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Nepal’s foreign policy challenges and opportunities in the changed context

By Dr. Rajendra B. Shrestha
image001The New Constitution of Nepal (2015) has outlined the directive principles, policies and obligations of the State regarding its foreign policy.
In the past few decades, the environment for international relations between nations has changed significantly at regional and global levels. There has been a shift from one of geo-political security and stability concerns to more of economic and social security concerns. Realization of economic inter-dependence between nations; and relations based on mutually beneficial win–win situation are becoming the new norm that is more sustainable.
Given the current state of affairs, there is an urgent need to review Nepal’s current policies and relations vis-à-vis its neighbors. Recent border blockade, unrest in Madhesh, widening gap between different sections of the society, excessive external interference in internal affairs, are largely the consequences of our weak foreign policy and ineffective diplomacy.
Nepali leaders have a tendency to become ultra nationalist when they are out of power, but their position changes as soon as they are back in the government. Most often they are guided by vested self-interest and motive to climb and cling to power and personal gains. These are among the main reasons why Nepal is subjected to undue external pressures, harassments and humiliations from time to time.
Lack of consensus on issues of national interest among the political leaders has remained an obstacle in defining our policy priorities. Partition politics and conflicting interests of the leaderships in response to international and regional issues have tarnished national image. As a result Nepal does not seem to have an effective foreign policy that is coherent, up-to-date, comprehensive, pragmatic and flexible enough to protect national interest.
Foreign policies well-grounded on domestic policies and priorities have proven to be more successful and sustainable in the world, whether a country is big or small. Our closest neighbors, India and China have successfully demonstrated this and have become one of the largest and fastest growing economies of the world. Nepal can learn a lot from these glaring examples and redesign its foreign policy (FP). There exists a very favorable political and economic environment. Nepal is well placed to benefit from such opportunities.
Focusing on economic development rather than conventional diplomacy has become more urgent. Application of tact, negotiation skills, and intelligence in promoting development, trade and investment constitute an integral part of economic diplomacy. Attracting foreign direct investment from China, India and others along with transfer of new technologies, skills and managerial expertise in areas of comparative and competitive advantages i.e. hydropower, infrastructure, agro-forestry based industries, and tourism (religious and adventure) can boost our economy. However, effectiveness of economic diplomacy hinges on several factors.
The High level Task Force formed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is looking into different aspects of Nepal’ s New Foreign Policy including political, economic, security and institutional issues that needs to be addressed by Nepal in the changed global context and cannot be bickering about individual interests for position and power. It is time to look at the big picture and the pieces of the puzzle will fall in right places as they gain experience.
The overwhelming support to the left and nationalist alliance reflect that people trust the alliance (especially UML leadership) in its ability to safeguard national interest better, and advance more balanced relations with Nepal’s neighbors and the international community based on mutual respect and benefits. The progress made by our neighbors provides good examples to learn Since the Modi government came to power in May 2014, New Delhi has reoriented its foreign policy to boost bilateral ties with Nepal. Another reason for the Modi government to engage Kathmandu at the highest political level is China’s increasing investment in infrastructure, energy and other sectors of Nepal as well as a consensus among Indian strategists and experts that Pakistan already enjoys goodwill with some sections of the Nepalese.
With recent political and economic developments of Nepal vis-a-vis its neighbors and India’s neighborhood first policy, it is timely to review our bilateral relations with India from a new but realistic perspective. The formation of a mutually agreed eminent person group to review the 1950 peace treaty and others should provide practical guidelines for new economic and security cooperation between the two countries in a win-win situation that will ensure mutual respect for sovereignty, interdependence and shared prosperity. It is high time our bilateral relations focus more on economic and development cooperation rather than the conventional political and security concerns.
Nepali electorate has decided they want an end to political instability that has impeded development as a result of no one party winning a majority to form a stable government for the full term in the past. The new election results clearly indicate a comfortable majority for the coalition of left alliance (including nationalist and progressive), if not, a two-third majority at the national, provincial and local elections.
The election results clearly prove that Nepali electorate favored left alliance this time and gave mandate to govern for the next five years. Now the onus is on the alliance to unite together as soon as possible and form the united party which will govern to deliver progress and prosperity to the people as promised in their election manifesto. The challenge is to come up with good and lasting understanding on political, policy and organizational aspects that will ensure stability and equitable distribution of responsibilities. The process of unification should be expedited as soon as possible. Initially the UML seems to be more of a main stream party to lead a united party based on social democratic values and practices.
The uniting parties cannot be swayed by efforts to divide (from within or outside forces if any), envoy of PM Modi to convey the message to all the political parties (national level), I believe is the first step towards correcting the course in improving our bilateral relations to a greater height.
However the events unfolded during the visit have drawn some apprehensions from differentquarters regarding international practice of protocol, code of conduct as well as the timing that from. However, the people are yet to capture the spillover benefits of the economic growth of neighboring countries.
National interest and democracy can, and must go hand in hand. It is very possible if right policies, practices, and institutions of governance are in place and people are integral part.
Nepali electorate is politically mature and understands the realities of the present day world. I believe, the Nepali electorate is far more aware, knowledgeable and capable of making the right decision (more than political leaders may think and take them for granted) as indicated by the local and national election results.
Loud and clear messages are coming from the electorate across the nation. The Nepali people, are not going to buy false promises enshrined in the political manifestoes which has hitherto never been delivered. Candidates are better off and will succeed if they promise and fulfill programs that are doable and are close to the hearts of the people.
Against this back drop, the gestures of all-out cooperation between our two countries shown by PM Modi is very commendable and encouraging. FM Sushma Swaraj’s good will visit as special our political leaders and the government in waiting should be aware. Bending forward/backward too much unnecessarily does not sustain bi-lateral relations. After all leaders are made by the people not friends alone, what matters is the electoral support that everyone has to respect.
Nepal will begin a path to prosperity and earn respect and dignity from our friendly partners especially our southern and northern neighbors if the leaders realize and adhere to these values. Nepal needs to capitalize on this new opportunity and be prepared to benefit from cooperation in development programs of mutual interests that will lead to economic development and prosperity. Same applies to our northern neighbor.
(The writer is the immediate past President of the NCWA and Member of the High Level Task Force for New Foreign Policy, MoFA. He can be reached at <rajava.shrestha@gmail.com>)

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