The US Assistant Secretary of the State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal oversees US foreign policy in 11 countries, including Nepal. She has closely followed developments in Nepal since her appointment in 2013. Biswal was recently in Nepal to touch base with the new government and take stock of the post-quake reconstruction and the overall political process.Biswas Baral and Guna Raj Luitel caught up with the Gujarat-born American diplomat on Monday evening as she was preparing to leave Nepal.
To start with, what brings you to Nepal right now? What is the purpose of your visit?
I have been wanting to come for some time to engage with the new government and to check on the progress on earthquake reconstruction. But more than anything, I have come to reiterate and underscore the partnership between the two countries and the areas of focus we want to advance with the new government.
It’s been a long road since the formal US-Nepal ties were established in 1947. How do you evaluate the state of the bilateral ties right now?
The United States has been a friend and a partner of Nepal and Nepali people since the very beginning. Coming to today, we are exploring how we can strengthen the prospects for peace and prosperity for Nepal. So we are looking to further bilateral relationship, expand our economic relationship and also focus on disaster recovery, reconstruction, resilience and disaster management. This is a seismically vulnerable country and it also sees a fair bit of weather-related disasters like floods and mudslides. This is where we would like to help Nepal.
As we look at a rebalanced Asia, which is a major priority of Obama administration, we are focused on trade, economic and energy connectivity.
Increasingly Asian economies are looking to trade with and engage each other.
But South Asia remains among the least integrated regions in the world in terms of trade, with less than 6 percent of intra-regional trade. Yet some of the largest markets in the world are right here. We are exploring how we can support economic connectivity, trade integration and energy connectivity in the region.
Nepal stands to benefit tremendously from those efforts. So those are the broad areas of focus of US-Nepal partnership.
You talked of rebalancing American foreign policy towards Asia. There is a feeling here in Nepal that the Americans increasingly rely on India, as a part of this rebalancing, to set its Nepal policy. Is that the case?
First of all, US-India relations have been deepening for probably the last two decades. My focus as Assistant Secretary of State has been not only to deepen our engagement with India, but also to deepen partnerships across South and Central Asia. In South Asia, we have made real effort with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and with Nepal to again deepen and strengthen those partnerships. This is in line with the belief that it is in engaging with countries of Asia and in advancing their security and prosperity that the United States will be able to best advance the security and prosperity of the American people. And Nepal is a country so many Americans feel special connection to. Nepal was unable to realize its full potential due to the prolonged conflict. We are exploring how we can engage and partner together to create lasting peace and greater opportunities in Nepal.
We are concerned that over the last 18 months there has not been enough progress on the economic agenda. The rest of South Asia is witnessing 5-7 percent growth, while Nepal lags far behind. Part of the reason is lack of political stability. So our focus is on how do we support political stability and reconciliation so that economic opportunities can be unleashed. While we have been supportive of the steps that have been made to create political consensus on the constitution, if it’s not done in a way that is inclusive and brings along all communities and constituencies, it won’t achieve lasting peace and prosperity that Nepali people aspire for. We are concerned that the progress that has been made is also reflective of the inclusive process. So we have made some points on additional work that needs to be done around the constitution to make it more reflective of the outstanding concerns that have been expressed.
These concerns over the new constitution more or less echo the concerns of India. Would it be right to say that there is some kind of coordination between India and the US when it comes to setting the agenda in Nepal?
People should understand that we are interested in Nepal for Nepal’s sake. India pursues its own interests and relationships, just like the United States pursues its own interests and relationships. We do have growing convergence in many areas, but we also have areas of differences. This is natural. India has a different role, relationships and position in this region than the United States. It has a different history. But we do coordinate our efforts, as we did after last year’s earthquakes, knowing India was the most proximate neighbor and was going to be among the first responders.
During last year’s border blockade there was a feeling in Nepal that the United States was not doing enough to ease the situation, perhaps because of its proximity to New Delhi.
We did issue a very public statement at the start of this period calling on all the sides to come to the table. With respect to the blockage of goods and services, we weighed in with all the actors who had any influence in the region, including the Madheshi leaders, calling for peaceful protests that allowed for peaceful passage of goods and services. We weighed in with the [Nepal] government, and we also had those kinds of dialogues with all the countries in the neighborhood to ensure that humanitarian principles were preserved first and foremost. Notwithstanding that, Nepal and the US have their own relations, we have our own interests to pursue and we have a commitment to wanting to advance that relationship.
It is also said that the US and India are working in concert to counter China’s growing influence in the region, including in Nepal.
If you look at facts selectively, you can come to whatever conclusion you want. The President [Barack Obama] was just in China as a part of G20. He had extensive discussions with President Xi. They had a joint announcement on climate change. We continue to have very strong relationship with China. We continue to pursue economic cooperation, environment cooperation and cooperation on bilateral and regional issues.
We have a very strong relationship with India and we continue to work with India bilaterally, regionally and globally. Neither of these relationships needs to be looked at like a zero-sum game. Asia is big enough to have many big players and we will continue to have relationships with these players like China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Australia and Korea. We engage with all of them extensively. We don’t see it as a zero-sum game and neither should you.
Does the US use Nepal’s strategic location to monitor the rise of India and China?
The United States has one overriding interest in Nepal and that is a partnership with the people of Nepal that advances their interest for peace and prosperity. That is why we engage, that is what we are trying to do, and this is what defines virtually all engagement between our two governments and two peoples. We are not in Nepal because of some great-game scenario between other countries in the region. We are not here to keep an eye on India and we are not here to keep an eye on China. We are here to advance a partnership with Nepal that we cherish and value. So many Americans have been to Nepal and they have deep affection for the Nepali people. Americans are also the third largest tourist group to come to Nepal after India and China.
So the Americans have no strategic interests in Nepal whatsoever?
Our strategic goal in Nepal is to support the aspirations of the Nepali people. Nepal is one of the largest troop contributors to global peacekeeping efforts. As small as this country is, it plays an outsized role in advancing global security. We want to continue to support that partnership, invest in those capabilities. The relationship between our militaries is because of the role of your military in advancing global security and stability.
In this day and age, while I talk of positive connectivity, there is also negative connectivity between criminal networks that engage in trafficking of people, in wildlife, in narcotics and between terrorist networks. So we want to work with the Nepali law-enforcement community to ensure that they have the tools and the technology to be able to defend your borders and secure your people. So that Nepal can stand as a strong, prosperous, independent, sovereign country that can pursue its own interests and its own relationships from a position of strength.
Nepal is still a very poor country. How does it partner with the US to advance its economic interests?
This is an area we are very interested in. There has not been political stability that can inspire investor confidence. There has not been a kind of economic policy consistency from year to year to bring in foreign investment to build infrastructure, aid job growth and provide the kind of opportunity that people of Nepal want. This is why Nepal continues to have some of the lowest rates of economic growth in the region. Just as you are pursuing political consensus for political stability, there should be an economic consensus on trade and investment, so as to create an enabling environment that can give confidence to international companies.
American companies would be interested in investing in Nepal, for example on areas like tourism, energy and agriculture. These are areas we would like to do more in. The Millennium Challenge Corporation has announced a major compact with Nepal. We would like to see progress on this. These are the things we were not able to push over the past few years. Some kind of economic consensus would be of tremendous help in this.
What about the political process in Nepal? What do you evaluate it as things stand?
Nepal deserves a lot of credit for the commitment of the Nepali people and all of the political parties that are continuing to move forward on peace and reconciliation. The issue of transitional justice still needs some work and there are efforts to try to move legislation on that. On the democratic space, we welcomed the passage of the constitution but we also recognized that perhaps that constitution was not as inclusive as it needed to be in order to really provide a stake for all of the constituencies that were impacted. We hope that there is continued dialogue and engagement to help this issue to move forward.
We learn that during your deliberations with our foreign minister, you raised the issue of Nepal assimilating the Bhutanese refugees who remain in Nepal. Don’t you think they should be repatriated to Bhutan instead?
What I said to the Nepali foreign minister and what the United States has stood behind is that there needs to be a durable solution to this long-standing refugee issue. The United States has shown tremendous leadership and commitment. Nearly 90,000 Bhutanese refugees, the vast majority, have been resettled in the United States. Other countries have also taken up some refugees and 105,000 have been permanently resettled around the world. There is now a remaining population of around 8,000-10,000.
During our meetings with the Bhutanese leadership, including the prime minister, we underscored our very strong desire to see Bhutan willingly repatriate those who would like to return to Bhutan. But some of these refugees have put down roots and created families and life in Nepal and wish to remain here. We hope that Nepal, which has been a gracious host to these refugees, would also provide space and support for those families that want to permanently settle in Nepal. This issue requires the engagement and the commitment of all sides.
Nepal welcomes refugees from various countries. Are you satisfied with the way they are treated?
Nepali government and Nepali people have been gracious hosts to refugees who come from different directions. One of the areas where we would like to see progress is perhaps having a registration process that allows refugees that come into the country to be registered with the UNHCR. Then you can give them legal status and then you can work with those communities to provide support or resettlement, as the need may be.
Every year the US State Department flags Nepal on human trafficking. Has there been progress?
I was today in the Nepal Police Academy and got to observe the training that was being provided to Nepal Police, the training that we are proud to support, on various aspects of trafficking in persons. Nepal is a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking. The government and the law enforcement community are working hard to understand the various drivers that lead to trafficking, to work with communities to raise awareness and to work across borders to be able to disrupt these criminal networks. We want to support Nepal on this. It also requires a lot of coordination as Nepali women, girls and children are being trafficked not only into neighboring countries like India and China but also further afield. We want to strengthen the capacity of Nepal government to deal with this problem.
Nepal has become almost a proxy battleground for India and China. Can’t there be a framework whereby world powers like India, China and the US cooperate for the benefit of small countries like Nepal rather than compete for influence?
Last year, when I came to Kathmandu after the earthquakes, my next trip after Kathmandu was to Beijing, in order to work with our counterparts in China on how we could together support the people of Nepal. Our desire is that Nepal should have strong relationships with all its neighbors and even beyond and we should all be working to support economic development in the country. This was the thrust of our conversations in Beijing, in Tokyo, in Delhi, and with other key donors, because we want to see Nepal grow and prosper. There is no need for any kind of geopolitical competition. What is most important in my opinion is a strong, stable and prosperous Nepal that can expand its interests and relations with all its neighbors. That is what we are focused on.
Will the upcoming US presidential elections substantially change how the US views South Asia and small countries like Nepal?
I am not allowed to comment on the American elections as someone engaged in US foreign policy. So I draw a very firm line. What I can say is that support for US-Nepal relation is not on partisan basis. There is a bipartisan support and you have seen continuity of interest and engagement in successive administrations of Republicans and Democrats. I expect that to continue.