Photo: AFP/Andrew Harnik
Mike Pompeo has taken a tough line against China. Photo: AFP/Andrew Harnik

Recently at the request of his American counterpart Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali visited Washington to discuss the US government’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy. A press release about the meeting from the State Department stated that Pompeo had asked Nepal to play a “central role” in the Indo-Pacific region, acknowledging the country’s geopolitical and diplomatic relevance in the region.

However, Gyawali, reiterating Nepal’s non-aligned policy, politely turned down the US proposal, stating that “Nepal does not believe in any strategic alliances.”

As a poverty-stricken Himalayan nation sandwiched between India and China, Nepal receives substantial US support. For instance, Nepal remains the only country for which the US Congress has a single-country trade preference.

Over the years, Nepal has received hundreds of millions of dollars in American foreign aid, including a recent US$500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation grant. However, Nepal’s reluctance to assist the United States in its Indo-Pacific Strategy may persuade the White House to rethink continuing its support, since for the current US administration, assisting any developing countries makes sense only when they provide tangible benefits to the US. The recent cutting off of US aid to Central American countries over the issue of a “migrant caravan” is a case in point.

However, instead of alienating Nepal, the US government should try to understand why the country is committed to maintaining its non-aligned policy and should explore how Nepal can still play a central role in securing US interests in the region without officially aligning with it.

Nepalese rationales for non-alliance

In 1961, when the Cold War was in full swing, Nepal became one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement. Nepal’s commitment to non-alliance rests on three rationales. First, its geopolitical location; second, its historical strategy of survival; and third, strong public support for non-alliance and pacifism.

Nepal is a landlocked country surrounded by India on three sides and China on one side. Thus it is important for Nepal to maintain equidistant relations with both India and China to ensure its peaceful existence. Similar to Finland’s and Austria’s postwar neutrality with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was a result of those countries’ proximity and vulnerability to the Soviet Union, Nepal is well aware that to ensure its peaceful existence, it needs to reassure both Beijing and New Delhi that no threats to them will emerge from its soil.

This strategy of non-alliance has been historically successful for Nepal in avoiding attacks and occupations, particularly during times of global turbulence. In the same way that Sweden’s and Switzerland’s non-aligned policy helped those countries avoid the horrors of World War II, Nepal’s non-alliance strategy has prevented it from becoming the venue for any proxy wars.

Moreover, today there is strong public support in Nepal for non-alliance and pacifism. Some European neutral states have chosen not to be a part of NATO even after joining the European Union and participating in a few NATO-led operations as in the Balkans and Libya, the reason being strong public opinion at home against power politics and militarism; in the same way, most Nepalis oppose military alliances.

Nepal, as the birthplace of Lord Gautama Buddha, embodies the Buddhist doctrine of peace and non-violence. Spirituality guides the lives of many Nepalis, a majority of whom believe that Nepal should be a voice for peace and justice in the world. The fact that most of its people take pride in Nepal being the fifth-largest peacekeeping force in the United Nations, a fact often cited by Nepali politicians in political rallies, shows how strongly public opinion in Nepal is for pacifism.

How Nepal can assist the US in the region

As some US policymakers have recognized, Nepal can play a crucial role in securing American interests in the region. Nepal sits between India and China, two very important countries for the US, and with which the US has a very interesting relationship. From Washington’s perspective, India and China are neither reliable rivals, since they often need to collaborate with each other to secure common interests, nor consistent allies, since they cannot trust each other in many areas. Thus, considering the US interest in maintaining  relationship with both India and China, its deeper engagement with Nepal could provide a buffer zone in the region that could enhance Washington’s ability to negotiate with both Beijing and New Delhi.

Hence it is in the best interest of the United States to engage Nepal in the region. Moreover, unlike many Washington hardliners who would argue that a country can only be for or against the United States, it seems Nepal can best assist the United States in the region by being a neutral state.

It should be noted how important was the role of European neutral states for promoting political détente between NATO and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Starting from their contribution to the 1967 Harmel Report to their key role in bringing NATO and the Soviet Union together for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and for negotiating Confidence and Security-Building Measures (CSBMs) that reduced the risk of war and encouraged reforms in the Soviet bloc, neutral states played an important role in advancing dialogue and peace between the two sides.

Recognizing the role of neutral states like Finland and Sweden for promoting détente during that time, today the conference is often known as the “Helsinki process,” and the CSBM agreement that came out of the CSCE is known as the “Stockholm document.” In the same way that neutral states played important roles in ending the Cold War, Nepal could also someday play the role of mediator in its own region and could convene Washington, Beijing and New Delhi to advance peace and prosperity.

Washington should thus continue to engage Nepal and respect its neutral role in the region with a long-term strategic vision in mind. Nepal has maintained its neutrality by walking away from FOIP at this time, an action that ultimately could serve US interests in the future once Washington is ready to scrap its current winner-take-all approach, which can only polarize the interconnected region, and embraces policies for win-win outcomes.

Sumesh Shiwakoty is a commentator on Nepalese affairs. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, The Himalayan Times and The Kathmandu Post. A recent graduate of Pitzer College in California, he is also a board member and South Asia director of United by Love, a multinational non-profit founded in the US.

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