Nepal’s New Challenges with Super Powers

Published On: March 26, 2023 09:00 AM NPT By: Hari Prasad Shrestha

The then US President Richard Nixon’s attempt to dash communism and a complete ban on marijuana in the 1970s, wrecked a Himalayan hippie Shangri-La in Nepal. Two years after President Nixon announced an international ‘war on drugs,’ Vice President Spiro Agnew visited Nepal. Months later, Nepal enacted the first anti-drug laws.

As a result of the ban on marijuana, people of the western mountainous region of Nepal, who relied heavily on the cultivation and sale of marijuana for their livelihood, fell into an extreme cycle of poverty and the local economy reached the stage of collapse.

The economic hardships in remote areas of Nepal gave an opportunity for Maoist, who were fighting against the government, to persuade poor people to support them. Due to growing poverty, the majority of people in those areas supported Maoist to overthrow the monarchy and to change the political system, by becoming part of their revolution for ten years from 1996.

The United States’ strategy to stop smokers and communism became futile and sparked a communist blowback in Nepal. During the Maoist insurgency, thousands of Nepalese applied for asylum in the US on political persuasion. Currently, for the third time, the Commander of Maoist Revolution, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (CPN Maoist Center) is the prime minister of Nepal.

After the abolition of monarchy in 2008, communist parties in Nepal started openly and widely participating in politics, by forming several communist parties as a strong contender to Nepali Congress and other democratic forces. Previously they were major players in mainstream national politics and by that time, India had strongholds in Nepal. However, after the sudden growth of communist parties and growing US interest in Nepal, China also expeditiously became more proactive in Nepal.

Nepal, a yam between two boulders, India and China, is a peripheral country. Its key location has been the subject of strategic importance for its neighbors and the western countries, especially the US. China has been concerned with activities of Tibetan refugees in Nepal favored by the western countries. Around twenty thousand Tibetan refugees live in Nepal.

The interest of the United States of America in Nepal has increased significantly in recent days due to its strategic location. Moreover, China’s growing influence, its increased investment and rise of communist parties could also be logical for the US to be influential in Nepal.

It is widely known that the relationship between the US and China is full of strains and complications. China’s growing economic and military power has been disquite for both India and the US. There is no doubt that currently US President Joe Biden’s policy towards China contrasts with Donald Trump’s sometimes-hawkish approach, he would keep China in check by strengthening ties with U.S. allies. India occupies the forefront role in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy in the South Asia region.

Barack Obama’s strategy of “returning to the Asia Pacific,” shifting a focus which had been on Europe for 200 years, to Asia, was later rephrased as a “strategic pivot” and finally a “rebalancing”. Behind the US adjusting its global strategy to return to the Asia-Pacific is the rise of China.

However, looking back, the “rebalance to Asia-Pacific” strategy can be called less effective to contain the rise of China. In the current Xi Jinping era, the Chinese Communist Party's stated view of relations with the United States are grounded in a "big power diplomacy" model with three major principles: no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. In this view, a prerequisite for good relations is that both sides must respect each other's baselines to make respective strategic aspirations compatible with one another. Xi advocates "baseline thinking" in China's foreign policy: setting explicit red lines that other countries must not cross.

The great power countries are more interested in direct engagement and observation in Nepal as a result of political instability and high frequency in camp switching contrasting actions seen in political parties. Moreover, it gives an impression that Nepal does not have a foreign policy and if the foreign policy is upside down, it is an alarming signal for the nation.

The rising American engagement in Nepal is a signal of expression that the US is starting to look into Nepal through its own lens instead of New Delhi’s lens. Both China and the US have replaced India's monopoly position in Nepal to a great extent. However, India is still one of the top most influential countries in Nepal.

At present, there are around 1.5 million Indian citizens living/domiciled in Nepal. However, only six hundred thousand Indian citizens have been registered in the Embassy of India, Nepal . The large numbers of Indian nationals concentrated in Kathmandu and in selected big cities for business and employment, are a strong soft power to India economically as well as strategically to effectuate any activity in Nepal.

In the similar way, China's huge investments in mega projects in Nepal has also been a soft power to get support of Nepalese people. Both countries have some sort of concerns with each other's soft power in Nepal. The US and India have a strategic alliance to work together closely. They have signed a basic exchange and cooperation agreement for geospatial cooperation, a major defense pact for the exchange of classified geospatial intelligence between their armed forces amid India’s growing tensions with China.

With the strong interest of three world powers, Nepal seems to be in a critical position on how to balance them diplomatically especially after approving the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) of China and Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC) of the USA. During the MCC ratification, Nepal experienced internal as well as external pressures and literal scuffle between the US and China.

Additionally, both China and the US are offering Nepal to be partners in their strategic alliances, such as China's Global Security Initiatives(GSI) and US's Indo Pacific Strategy (IPS), which are going to be a new worry for Nepal. “Amity to all and enmity to none” is the guiding principle of Nepal’s non-aligned and neutral foreign policy. Nepal is firm in its policy that it would never allow using its territory against any neighboring country. This strategy and commitment of Nepal has helped it to survive as an independent nation.

In the current changed global scenario, external assistance has now become more political and strategic rather than only economic ones. Strong diplomatic capabilities of internal players in favor of national interests with well organized domestic resources and stability are more important than the external factors. 

Lastly, Nepalese leaderships are finding difficulties to cope with external interference in domestic affairs as they do not have consensus on matters of external relations and national interests. Now the onus lies on the shoulders of Nepali leadership that if it can balance all great power efficiently with similar collective voices, it would certainly bring a lot of opportunities to transcend from the vicious circle of poverty and instability in Nepal. Additionally it would also bring in technology, investments, foreign assistance, and other endowments to get the maximum resources for development. On the contrary, if it is not handled properly in a balanced way, it could create adverse conditions.

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