Foreign policy agenda remained in periphery in the priorities of most governments in the modern history of Nepal. However, this appears to be high on agenda of the government since Puspa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ took the mantle of premiership third time in December last year. Prithvi Narayan Shah’s dictum ‘yam between the two boulders’ guided our foreign policy for a long time. Given the geopolitical reality, non-alignment has been Nepal’s stated policy stance and the present government, too, pursues. The geopolitical compulsion requires the nation to strictly adhere to the balanced foreign policy especially with our two immediate neighbours. Non-alignment is, therefore, not our choice but a compulsion about which the present government seems to be cautiously aware.
Nepal is between two big powers competing for dominant position in the region. This position cannot allow the country to choose one at the expense of other. We, thus, need friendly and cooperative relations with both our immediate neighbours. However, non-alignment does not mean one should remain neutral when the principles, norms and values of international relations and international laws are at stake. In such a case, Nepal has always stood on its principled stance. The recent example is its position on Russia-Ukraine standoff.
Nepal does not have any enemy in the comity of nations but all countries are friends. If we have enemies, they are poverty, hunger, backwardness and diseases. Our entire efforts, therefore, are to fight against these social and economic malaises with meaningful support and cooperation from all our friends in the world, including the two resourceful neighbours.
Well cognizant of this reality, the government has, in its annual Policy and Programmes, clearly spelt out the foreign policy priorities stating ‘protection of the national interest and adoption of an independent and balanced foreign policy will be the main policy priorities of the government’. It further says: “An independent and balanced foreign policy based on the principles of the United Nations Charter, non-alignment, and the principles of Panchasheel will be pursued, while taking into consideration the paramount national interests”. This is in commensurate with foreign policy fundamentals enshrined in our constitution. On the relations with countries too, the policy statement is clear and explicit. It states that “bilateral relations with all friendly nations including neighbouring countries will be expanded and strengthened on the basis of sovereign equality, mutual respect and benefits.”
With global geopolitical pivot shifting to Asia from the Western hemisphere and sharpening rivalry between our two immediate neighbours, it poses challenges as well as provides opportunities for Nepal. This is an opportunity as we can take benefits from the economic and technological advancements achieved by our two great neighbours. China and India combined have over 2.5 billion population which can be our huge market if we produce exportable items. However, there is also a risk of being caught in their bitter strategic rivalry if we make a slight mistake in handling with these powerful neighbours.
Countries that share border have boundary disputes. Issues and problems crop up with countries having engagements. Nepal and India are immediate and close neighbours. They share border and have multiple engagements. A landlocked country, Nepal is surrounded by India from three sides. Additionally, these two nations share many common social and cultural values. These factors bring the nations closer and at the sometime they face issues and problems. Nepal has some core issues with her southern neighbour which need to be resolved through diplomatic negotiations in the interest of both the countries. India, too, might have its concerns in Nepal, which Kathmandu needs to listen and try to address without jeopardising its own national interest and also not at the cost of our relations with other neighbour and friends. We have to frankly raise and discuss issues. Only then can a solution be sought. Evading and putting issues and problems under carpet will only give rise to misunderstanding and scepticism that will not be helpful for both countries.
Nepal’s issues with India are multiple. But the core ones are, among others, the 1950 treaty, territorial disputes in Lipulek and Limpiyadhura, trade deficit and energy trade. The 1950 treaty is the continuation of the Sugauli Treaty but the only difference of the two treaties is that the former was made with the British and the latter with independent India. But forms and contents are almost identical. Communist parties, including the CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Centre, called it an unequal treaty and demanded its abrogation. But recently, the communist parties have tone downed their voice on the review of the 1950 treaty. Now Nepal has to make its position clear on this treaty.
The territorial dispute is another irritant that these two countries must resolve amicably. In its freshly unveiled annual Policy and Programmes, the Nepal government has said, “All border related issues will be resolved through diplomatic initiatives while safeguarding freedom and sovereignty of the country.”
The language is pretty soft but message is clear. India’s response is uninspiring. Similar case is with the report of the Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG). EPG prepared its report with meticulous study and consultations, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been reluctant to receive it. If the Indian Prime Minister is unwilling to get the EPG report, there is no point in further pursuing it. Nepal can make the report public so that people will know what exactly made Modi not to accept it. In such a case, the government can officially raise the issues the report contains.
On the issue of territorial dispute and also on the 1950 treaty, the Indian side does not seem to be ready to discuss while Nepali side is reluctant to raise these matters officially and forcefully with appropriate homework. With such lopsided approach, the outstanding issues are not likely to be resolved. Such a situation only complicates relations further escalating the atmosphere of misunderstanding and scepticism which is not in the interest of both the countries. All outstanding issues between the two neighbours must be raised frankly and discussed with good intention and willingness to address them. This alone can create an atmosphere of bonhomie and contribute to resolving the thorny issues. Against this background, Nepal and India are required to elevate relations up from ritualistic level and make them more meaningful to suit the need of the 21st century.
(The author is former ambassador and former chief editor of this daily. email@example.com)