In an effort to address the increasingly strained bilateral relationship between Washington and Kathmandu, a senior US official was sent to Nepal on February 25 on a diplomatic mission. Joseph H Felter, the US deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, who is the most senior US official to visit the Himalayan nation since President Donald Trump was elected, told a gathering of selected Nepali journalists in Kathmandu that “from the defense perspective, Nepal is an important US security partner with an important role to play in regional stability.”
However, his slick explanation of US foreign policy in Asia did little to soothe suspicions in Kathmandu. Nepal’s geographic position means it is sandwiched between Asian giants China and India.
China has 2.35 million active and 530,000 reserve military personnel, while India has 1.4 million active staff and 1.15 million reserve forces. Poverty-stricken and underdeveloped, Nepal has a military of just 95,000 active and 62,000 reserve military personnel. Nepal’s military spending was less than US$300 million in 2018.
Felter told his audience in Kathmandu that the United States’ current foreign strategy was aimed at boosting Nepal’s capacity to defend its interests and sovereignty. He said, “We want an independent, prosperous and securely independent Nepal. That’s our interest. That’s your interest. That is our shared interest.”
However, both China and India are nuclear powers with arsenals of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Therefore, Nepal can’t really play any role in “stabilizing the region.” It has not historically defended its “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” by deterring any “external threats” with the help of its “barbarian” Gurkha warriors, as depicted by Henry Kissinger in his book On China.
China has a defense budget of $228 billion and India’s defense budget was nearly $64 billion in 2017, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. China’s military spending in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms is similar to the US defense budget, and India’s security spending is about half of the United States’ in those terms.
The people of Nepal have become so unimpressed with US foreign-policy statements about their country since last December that local coffee-shop wits have come up with a mocking rendition of a US State Department communiqué based on a statement made by the US during Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali’s visit to the US last December. A rough translation goes like this: “The US Indo-Pacific Strategy relies on India playing its role in the Indian Ocean, Japan playing its role in its part of the Pacific Ocean, and Nepal playing a really special role in North Korea.”
They were making fun of a US statement about the minister’s meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in which they discussed “Nepal’s central role in a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific, global issues, including North Korea and more.”
But there was no reference to the Indo-Pacific or North Korea in the Nepalese government’s press statement about that meeting.
Nepal is one of the most impoverished countries in the world. With more than a third of its population living on less than $1.25 a day and about 75% of people earning less than $2 a day, the country has been struggling to end mass poverty and move away from overt reliance on foreign aid for a long time.
Nepalis rightly see these US references to its vanguard position in North Korean and global affairs as laughable and the government rightly regards attempts by the US to make Nepal a pawn in its the strategic geopolitical games with China as utterly phony.
From 1996 to 2006, Nepal was struggling to revive its stagnant economy and improve the socio-economic status of its people, while dealing with a decade-long insurgency by Maoist rebels. Then on April 29, 2015, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake turned much of the Himalayan country into rubble, piling on even more agony.
Later in 2015, as if Nepal did not have enough problems, India imposed an economic blockade while Kathmandu was formulating a new constitution. World Bank data suggest that the impact of those Indian sanctions on Nepal made life a great deal worse for most Nepalis than the effects of the 2015 earthquake. With such misery as a daily backdrop to life in the mountainous country, people in Nepal can be forgiven for finding humor in America’s allusion to Nepal playing a “crucial role” in building a “prosperous, open and free Indo-Pacific region.”
On December 21, 2018, Nagarik Dainik, a Nepali-language daily broadsheet, quoted Madhu Raman Acharya, a retired Nepali foreign secretary, as saying: “If someone commends you hyperbolically in a situation where such praise is not deserved, then it should be understood that you are likely being hoodwinked about something. This rule applies in all aspects of daily life just as much as it does in diplomacy.”
The same story quotes a high-ranking official of the Nepalese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) as saying: “If we are being told we are in a position to play a crucial role in the Indo-Pacific region, then we are being flattered.” The source indicated that Nepal was being asked to audition for a role that it currently cannot play, and this indicates to the Nepalese government that the US is concealing a hidden interest.
Nepal believes that Pompeo’s statement was carefully crafted by US officials to try to entice Nepal to join its side in the new cold war that is emerging between China and the US
Nepal believes that Pompeo’s statement was carefully crafted by US officials to try to entice Kathmandu to join its side in the new cold war that is emerging between China and the US. The bait being dangled by the US was an aid package worth around $500 million, which was set to be channeled through the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
After the Nepalese foreign minister’s US visit, the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, visited Nepal and also underscored how the country had a crucial role to play in “stabilizing the Indo-Pacific region.”
Nepal’s media described the relationship between Kathmandu and Washington as reaching a 70-year low after the US recognized Juan Guaidó, head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the South American country’s interim president. A statement was issued by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chairman of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), that disparaged the recognition of Guaidó by the US and its allies.
Chairman Dahal strongly condemned the US recognition of Guaidó as foreign meddling in Venezuela’s internal affairs. He said the US had no right to orchestrate a coup against the democratically elected government of President Nicolás Maduro.
After this statement by Dahal, Washington summoned the Nepalese ambassador to ask him to clarify the government’s official stance on the Venezuela row. The MoFA issued a diplomatically crafted statement that did not contradict Dahal’s statement.
Nepal has not seen either China or India as a threat to its “territorial integrity” and “sovereignty,” although Nepal has accused India of unfair treatment since 2015 and it tends to turn to China when it is in dire need of support.
The political and foreign-policy elites of Kathmandu also know only too well that the US tends to follow India’s policy lead when it comes to dealings with Nepal. Besides that, all Nepalese political parties, including the pro-Indian fringe Madhesi parties, firmly believe in the “one China” policy.
Significantly, there is no mention of an external threat jeopardizing the “territorial integrity” and “sovereignty” of Nepal in the National Security Policy Revised Report of 2019, which was prepared by the Ministry of Defense and submitted to the prime minister on March 4.
Nepal is one of the few nations that do not celebrate an independence day, because “amity to all and enmity to none” is the guiding principle of its non-aligned foreign policy. This strategy has helped Nepal to survive as an independent nation despite being one of the least developed and most poverty-stricken places on Earth.
Nepal’s motto for national defense in the medieval Nepali language translates as: ”Do not meddle in others’ affairs unless you are under attack yourself.”
Nepal believes that it is in the best interests of both China and India that Nepal exists as an independent country in the Himalayas, in order to create a buffer zone between them. The cost of border controls between China and India would be much higher than the benefits if Nepal did not occupy that space. This fact was best understood by such leaders as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai of China and Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi of India.
Foreign-policy experts in Kathmandu believe that Nepal has been off the American foreign-policy radar in South Asia for a long time and because of that it has not imposed duty-free import quotas on Nepalese garments or carpets.
The recent reorienting of US foreign policy toward Nepal aims to pull the country into a network of alliances designed to offset the threat from China’s increasingly dominant trade position.
Under the administration of president Barack Obama, the US developed a foreign policy called the Asia pivot strategy, which aimed to counter China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region by building stronger links with powerful allies such as India.
Felter’s remarks in Nepal seemed designed to intensify the new cold war that is emerging between China and the US, by claiming that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) jeopardizes the “sovereignty” of South Asian countries. The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu issued a strongly worded statement denying this on the day after Felter’s visit. China described US attempts to interfere with friendly cooperation between China and Nepal as utterly ridiculous. It reads: “Using many facts and statistics, the relevant country has played up the so-called issue of non-transparency of China’s investment and increasing the debt burden from the BRI and made irresponsible remarks out of its political needs.”
There is an old Nepali saying: “An enemy close by is far more useful than a friend in the distance.” Therefore, if Nepal has to choose between China and the US, it will always choose China. After all, you can change your friends as you wish, but you cannot choose your immediate neighbors so easily.