The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Dispelling 5 Myths About Nepal’s Foreign Policy

Despite how the foreign media portrays the country’s foreign policy, Nepal is neither pro-China nor anti-India.

By Birat Anupam for
Dispelling 5 Myths About Nepal’s Foreign Policy

Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 23, 2019.

Credit: Flickr/World Economic Forum

With no colonial history, Nepal has a has a unique diplomatic history in South Asia. While Nepal’s neighbors like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, among others, are celebrating their independence from the United Kingdom around three quarters of a century ago, Nepal has the proud privilege of celebrating more than 200 years of diplomatic relations with the U.K., South Asia’s largest erstwhile colonial power.

With an experience of 200-plus years in dealing with world powers, Nepal’s economic backwardness has not troubled its diplomatic diligence. But looking at accounts of Nepal’s contemporary foreign policy in the foreign press, one finds multiple myths — some politically motivated, and others fruits of poor analyses. To dispel them, here are five propositions.

The Ruling Party Is Not Pro-China

At the driver’s seat in Nepal is the Nepal Communist Party (NCP); Nepal’s northern neighbor China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  However, there is a great deal of difference between the two. The NCP functions within a multiparty constitutional framework. Six of seven states and the federal government are being run by the NCP, but only after landslide electoral victories. The NCP neither believes in nor advocates a one-party system, unlike the CCP. While both take Marxism as their political ideology, the similarities between the two are superficial.

Critics of the NCP point to a few interactions between the NCP and the CCP as basis for labeling the NCP “pro-China.” But the fact of the matter is that the CCP  has similar relationships with other political forces of Nepal, including with the main opposition party, the Nepali Congress, and the third largest party in Nepal’s parliament, the People’s Socialist Party. Nepal believes in the “One China Policy.” Both the communist and other parties converge on this diplomatic position. There are other ways in which the NCP’s independence from the CCP should be evident. For example, if the NCP was pro-China, it would have sided with that country in the ongoing India-China border standoff in Ladakh.

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The Main Opposition Party Is Not Pro-India

Nepal’s Grand Old Party, the Nepali Congress, is described as pro-India in multiple reports in foreign media. This is a false narrative. Ideologically, the Nepali Congress represents the “democratic bloc” in Nepal’s polity and southern neighbor India might derive some psychological satisfaction from that fact. The Nepali Congress’ struggle in the country’s pioneering democratic movement of 1950s was engineered by its underground leaders and cadres, many of them exiled in India. But this doesn’t mean the party is pro-India. If it were, the Nepali Congress would have openly supported India’s position on Kashmir; it hasn’t, choosing instead to maintain a neutral stance.

Interestingly, the so-called “pro-India” Nepali Congress was the first major political party in Nepal’s history to advocate that the country establish diplomatic relations with China.  It made an official decision in 1951 and Nepal formally established relations  with China on August 1, 1955.

In addition, Nepal’s first democratically elected Prime Minister B.P. Koirala, a Nepali Congress member, openly advocated for the People’s Republic of China’s inclusion into the United Nations at the 15th regular session of the U.N. General Assembly on November 19, 1960.

In “On Diplomacy,” a collection of writings on international affairs by CCP founder Mao Zedong, the only Nepalese political leader to be featured is Koirala, with whom Mao met on March 18, 1960 in Hangzhou, China. A chapter in the book titled “The Sino-Nepalese Border Must be Peaceful and Friendly Forever” details interaction between the two leaders. If the Nepali Congress and its founding father Koirala were truly pro-India, it is unlikely they would have featured in a book of Mao’s.

Oli Is Not Under China’s Control

Many argue Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli is under China’s control. This is another fiction. In fact, Oli  weighs every option, national and international, to hold on to power. On one hand, he has consolidated popular support through a newly-built nationalist image since 2015, when India imposed an informal economic blockade of Nepal. On the other hand, Oli is an ardent supporter of a proposed U.S.-funded project through the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Nepal which some see as a part of  the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy to counter Chinese influence. Had Oli been under China’s control, he would also not have had a direct and friendly telephone talk call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August. It is also important to recognize the public demand in Nepal to open up to China economically, something Indian sympathizers erroneously view as evidence of a pro-China tilt.

The India-Nepal Border Dispute Is Not Related to China

India’s issuance of new political map including disputed territories of the Kalapani-Lipulekh areas on November 2, 2019, and the subsequent inauguration of a new road to Kailash Mansarovar via Lipulekh in May this year, has led to renewed  border tensions between Nepal and India. The Nepalese public have protested against these developments; the Nepal government had also formally requested the Indian side for a dialogue on the issue. However, India did not pay heed to Nepal’s request, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse. These developments in Nepal were incorrectly perceived in India. Even the apolitical Indian Army chief General M.M. Naravane said that Nepal’s protests about the new road was carried out ”at the behest of someone else.” He was indirectly and incorrectly referring to China as being behind this round of friction between Nepal and India.

Nepal’s Updated Map Has the Support of All – and Not Just the Ruling Party

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The new political map of Nepal is not simply the brainchild of the ruling NCP. All political parties and parliamentarians of Nepal’s bicameral federal parliament have endorsed it. Nepal issued the new political map including the India-controlled territories of Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura by approval of both the lower and upper houses of the parliament, on June 13 and June 18 this year respectively. The parliamentary passage of the new political map was unopposed; not a single vote was cast against it. If the NCP was its only supporter, it wouldn’t have garnered 100 percent parliamentary approval.

Birat Anupam is the senior English language reporter at Nepal’s official news agency, National News Agency. He mostly writes about tourism, diplomacy and the environment.