BY BHIM BHURTEL
Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali recently concluded a formal visit to the US, where he engaged in bilateral talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on December 18. It was the first high-level exchange between Nepal and the US since then-secretary of state Colin Powell landed in Kathmandu in January 2002 to sell President George W Bush’s “war against terror” in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Powell’s visit was much needed by Nepal’s ruling elite at that time, as the government had branded former Maoist rebels as “terrorists” and the despot king’s army had been fighting against them for control of the corridors of power.
Gyawali wanted to capitalize on his US trip to assuage concerns that the Nepalese government’s foreign-policy thinking was focusing too heavily on its immediate neighbors, China and India, while ignoring other major global powers such as the US, UK, Japan, and other development-aid donor countries.
However, Gyawali’s visit turned out to be counter-productive to himself and his government because he was heavily maligned at a meeting of the Standing Committee of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) over statements issued by his ministry and the US State Department after the bilateral talks.
The statements of the two countries not only differed in terms of the narrative but also contradicted each other. Nepal’s statement didn’t include its role in the Indo-Pacific strategy, whereas the US statements poke of “Nepal’s central role in a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific, and global issues, including North Korea.” As a result, editorials in the main dailies in Nepal said that the US tried to turn the country against its northern neighbor, China.
Foreign-policy experts in Kathmandu see the high-level visits the US has arranged since Washington began to sell its Indo-Pacific Strategy (known as the Asia Pivot Strategy during the Obama administration) to Nepal as being mostly about containing China. India is the crucial partner in the Indo-Pacific alliance, being both on the Indian Ocean and having territory in the Himalayas.
Nepal and Bhutan are two Himalayan nations that border both India and China, and the US and India wants to bring them under the umbrella of the Indo-Pacific Strategy to protect and harness their geopolitical and strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific Rim.
The US naturally seeks to make use of Nepal’s geopolitical and strategic position – sandwiched between the two Asian giants – in limiting China’s power in the Himalayas. However, in response to India’s overbearing attitude toward – and unfair treatment of – Nepal, Kathmandu has already signed on to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Consequently, India now feels less secure in South Asia.
Despite engaging in multiple Chinese efforts such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, India has not participated in the BRI because of the US-India partnership in the Indo-Pacific strategy and the 2016 Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). It is believed that the military standoff between China and India on the Doklam Plateau in 2017 was China’s reaction to the LEMOA agreement.
Nepalese diplomats and foreign-policy professionals believe that the US and India want to make Nepal a pawn on the chessboard of a bigger strategic game in the Himalayas. Therefore, they suggest that any US proposal should be studied very meticulously. Despite the US being the dominant rule-maker in the current global system, Nepalese strategic analysts surmise that it is an undependable and untrustworthy global power, for two reasons.
The first is general and perhaps ubiquitous. The current US president, Donald Trump, is an erratic and unpredictable leader, and his words and actions cannot be trusted because of his impulsive behavior. Similarly, the US has no moral authority to preach to any country about democracy, openness, freedom, and human rights because of its long track record of emboldening despots and limiting freedoms in many countries. US policies on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the mistreatment of immigrants, and the de-emphasizing of the current global rule-based system are the most recent instances.
The second reason is specific. Nepal’s past experiences with the US indicate that Washington is not trustworthy. For example, US apathy over the plight of Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal for almost two decades indicated a discrepancy between its claimed commitment to democracy and human rights and its actions on the ground.
Nepal’s past experiences with the US indicate that Washington is not trustworthy
When Nepal’s seven political parties and the Maoist rebels signed the 12-Point Understanding to overthrow the despotic monarchy and establish peace and democracy in 2006, the US ambassador to Nepal, James Moriarty, condemned the move. He not only supported the despot king and opposed the popular uprising but also showed his solidarity with the king’s regime by playing golf with the despot’s son when protesters were marching for peace and democracy in Nepal.
Similarly, after the World Bank’s US$1.5 billion investment in hydroelectric development in Bhutan was vouched for by India, the US took the initiative to resettle Bhutanese refugees in third countries. As a result, 110,000 Bhutanese refugees resettled in the US, Australia, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Norway. The third-country resettlements made hundreds of thousands of Bhutanese permanently stateless.
Bhutanese refugees waited for the US to take initiatives for their safe return to Bhutan and eventually persuade India to convince Thimphu to establish democracy in the kingdom. However, the US did what Bhutan’s despotic regime wanted and made 110,000 Bhutanese permanently stateless. Many Bhutanese refugees committed suicide because of the massive discrepancy between what they expected from the third-country resettlement and what they had to face in their daily lives after relocation.
Most importantly, Nepalis see the US as an undependable power in international relations and diplomacy because in the heyday of India’s economic blockade against Nepal after it promulgated its constitution, which was approved by more than 90% of its Constituent Assembly members in 2015, the US remained silent so as to make its Asia Pivot Strategy partner India happy.
Nepalis wanted to see the US, the global rule-maker, speak out against the inhumane economic sanctions imposed by India. At least 2,500 people lost their lives in the India-sponsored carnage, but the US never bothered to issue a statement or utter a single word against India’s economic blockade in any international forums, because of its partnership with India in the Asia Pivot Strategy and possible India-US arms deals.
In contrast, China is the largest foreign direct investor and grant supporter of much-needed infrastructure development projects in Nepal – for example, reconstruction work after 2015’s devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake. China has been investing and providing aid to a much higher degree than India and the US combined.
Importantly, when India imposed the economic blockade, China not only welcomed Nepal’s constitution but also provided 1.13 million liters of petroleum to the country through the Rasuwaghadhi border point, which played a precursory role in the signing of a trade and transit treaty and its protocol between China and Nepal. The deal formally ended India’s monopoly on Nepal’s access to maritime routes and ports.
The US has been more concerned with pursuing its new strategic interests and has even given up its soft-power approach and commitment to democracy, openness, freedom and human rights in many cases. Nepalese policymakers suggest that the country should not take on a larger role in an alliance that aims to use Nepal to limit China’s influence in the Himalayan region.
Pawns in a geostrategic chess game in the Himalayas
BY BHIM BHURTEL