Making Sense of the Nepal Army’s Engagement With Big Powers

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Making Sense of the Nepal Army’s Engagement With Big Powers

China, India, and the U.S. all want to influence Nepal through engagement with its army. What does the Nepal Army want?

Making Sense of the Nepal Army’s Engagement With Big Powers

Nepali service members look out from a U.S Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal, May 8, 2015. The Nepali government requested assistance after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country April 25.

Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by MCIPAC Combat Camera Cpl. Sara A. Medina

For the past 20 years the Nepal Army chief has been a regular presence at the annual Indo-Pacific Chiefs of Defense (CHODs) conference. Very few Nepalis were aware of the powwow, held under the aegis of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. But it was a different story this year.

When the Chief of Army Staff Chief Parbhu Ram Sharma recently left for the conference, held this year in Sydney, Australia, the national parliament was in an uproar.

“If indeed the program in Australia is a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy [IPS], it goes against the spirit of our constitution,” the ruling Maoist party lawmaker Amrita Thapa remarked.

“Our parliament has already ruled that Nepal will not be a part of the IPS,” thundered Anjana Bishankhe, another Maoist lawmaker. “Why has the government sent the army chief in a violation of that ruling?”

The parliament’s International Relations Committee later sought the government’s clarification over Sharma’s participation.

Things even remotely related to the IPS are closely scrutinized in Nepal these days. The national army, meanwhile, is increasingly seen in the country’s (sizable) left circles as an American accomplice in containing China.

Secondary Concerns 

The prime constitutional duty of the Nepal Army is to maintain the country’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence. But as the national defense force has grown in size – from 46,000-strong at the start of the Maoist insurgency in 1996 to a 95,000-personnel force today – the ambit of its secondary responsibilities has also grown.

The army in a way has had to justify its anomalous expansion. It protects the country’s national parks, leads post-disaster work (a sizable undertaking in a country prone to earthquakes and water-borne disasters), and, increasingly, is in charge of big infrastructure “national pride” projects.

That is on the domestic front. The Nepal Army’s presence has also steadily grown in United Nations peacekeeping missions: Nepal is currently the second-largest troop contributor (with 5,571 active personnel) to such missions, behind only Bangladesh (6,554).

The thrust of the Nepal Army’s engagement with the defense forces of other countries is to enhance its readiness for U.N. missions but also to be better equipped for post-disaster situations and development projects.

After Nepal’s devastating earthquakes in 2015, the army was again among the first responders. But when faced with a major test, the army found that it did not have enough training or expertise to adequately carry out its post-disaster duties.

Later in the same year it applied to be a part of the U.S. State Partnership Program (SPP), which entails an exchange of personnel between an American state’s National Guard and a partner foreign country. Disaster-preparedness would be the centerpiece of this inter-country cooperation between U.S. and Nepali security personnel.

It was the then army chief, Rajendra Chhetri, who wrote to the United States on October 27, 2015, requesting Nepal’s inclusion in the SPP.

Why, the curious public asked, was the chief of the country’s defense forces writing to the Americans to be a part of what was a state-to-state program, instead of a high-level government representative?

But the army chief is unlikely to have acted on his own. Chhetri wrote in the letter that he was “authorized by the government of Nepal.” More plausibly, he had gotten the go-ahead for the letter from the then-K.P. Oli government. Whatever the case, his letter, which was leaked only recently, has sparked a new debate over the intent and rationale of the army’s external engagements.

The SPP letter-leak came hot on the heels of the Nepali parliament’s ratification of the MCC Nepal compact, a $500 million U.S. grant agreement with Nepal. Parliament passed the compact after much acrimony, as it too was believed to be a part of the IPS, a strategy to “encircle” China in the reading of many Nepalis. The Americans had put considerable pressure on Kathmandu to honor its commitment to the compact. If not, they warned, the hesitance would be interpreted as a sign of Nepal acting at China’s behest.

Now, in wanting to be a part of the SPP – a continuation of the wishes of the previous Oli government – Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was accused of joining the American military camp. The accusation came from Deuba’s own party plus the main opposition, as well as from popular commentators.

The SPP, according to another “leaked” document, which the U.S. embassy in Kathmandu later termed a “fake,” would allow for the stationing of American security personnel on Nepal soil. The new rumor found immediate traction, despite the stern denial from the U.S. embassy.

Deuba clarified that Nepal had no intention of joining the SPP, and the government later officially opted out of the program. To calm the waters, Deuba even put off his official U.S. visit.

Nepal’s Many Military Partnerships

Many observers say there was nothing wrong in Nepal wanting to join the SPP.

“Yes, the government of the day should have written to the U.S., not a sitting army chief,” said Binoj Basnyat, a former army official and a security analyst. “But the SPP was no more than a continuation of regular exchanges between the two countries’ armies.”

He says Nepal’s military diplomacy has always had three goals: maintaining traditional relations with different militaries, enhancing the army’s capacity, and increasing the quality of its presence in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

“How would the engagement between the Nepal Army and U.S. State Guards under the SPP have gone beyond these roles?” Basnyat asked.

Again, the Nepal Army is best known outside the country for its outsized presence in U.N. peacekeeping missions. Over 140,000 army personnel have served in 44 U.N. missions since 1958. It’s a lucrative assignment: an officer on peacekeeping duties earns, on average, around $1,500 a month — more than what most Nepalis make in a year.

Increasing its presence in leadership roles in the U.N. missions is one of the army’s main goals. For the same purpose, it conducts regular military exercises with the U.S., China, India, and a host of other countries.

Currently, there does not seem to be any clear preference of the Nepal Army between the armed forces of the U.S., India, and China, the three main geopolitical players in the country.

Given the age-old, multifarious ties between Nepal and India, underpinned by the open border and close people-to-people ties, the Nepal Army is naturally the closest to its Indian counterpart. The Nepal Army chief is the ceremonial head of the Indian Army and vice versa.

The two armies engage in regular military exercises under Operation Maitri. Nepali nationals serve in the Indian Army and many Nepal Army personnel get their staff college training in India. Even when other channels between the two countries have broken down — as happened during the 2015 border blockade – the army-to-army back channels have been used to diffuse bilateral tensions.

Similarly, the Nepal Army’s engagements with China have also been growing. The first serious help the Chinese extended to the army was during the decade-long Maoist insurgency (1996-2006) when it offered arms to fight the insurgents. The Nepal Army and the People’s Liberation Army also engage in regular military exercises (although not since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic). China also gives the Nepal Army some monetary aid. Staff college training in China is gaining in popularity too.

During his 2020 Nepal trip, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe had hinted at the scope of military aid for Nepal Army, which would mostly concentrate on “construction and engineering equipment and logistics for Nepali peacekeepers.”

With the Americans, the Nepal Army learns the ropes of disaster preparedness, anti-insurgency, and mountain warfare. By providing the army latest arms and ammunition, they also helped in its modernization. The army officials are also a regular part of U.S. training and exchange programs.

Making Sense of It All

Deepak Prakash Bhatta, a Nepali parliamentarian and a member of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said defense cooperation has never been a goal of Nepal’s military diplomacy. The country’s focus is rather on “peace and security.”

“Big powers tend to emphasize the defense component,” he said. “It is in their interest to do so, not ours.”

A bottom-line of Nepal’s foreign policy, Bhatta adds, is that the country should never be a part of any military or security alliance – and the army has been mindful of this.

Suresh Raj Chalise, Nepal’s former ambassador to the U.S., said the militaries of Nepal and the U.S. have been cooperating since 1945 – even before the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1947.

“I would go so far as to argue that U.S.-Nepal ties are underpinned by the relations between their militaries,” he averred. So it is a mistake to suspect their recent engagements.

Former Army Chief Gaurav Shumsher Rana also rubbished claims of the army’s ulterior motives in dealing with any foreign power: “The Nepal Army has always been an instrument of the state. Never has it acted independently of the government in power, nor will it do so in the future.”

That does not mean there is a shortage of those who doubt the army’s intent.

Krishna Khanal, professor of political science at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, argued it is unclear what the army wants to achieve abroad.

“With an increase in its size, the scope of the army’s interests has also grown,” Khanal said. “I don’t think the army has political ambitions. But, yes, its foreign engagements have been rather murky.”

He believes the former army chief was well aware of both the costs and benefits of Nepal joining the SPP when he wrote to the United States in 2015. “Yet he chose not to make full disclosure to the government of the day, which is not a healthy development in a democracy.”

Ajaya Bhadra Khanal, a seasoned journalist and foreign policy commentator, argued that foreign powers will always try to influence the Nepal Army, the country’s most stable and strongest institution. “China wants to use the army to increase its influence on other state organs. India and the U.S., for their part, would like to stop that from happening,” he said.

For instance, the Chinese want the army to be aligned with it in terms of weapons and training – and the Americans are angling for the same.

Even as the army has to maintain this difficult geopolitical balance, not just with China and the U.S. but also with India, getting lucrative U.N. peacekeeping postings will be one constant of all its external involvements. If in the process its personnel also get to visit different countries for various military trainings and exchanges, so much the better.

“Most of our able-bodied men and women are forever trying to escape to greener pastures overseas,” Professor Khanal remarked. “If everybody in the country is only looking after themselves, the army too may feel perfectly justified to pursue its own interests abroad.”