States engage in international relations to achieve their clearly identified national interests. This is true for world powers and small states, albeit their national interests often wary greatly braced by their relative power in the international system. States pursue a foreign policy to achieve their national interests. According to Hill, foreign policy maybe defined as “the sum of official external relations conducted by an independent actor (usually a state) in international relations.”[i] The Realist theory still remains the most defining principle for most modern states’ foreign policies. This is true for Nepal’s foreign policy too. Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) clearly highlights “mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty”[ii] as the foremost basic principle guiding its foreign policy. The fundamental objective has been stated as to “enhance the dignity of the nation…”.[iii] These two objectives are the two defining features of Nepal’s foreign policy.
Nepal is a landlocked country sharing borders with India on three sides and China to its mountainous north. For any country sharing a border with a much larger, even if friendly, state, safeguarding territorial integrity and sovereignty underpinned by realism becomes the foremost priority. India and Nepal had signed the ‘Treaty of Peace and Friendship’ in 1950 including articles about mutual respect for sovereignty and security.[iv] Nepal had an Indian military mission on its territory from 1952 to 1969[v] to train and reform the Nepali military. It then becomes important to understand Nepal’s territorial insecurity vis-à-vis India.
The merger of Sikkim with India in 1975 is perhaps the most important factor. The fact that the last Chogyal of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal, did not get enough domestic support to prevent Sikkim’s merger with India fuelled insecurity in the Nepali monarch and other elites.[vi] The fear of Nepal’s Sikkimisation is evident even today in Nepal’s media commentaries.[vii] While Nepal is no longer a monarchy, the insecurity has been transferred from the monarch to the political elites. No lessons, however, were drawn from India’s contributions in creating an independent state, Bangladesh, in the neighbourhood and its subsequent behaviour towards said state which has been driven by anything but territorial expansionism.
Nepal has attempted to expand its diplomatic engagements with regional and extra-regional countries to safeguard its sovereignty. The most critical engagement in recent times has been with China. China’s political, economic and cultural footprint has increased dramatically in Nepal in the past decade. Nepal also joined China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2017[viii] despite India’s security reservations. This was primarily driven by the need felt in Nepal to diversify its trade routes following its blockade in 2015 when the country faced severe fuel and other critical supplies shortages.[ix] Since then, Nepal has been actively working with China to build new land routes to reduce its dependency on India. A more realistic assessment of any notion of a territorial threat from India would certainly take into consideration Indian support to Nepal in its fight against the Maoist insurgency. Nepal’s territorial insecurities are not only derived from the existence of the unsolved boundary issue but are rather made complicated by other factors like the stark disparities between Indian and Nepali economies as well as their militaries. Greater confidence-building measures like an active revival of bilateral mechanisms and greater high-level diplomatic and ministerial engagements are needed to resolve the boundary issue. Cooperation on a key matter such as this is needed to bolster bilateral relations and foster long-term mutual benefits.
Identity Insecurities and Nepal’s Political Elites
While the most common account of foreign policy looks at foreign policy as just a means of engagement in the international system, there is another school of thought which suggests how foreign policy is a tool for reinforcing the identity of the self.[x] Nepal’s foreign policy objective of enhancing the dignity of the nation can be seen, in a way, from the lens of identity distinction. India has always highlighted civilizational ties as the bedrock of Indo-Nepal bilateral relations. While the Indian perspective might be to highlight the strength of bilateral relations based on shared history and expand ties on such a basis, it often adds to Nepal’s political elites’ insecurities with respect to India. This in turn drives them to stress upon key distinctions between the two states to prevent perceived erosion of their power domestically. This often translates to India being used as a key electoral issue used by all political parties to strengthen their political position. Nepal has in the past politicised dormant bilateral issues, like the Kalapani border issue, to exaggerate differences between the two countries in the eyes of the Nepali masses. Statements suggesting Lord Rama was born in Nepal by former Prime Minister KP Oli is another example of how even shared religious history is being used by Nepal’s political elite to promote the idea of the distinctness of Nepali identity.[xi] With China’s active involvement in Nepal, the latter has become increasingly assertive in pursuing an ultra-nationalist foreign policy, much to the disadvantage of its own people. However, India is consistently putting efforts in alleviating some of Nepal’s concerns. For instance, Nepal’s over-dependence on India for economy and security is being addressed by expanding multilateral engagement in South Asia.[xii] Encouraging expanding Nepal’s connectivity with other states like Bhutan and Bangladesh would be a step in the right direction. Faster Implementation of the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) under the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN)[xiii] grouping would help increase mutual trust between countries, including India and Nepal. India could undertake further steps to transform Nepal’s overdependence on India into the interdependence between the two. Initiatives like allowing Nepal to sell its surplus power directly on the Indian Energy Exchange (IEX)[xiv] play a great role in building mutual trust. India can identify other key areas for expanding interdependence between the two countries. Addressing other key Nepali concerns like perceived Indian involvement in Nepal’s domestic politics, however, would require greater engagement and understanding at both political and diplomatic levels.
Nepal’s political parties have increasingly capitalised on Nepal’s territorial and identity insecurities for domestic political gains. While this is understandable from a domestic politics viewpoint, unfortunately for the Nepali masses, this has resulted in an ultra-nationalist foreign policy. Nepal has been unable to identify key areas of cooperation with India, respective policies for the same, and concerning mechanisms for execution. More than reinforcing national identities, Nepal’s political elite needs to reorient the country’s foreign policy for the improvement of the livelihoods of its masses. This may be better achieved by redirecting focus toward eliminating barriers to trade with India, expanding cross-border crimes like drugs and human trafficking, cooperation on flood controls, water management, and the power sector among others. Nepal’s policy of using the China card in its dealings with India is not driven by principles but rather hyper populism. If the primary objective of Nepal is indeed to “enhance the dignity of the nation”, there is a need for a course correction in Nepal’s foreign policy with respect to India, China, and other states in the region and the world.
[i] Hill Christopher (2003), “The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy”, Houndmills: Palgrave, Available at: https://www.academia.edu/4832479/The_Changing_Politics_of_Foreign_Policy_Christopher_Hill_Palgrave_Macmillan_2003_ accessed on 11 April 2022
[iv] “Treaty of Peace and Friendship”, Ministry of External Affairs, 31 July 1950, Available at: https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/6295/Treaty+of+Peace+and+Friendship accessed on 11 April 2022
[v] Sam Cowan (2015), “The Indian checkposts, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani”, The Record, 14 December, Available at: https://www.recordnepal.com/indian-checkposts-lipu-lekh-and-kalapani accessed on 11 April 2022
[vi] Ajay Pradhan (2021), “Letting go of Sikkim’s ghost”, Nepali Times, 03 July, Available at: https://www.nepalitimes.com/banner/letting-go-of-sikkims-ghost/ accessed on 11 April 2022
[viii] Darshana M Baruah (2017), “Nepal Joined the Belt and Road. What Does That Mean for India?”, The Diplomat, 15 May, Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2017/05/nepal-joined-the-belt-and-road-what-does-that-mean-for-india/ accessed on 11 April 2022
[ix] Hemant Ojha (2015), “The India-Nepal Crisis”, The Diplomat, 27 November, Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2015/11/the-india-nepal-crisis/ accessed on 11 April 2022
[x] Halvard Leira, “The Emergence of Foreign Policy”, International Studies Quarterly, Volume 63, Issue 1, March 2019, Pages 187–198, Available at: https://academic.oup.com/isq/article/63/1/187/5307236 accessed on 11 April 2022
[xi] “Lord Ram born in Nepal’: PM Oli ignites new row with stunning claim on Ayodhya”, The Hindustan Times, 14 July 2020, Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/lord-ram-s-ayodhya-in-nepal-pm-oli-makes-a-stunning-claim-to-needle-india/story-Osw6gdQDb8TckQc0a9GhXN.html accessed on 11 April 2022
[xii] Rehzaul H Laskar (2022), “India, Bangladesh, Nepal finalise MoU to boost trade and connectivity”, Hindustan Times, 09 March, Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-bangladesh-nepal-finalise-mou-to-boost-trade-and-connectivity-101646763912504.html acessed on 13 April 2022
[xiii] Suhasini Haidar (2022), “Bangladesh, India, Nepal move ahead on motor vehicle agreement project”, The Hindu, 09 March, Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/bangladesh-india-nepal-move-ahead-on-motor-vehicle-agreement-project/article65205145.ece accessed on 12 April 2022
[xiv] Prithvi Man Shrestha (2021), “Delhi opens door for Nepal to sell power in India’s energy exchange market”, The Kathmandu Post, 02 November, Available at: https://kathmandupost.com/national/2021/11/02/delhi-opens-door-for-nepal-to-sell-electricity-in-india-s-energy-exchange-market, accessed on 12 April 2022