by Simone Galimberti
With Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal carrying out his official visit to China from September 23 to 30, Nepal should re-boot its foreign policy, reframing it from the current “taker-only” approach to a more confident way of dealing, not only with Beijing but also with New Delhi.
Coming along with a long list of projects to be funded by its powerful neighbours, can be, in the long term, counterproductive, especially when Nepal has aspirations of becoming a middle-income nation.
As Nepal works, a few years down the line from now, on achieving the lower middle-income status, a need for a major revision in its foreign policy is emerging.
I am not thinking about shifting the official stance that suited the country well for so many decades, the official line that Nepal never takes sides, a key cornerstone of its diplomacy.
Rather I am referring to a new upcoming urgency: revising an underlying attitude that has been at the foundations of Nepal’s way of dealing with its two gigantic neighboring countries.
From an outsider’s perspective, it is apparent that the country’s foreign policies have been driven by a culture of paucity.
In an attempt to find a simpler way to describe it, we could use the metaphor of the begging bowl.
Each time that a Prime Minister is planning to visit either India or China, the bureaucracy comes up with a preliminary list of projects.
Ultimately some of them will make the cut, and they will be endorsed by the Cabinet.
Finally, they will become the fulcrum of the negotiations during the official visit.
After all, Nepal has always been a least developed nation, a condition greatly exacerbated not only by a harsh and painful civil war but also by a devastating earthquake.
But this tradition, akin to almost a beggar approach to foreign policy, has to change.
This is going to be imperative if the nation wants to reap the benefits of its upgraded socio-economic status in 2026.
Indeed, despite challenges, the nation is in much better shape.
Granted, economic assistance, in various forms and modalities, will remain the hallmark of the relationships with both China and India, in the short and medium terms.
This is an undeniable fact.
Both Beijing and New Delhi’s assistance will remain key for Nepal.
At the same time, Nepal must realize that it will need to free itself from a logic of over-dependence and unhealthy assistance.
To march on as a more confident and forward-looking nation, the country will need, on top of good governance and effective policy making, a different attitude to how it deals with its neighbours.
Nepal must start to act and must be seen less as a supplicant, always depending, for its own progress, on its generosity.
It also has to become more assertive with them.
Interfering in the national affairs of Nepal has always been something that New Delhi has been accused of and something that not only the Kathmandu’s elite but also the general public resented.
China stepped up its game in Nepal more recently.
It is now crystal clear that, while dealing with Singha Durbar, the seat of the federal government in Kathmandu, Beijing is always putting its own geopolitical interests first.
With Beijing showing no hesitancy at exerting, overtly and non, its influence over the world, Nepal’s government should deploy the same frankness rather than deference it has developed while interacting with India over the last decades.
The government is already showing some of its new assertiveness in going against Beijing’s wishes by denying that any of the projects, so far funded by Beijing, are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Even the public opinion’s perception towards China, after a very recent clamorous example of interference by the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal in which it criticizes the overall economic support Nepal receives from India, is gradually shifting.
That’s why Nepal’s policymakers have to strategically think about the way they approach the great powers north and south of its borders.
Yet this magic list of projects that each Prime Minister submits, a list that also becomes the centre of the national conversation in Nepal, should not be the overarching focus against measuring the success of such visits.
The political class in Kathmandu must be able to formulate a new narrative that conveys ambition while remaining conscious of the internal challenges.
Pushing the tourism and hydropower cards won’t be enough.
The country needs a vision capable, for example, of offering concrete plans on how it is going to become net zero within a few decades from now.
A vision based on a new commitment towards good governance strives to ensure its people’s holistic human development.
Moreover, a more self-assured nation, not afraid of speaking its mind even when its two neighbours think differently, should also be able to offer something in return for its neighbour’s (self-interested) generosity.
Why can’t Nepal’s businesses expand North and South?
Why can’t its doctors, nurses, engineers or bankers also contribute to enhancing the bilateral relationships between South and North?
Can’t Nepal’s universities also offer scholarships to students from India and China?
Why not invite policymakers and think tanks from both countries to Nepal and learn about the country’s progress in terms of bottom-up development, peace and reconciliation and respect for human rights?
It is true that all in all, what Nepal can offer is infinitely smaller than what China and India can do for the nation.
The wishes list that PM Dahal is going to show to Chinese leadership over the next coming days, not too dissimilar to what, just a few months ago, he showed to the Indian government, won’t disappear overnight.
Yet it is paramount to ensure that Nepal is no longer perceived as weak and as the partner always in need.
It needs to embrace a profound shift in its ways of doing foreign policy: from scarcity to abundance, from weakness in the bargaining table to the ability to conduct negotiations guided by confidence and driven by a farsighted vision of the future.
Simone Galimberti writes on democracy, social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.
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