Maoist leaders enjoyed sanctuary in India during the time of insurgency. How India reconciled labeling them terrorists with harboring them as political workers is still a mystery.
China’s growing role in Nepal is a logical extension of China’s emergence as a major international actor.
With Obama’s win, Nepal can expect continuity of help in health, environment and agriculture sectors, the areas Obama’s aid policy has helped Nepal the most.
You hinted at China’s position of neutrality on Nepal. But hasn’t its political and economic involvement in Nepal increased of late?
China is the second biggest economy in the world. In this situation, it is natural for China to flex its muscle. What is happening between China and Nepal now is a logical extension of China’s emergence as a major international actor. Increased investments by Chinese citizens and organizations in Nepal, in fields ranging from water resources to civil aviation, to the growth in arrival of Chinese tourists reflect today’s international reality.
Isn’t China’s growing involvement also a reflection of its concern about Tibet independence activities looking to exploit the prolonged transition?
The movement of Tibetan refugees through Nepali territories is an altogether separate issue. How China and the rest of the world perceive this problem is not directly related to increased Chinese interest in neighborhood. Why just Nepal? We see China’s greater presence even in countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The Chinese are looking as far as Latin America and Africa for new investment opportunities.
Will China’s leadership change have any effect on its Nepal policy?
That will be stretching it a bit. Based on how China has conducted itself so far, it has remained silent on Nepal’s internal matters. China will obviously try to safeguard its national interests and that will be determined to the extent our assurance is credible. Other than that, the leadership change won’t affect Nepal much.
What about the impact of the American presidential election, if any, on Nepal?
Here again, we are not a major actor in global affairs. During my eight years as Nepal´s ambassador to the US, I served during the tenures of both Democratic and Republican presidents. The relationship between the US and Nepal has been steady, even more so on the economic side. The last major encounter between the two countries was in 1983 when late King Birendra went on a state visit to the US.
It is said the US has been coordinating its Nepal policy with New Delhi of late. Is that the case?
The unsaid part of the conduct of foreign policy in South Asia is India’s regional prominence, as acknowledged by the Europeans and Americans. At the diplomatic level, there is fair exchange of news and analysis between the Americans and the Indians as well as between the Europeans and the Indians vis-à-vis Nepal. This is not to say that they are guided by any one country.
You said the American presidential election has little impact for Nepal. What about the reelection of Barack Obama?
Obama has a more diplomatic approach to global problems, as opposed to his Republican counterparts. During the Presidency of George W Bush, the Nepali Maoist problem was looked upon as a threat to the global ideological position of the US. For the first time, the US gave M-16 rifles to Nepal Army, as against the Peace Corps and development assistance being at the heart of US-Nepal ties for over 50 years. With Obama’s win, Nepal can expect continuity of help in health, environment and agriculture sectors, the areas Obama’s aid policy has helped Nepal the most.
Let us change the track. There has been criticism from certain quarters on the role of our European partners in the constitution making process. How do you evaluate their role in the constitutional process?
The seeming highhandedness of some countries is a reflection of our own weakness. Our main weakness is our fragmented political structure. There is no party that stands by its manifesto. In the absence of a constitution, we don’t know where we stand in the world, ideologically as well as in relation to broader principles of humanity. Whether it’s the World Bank or the IMF or the WTO, human rights commissions or war crime tribunals, there are global mechanisms to evaluate each country’s performance and standing. Nepal’s challenge today is to be within the realm of acceptability of the global community. To highlight differences between different groups in a country and to play favorites, or to push policies aimed at punishing or sidelining certain groups, that is not done. Promoting certain religion or certain group will contribute to more fragmentation, not unity.
Do you buy the argument that one of the reasons the country could not have a constitution is the pushing of ethnic agenda by donors?
Let us not blame any INGO or a particular country. Every INGO or country has its own agenda. It is for us to come up with a formulation. Blaming others is being less than responsible. We need to safeguard our interests by defining ourselves. Everybody talks of New Nepal. But what is New Nepal? The contours of our borders remain unchanged. The citizens and natural resources are unchanged. So what is new? The country has to pursue the path of peace and reconciliation at home and friendship with the rest of the world; only that will allow us to prosper. Ultimately people’s interest is served by economic prosperity.
Nepal has been in a period of transition for over six years. How should Nepal conduct its foreign policy in the meantime?
Foreign policy is one area where all parties must discuss, thrash out and come up with consensus. Then they should abide by those agreements. Have you seen any leader from India coming to Nepal and saying their government is not doing something right? Whether Indian leaders belong to the government or opposition, they speak with one voice, because there is a mechanism within the parliament to thrash out differences through all-party mechanisms. Once common agenda is decided upon, even the opposition is bound by it. During this period of crisis, not a single party in Nepal has a single voice on any issue, foreign or domestic. It is in this situation that outsiders take advantage. The sooner we move to another phase, the better off we will be.
Where do you think Nepal’s foreign policy is failing?
At the moment there is no code of conduct, not only for government representatives but also for international actors. In India, even the intellectuals and think tanks are briefed on the fundamentals of foreign policy. There are no such mechanisms here. Earlier, the palace was privy to everything. After 1990, the parties started acting like little emperors. Now, we are in a period of transition and the fragmentation you see both within and among the parties, this has given rise to a most unappetizing situation.
With the drastic changes witnessed in the last six years, have Nepal’s interests evolved? Or do a nation’s interests always remain the same?
National interest based on territorial integrity, conservation and proper use of natural resources, and the identity and interest of the citizens—these comprise the hardware of national interest, which remain unchanged. Who is at the helm, what philosophy political parties adopt, these are the variables subject to changes. Now the situation is such that our natural resources have become political bargaining chips. This is a despicable situation.