On closer scrutiny, Oli’s foreign policies do not offer much novelty. Like his predecessors, Oli too is focused on balancing relations with neighbours. But unlike other contemporary leaders of Nepal, Oli is a seasoned politician and an astute diplomat. Soon after he landed in Baluwatar, Oli wasted no time in mending ties with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with whom relations had been fraught post the 2015 blockade. To the dismay of many, he chose India as his first foreign visit destination since taking office. Moreover, Modi’s reciprocal visit soon after added meaning to Oli’s diplomatic optics.
Indulging as he did at great lengths with India, Oli demonstrated diplomatic prudence, thereby nullifying speculations that he might tilt towards China. The high-level visits within the short span of time, the language and body language of Oli and Modi during their respective visits, the agreements and understandings reached upon, the closure of the Indian Embassy’s field office in Biratnagar, the foundation stone-laying of Arun III hydro project—all these demonstrate Oli’s prowess at improving relations with India to some extent.
Attaching equal importance, Oli is visiting China next week and the Chinese side expects that the bilateral relationship will be further strengthened by the visit. Oli is confident about his relations with China, so he will do his level best to make the upcoming visit fruitful. China will definitely make further efforts to deepen its ties with Nepal during Oli’s visit given its ever increasing strategic and diplomatic interests in Nepal and the South Asia region as a whole. China has some strategically important pet projects in areas of hydro power and transportation including the Belt and Road Initiative. Therefore, Oli’s upcoming China visit will have long-term and significant implications for Nepal-China relations. Considering the policy statements, recent India visit and the upcoming China visit, it is safe to assume that Oli’s foreign policy is indeed India-China centric.
Look beyond neighbourhood
No matter how successful Oli has been in reorienting Nepal’s diplomatic relations with the two giant neighbours, his diplomatic outlook is but a continuation of the past governments in the last two decades. To his credit, Oli has committed to explore opportunities in the extended neighbourhood and diversifying Nepal’s relations with major international actors in areas of trade, transit and investment. Such commitments are positive in principle, but we are yet to see him traverse beyond the immediate neighbourhood.
There is no denying that Nepal should diversify its terms of engagement with India and China given the increasing influence of both the countries in diplomatic, economic and military aspects in regional and global contexts. But Nepal would do well to move beyond the periphery of India and China and engage more with the outside world to maintain its sovereignty, stability and prosperity. Though the US and other Western countries are losing their foothold in the global power structure, they remain as important as before in the Nepali context. Likewise, Nepal should also strengthen its diplomatic relations with labor-receiving countries in Middle East and East Asia that have less strategic interests in Nepal but can contribute to the country’s development efforts.
Much of the past two decades in Nepal went into managing conflict and a protracted political transition. As national and international actors alike remained deeply engaged with such political issues, matters of economic development and prosperity took a back seat. However, following the promulgation of the new constitution and the subsequent three tiers elections (federal, provincial and local) economic development and prosperity have emerged as the sine qua for the government. Even the then left alliance succeeded in winning the elections based on the popular slogan of economic development and prosperity.
Oli has been advocating for infrastructure development, connectivity, railways, roadways, waterways, hydro projects and foreign investment for development and prosperity. Like with New Delhi, he is expected to sign some more connectivity agreements with Beijing during his upcoming visit. He has appealed to the international community to support economic development of Nepal, but a mere appeal will not be sufficient for international economic cooperation. The government should put appropriate economic and investment policies in place to create an environment conducive for international support. The fulfilling of national objectives, therefore, is dependent on how robustly the government furthers its economic diplomacy.
All in all, the Oli government should comprehensively revise and redefine its foreign policy, taking into account the changing national, regional and global contexts. While balancing the relations between India and China is an imperative, it should also not forgo relations with the rest of the world. Only when government actively pursues Nepal’s national interest—a buzzword of the current government—with well thought out plans and neatly crafted policies can we expect substantial changes in our foreign policy as well as in our outlook towards India and China.
By Geja Sharma Wagle