Monday, 8 March, 2021

Nepal's Post COVID-19 Foreign Policy

Prof. Khadga K.C.


The China-US relations are now passing through severe crisis fuelled by trade war, blame game on the spread of COVID-19, closing down each other’s consular offices in Texas and Chengdu, rivalry in South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Indo-Pacific Strategy, Quad Vs BRI in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Sri Lanka and Djibouti are other elements that have heightened geopolitical tussles between the two global powers. However, it is too early to make conclusions that the course of the US-China strategic competition may change especially after the US presidential elections in November this year. Four more years of Donald Trump may give the mercurial US president a freer hand to achieve foreign policy goals in Asia, especially dealings with China, which has so far eluded him. But exactly what this would be like remains unclear - and potentially dangerous – absent a coherent strategy for the upcoming global power from East Asia.

Russian assertion
Russian re-assertion in global affairs after the rollback of geopolitics in Crimea case in 2014, re-building rapport with China, proactive engagements in Syrian conflict and the proactive diplomatic role in Indo-China stand-off in the Galwan River Valley and reassurance of Putin’s legitimacy in power for the next 16 years may further expand the Russian influence on global stage. European Union is seemingly in a dilemma whether it should continue its age-long alliance with the US or realign with rising China due to changing economic interests. China`s role of medical diplomacy in the EU member states during the COVID-19 also increased the China-EU engagements.
On the one hand, India’s foreign policy has shifted from non-alignment to issue-based multi-align 2.2 strategic partnership with the US, and the implicit strategic balance among the US, China, Russia and Japan, however, still remains intact, on the other. With hegemonic foreign policies in neighbourhood, the India-China rivalry is underway in Nepal. The US is also striving to increase its presence here.
China’s spectacular rise is presenting its regional neighbours with opportunities as well as challenges. Rising China`s global engagement and the deteriorating role and the influence of the US has escalated strategic competition rather than cooperation between them and bringing counterproductive effects in bilateral relations among the countries in this region. The growing strategic partnership between India and the US has also increased China’s presence in Nepal.
The global COVID-19 pandemic may bring a looming risk for decades, as it has dealt a shock to society, health systems, economies and governments worldwide. In the midst of extraordinary challenges and uncertainty, and countless fatalities, leaders are under pressure to deal with the consequences of the pandemic. The decisions they make will shape the state of the world for years to come.
Similarly, the post-COVID-19 scenario has questioned the west-led neo-conservative and neo-liberal political-economic regimes while the East Asian countries which have been investing much in public institutions, instead of trying to weaken them, have successfully tackled the pandemic compared to their counterpart in the west. Countries need to think about how to facilitate international cooperation to deal with global threats in an environment in which the great powers fail to lead and may become increasingly fractious. Regional cooperation in overcoming the crisis and building the post-COVID world order makes sense. Paying attention to governance arrangements will play an important role in limiting human losses and keeping economy vibrant. Unemployment benefits, relief packages and welfare programmes will be insufficient if the pandemic goes longer.
Amid this situation, we should strictly maintain good governance. Those involved in the abuse of state’s perk should be brought to book. The government’s endeavours to cope with the pandemic should be result-oriented. Focus should be on the arrangements of more testing, tracing, ventilators, and ICU beds. Pandemics, wars or natural calamities do not only cause deaths on large-scale but also bring economic shocks, livelihood problems, unemployment, hunger, inequality and crimes. For Nepal, China-India contradictions may affect foreign direct investment. Nepal may face massive unemployment due to loss of job opportunity in the country of destinations so it should focus on making plans, strategies, policies and programmes to deal with the upcoming challenges resulting from the pandemic.
Nepal issued a new political and administrative map, which is a historic step in protecting our territorial integrity. Indian unilateral decision to unveil its map encroaching upon Nepal’s territories in the far-west Nepal in November last year forced Nepal to take historic move based on national consensus. The spirit of national unity should be kept intact and the diplomatic initiatives that the government so far has been taking since last November should continue.
Let’s not be reactive even if the non-state actors in our neighborhood appear cynical and provocative. Our neighbour should also need our trust, support, gesture and good will too, as we have not done anything wrong against the national interests, concerns and sensitivity of our immediate neighbors.

Breaking the ice
We believe that our southern neighbour will be back on the negotiating table sooner or later. If the situation turns worse, we may consider a second option that is the track II diplomacy. Only then should we explore the third option that is to use the multilateral diplomatic forums. Recently, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli held telephone conversion with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on the occasion of India’s Independency Day breaking the ice in the bilateral relations strained by the border dispute. On August 17, a Joint Oversight Mechanism meeting was held in Kathmandu led by Nepal’s Foreign Secretary and Indian Ambassador to assess the progress of India-funded projects in Nepal. These developments show a silver lining in resuming dialogue to resolve bilateral issues.

(Professor KC is the head of the Department of International Relations and Diplomacy, Tribhuvan University. 

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