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Discoursing Nepal’s foreign policy and domestic politics with Pradeep Gyawali

Kathmandu: Foreign factors, for that matter also the geopolitical factors, surface as a recurring theme in Nepal’s political discourse.  When a government changes, even if what looks through purely internal political reasons, a foreign maneuvering, influence, or even pressure is suspected. None other than the political leaders themselves attribute the government change to foreign factors. So how dominant is foreign factor in Nepali politics? How much are domestic political actors responsible for this?  I sat down with Pradeep Gyawali, perhaps the only politician who got to serve for three years as the foreign minister of Nepal post-2015. Nearly all foreign ministers after him have been short-termed.

Gyawali began by referring to toppling down of the government formed with nearly two thirds majority support led by KP Oli in July 2021. “The way the government was put in trouble by the members of the then ruling party [NCP], the way the court ordered to appoint the leader of opposition party as the prime minister, the way the unified largest party suffered a sudden split, it was not only the outcome of the internal political disputes,” said Gyawali. “There was geopolitics at play.”

The former foreign minister compared Oli’s fate with that of BP Koirala, the founding leader of Nepali Congress and the first democratically elected prime minister of Nepal. “BP was leading a two thirds majority government in 1959-60. The confidence level of the Prime Minister was high and he tried to redefine Nepal’s relations with India and China. He started to talk about the balanced relations with these countries, said Gyawali, “which was not liked by the power which enjoyed kind of unopposed influence in Nepal.” 

BP Koirala returned home from a China visit in March 1960 by signing historic boundary agreement, also by settling the dispute about Mt Everest. He also pushed for China’s membership in the United Nations. “One can attribute the rifts inside the Congress party to the role of the king but do not forget India, which had become independent and which was looking to exert influence in South Asia as a dominant power,” he said.  

In the same way, he said, the first government led by Oli began to feel pressure after he visited China in March 2016 and returned home by signing some landmark deals including the trade and transit agreement. Soon after, the coalition suffered a tension and the government was ousted.   “In nine months, the same leader who supported the government brought the no confidence motion against the PM. There was a geopolitical factor at play at that moment too,” he said.  During the second term in 2018 too similar things happened.  “Our government was trying to enhance engagement with major powers including China and our foreign policy approach was ‘enmity with none, amity with all,’ which certain foreign power centers did not like and again we were pushed out of power.”

KP Oli (right) with China’s Premier Li Keqiang during his 2016 China visit. Photo courtesy: Reuters

Gyawali says that Nepal’s foreign policy conduct post-2021 has been that of unnecessary deviations and fluctuations. The governments that succeeded Oli (led by Deuba and Prachanda) appeared to tilt toward certain foreign power centers.  “Relations with China were somehow ignored while the relations with India and the US were given greater importance. This kind of lopsided approach was flawed because Nepal as a country cannot afford to maintain lopsided ties with the world’s three major powers—India and China as our powerful neighbors and the US as the global power.”  We cannot be open to unnecessary interests of these countries nor can we become closer to one power and distant from the other at the cost of our balanced foreign policy principle, he explained.  “We always need to keep in mind that there are sensitivities and limitations in our relations with India and China. King Prithvi Narayan Shah had understood this very well at the time neither China nor India was as powerful as they are today, it would be foolhardy for us now to pretend not to understand this sensitivity now.”

In his assessment, previous governments tried to push the development partnership projects with China to the backburner. “BRI has been undermined with the narrative of debt trap. Look at how Bangladesh and Mongolia have reaped the benefits from the projects under the BRI framework,” he said. “Our problem is that we have not yet done anything concrete about the BRI projects in terms of their execution but we are blanketly saying that BRI is a debt trap scheme.”

Gyawali is for maintaining very good relations with India but also calls for resolving outstanding issues with the southern neighbor. “We have outstanding unresolved issues with India and unless they are resolved we will not have a very comfortable relationship with India,” he said. “The tendency in the last few years has been that Nepali side has been reluctant about raising even vital national interest issues with India saying that India might be displeased.”  

He defines the controversial State Partnership Program that surfaced in 2022 as a deviation from Nepal’s policy of non-alignment. “Nepal’s declared policy is that it does not become a part of any military or strategic alliance. If the matter had not come out in the media, the then government would probably endorse it.”

According to him, after the coalition changed in March 2024 with UML joining the bandwagon, the government has tried to correct some of the past mistakes. “We have clearly stated in the 13-point common minimum program that we are for balanced international relations. We have conceptual clarity about our foreign policy conduct this time around.”

He says that Nepal needs to be cognizant about how the global power dynamics are shifting. “The way China is rising and the US-China rivalry is intensifying, it has added stress to many countries in South Asia. In this situation, we need to be diplomatically skilled and proficient while dealing with these powers while ensuring that we become able to reap the benefits from the development partnerships with China, India and the US,” he said. “We cannot agree to everything that the US, India or China says, we need to demarcate the red line, prioritize our national interests and clearly communicate this to the global powers.”

Gyawali argues that balancing relations with three powers–India, China and the US–should be Nepal’s major focus. “But we seem to be unclear about what constitutes our national interests and how to safeguard them. Until and unless we keep using relations with foreign powers as a tool to remain dominant in the domestic political power game, we will not be able to achieve our goal of balanced relations with foreign powers,” he said.  “Often internal politics comes to be linked with external power play. We need to delink our internal affairs with foreign maneuvering. This is not an easy task but with collective efforts we can achieve it.”

Gyawali has a premonition that the way undue politicization of the MCC grant agreement almost derailed Nepal’s relations with the US, Nepal’s partnership with China under the BRI framework could suffer the same politicization. “We need to look into these projects in terms of merits.  When we politicize such projects, it does not help in our foreign policy conduct, nor does it help in our development efforts.”

Until we keep using relations with foreign powers as a tool to remain dominant in domestic politics, we will not be able to achieve our goal of balanced relations.

According to him, with wise and visionary economic diplomacy, Nepal can engage countries like India, China and the US in its mega projects. “We have a history of bringing competing global powers together for Nepal’s development.  Think about Mahendra Highway where we engaged India, Russia and the US at the same time,” he said. 

He believes that Nepal can take support from India, China and the US for the development of around 11000 MW Karnali-Chisapani Hydropower Project, which, if accomplished, will become a game changer. “If we could develop a trilateral cooperation modality and bring in the US, China and India for its development, it would set a new example. We can ask them for support while also safeguarding our national interests. But for this, we need efficient diplomacy and leadership with a broader outlook for Nepal’s development and its global affairs.”