Last month, the High Level Foreign Policy Review Task Force submitted its recommendations to the then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. The government has not yet made the report public; however, it has elicited enough curiosity and debate on how Nepal’s foreign policy should be driven and what its priorities should be as the country adopts a federal structure. Nepal’s location is a strategic asset rather than a liability. The ‘Strategic Vision’ must reformulate Nepal’s geostrategic and geo-economic priorities. This can only come from a coherent ‘National Security Strategy’. But Nepal has not only failed to formulate it, it has also not reoriented itself to a changing global power structure.Neighborhood First
Nepal should adopt ‘Neighborhood First’ as a foreign-policy priority. Media reports suggest the Task Force recommended the same. While the rhetoric of ‘special relations with India’, popularly used by democratic parties, has drawn criticism for favoring one neighbor, the ‘Policy of Equidistance’ advocated by the left parties is not compatible with Nepal’s geopolitical realities either. In such a situation, the policy of ‘neighborhood first’ can be apt, whereby Nepal can embrace a ‘balanced’ foreign policy to serve its national interest.
Nepal enjoys excellent historical, political and socio-cultural bonds with India. At the same time, China’s economic might presents an opportunity for Nepal to pursue rapid economic development. However, the two neighbors—India and China—are hostile to each other and their prime concern—security—overlaps in Nepal. In such a situation, it is a herculean task for the tiny Himalayan nation to balance them. The best Nepal can do is address their genuine security concerns, assuring them that Nepal would not be used against them and asking them to refrain from interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs. Nepal should reaffirm that a stable Nepal is also in their interest, as only a stable neighbor can properly address their concerns.
This is where a powerful National Security Advisor becomes imperative. The government should immediately set up a strong National Security Advisory Board led by the National Security Advisor that oversees strategic issues and advises the prime minister on all matters relating to internal and external threats.
Nepal’s second foreign-policy priority should be its “extended neighbors”, the countries with which it has strong economic ties and those where a large number of Nepali migrants work, such as the South East Asian and Gulf countries. ‘Extended neighbors’ can include SAARC countries other than India. Similarly, “Great Powers” and other friendly countries could be Nepal’s third foreign-policy priority.
Two major challenges are the difficulty in formulating and implementing a coherent foreign policy in a fragmented and unstable political setting characterized by a poverty of strategic thinking, and dealing with a fluid and rapidly evolving regional context with shrinking space for an autonomous approach.
Similarly, foreign aid management would be another challenge. The new federal structure will also add to the complexities as the aid to the local level will have to be channeled through Kathmandu. To speed up the country’s economic growth, the government should give special concessions to sectors like hydropower and infrastructure.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is going to be an important pillar of Chinese foreign policy for the next decade. It is yet to be seen how Nepal deals with the BRI without displeasing the southern neighbor. Nepal should assure India that Nepal’s engagement with China is purely for its economic interest and that it is not party to China’s plan of ‘encircling India’, unlike what India perceives. Moreover, Nepal can also express interest in the freedom corridor/quadrilateral that India, Japan, the US and Australia have initiated.
Other important areas to deal with are terrorism, climate change, disarmament, trafficking of drugs, women and children. Climate change is a pressing issue and countries like Nepal are particularly vulnerable. Apart from these, Nepal has made remarkable contribution to the UN Peacekeeping operations, which has improved Nepal’s international image. Similarly, a Hindu pilgrimage circuit, a Buddhist circuit and Gorkha Regiments can be effective soft power tools. Surprisingly, Nepal has failed to make good use of its soft power.
There is a dire need to reorient Nepal’s foreign policy with the changing global power structure, keeping all four aspects—political, economic, security and institution-building—into consideration. The political parties should reach a basic consensus and formulate a coherent foreign policy. Nepal can’t be stable and prosperous without a comprehensive security framework. Nepal also needs to pay urgent attention to institution-building. Each ministry should invest in research and development. The foreign ministry should establish well-funded research institutes. The Institute of Foreign Affairs is in a pathetic state. Honing of diplomatic and negotiation skills is a must for Nepal’s young diplomats. All these are important steps for the democratization of Nepal’s foreign policy.