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Nepal in a cleft stick: Another US programme stirs domestic politics with Beijing watching

Notwithstanding the Deuba’s government push to strengthen ties with the US, Nepal is still far from signing any security pact with it. Further, China, despite suffering a relative pushback in Nepal, is unlikely to take such a deal kindly

Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar Jun 18, 2022
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Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba

Despite the United States being its largest development partner, Nepal has always been very sensitive regarding any security pact or alliance with Washington. That sensitivity has only grown substantially in the last few years, mainly because of the expanded Chinese influence in the country -- aided by the rise of communist parties -- and the growing big power politics between Beijing and the US.

This week, Nepal’s domestic politics has been rocked once again by yet another  rumoured security deal with the United States -- almost four months after the Nepali Parliament ratified the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, a controversial $500 million US aid programme, despite opposition from Beijing.

Last week, US General Charles Flynn, Commanding Officer of US Army Pacific Command, who met Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Nepali Army chief General Prabhu Ram Sharma in Kathmandu, reportedly urged the Nepal government to sign its State Partnership Program (SPP), a component of the US Indo-Pacific strategy. 

Nepal-US ties

First floated in 2015, the proposal will see a partnership between the US National Guards and the Nepali Army and a provision of $500 million in aid for five years and non-lethal weapons for Nepal, as reported by The Kathmandu Post.

The push came amid warming ties between the US and Nepal and crucially ahead of two proposed high-profile visits to Washington separately by Deuba and Army chief Sharma. However, the Deuba government, conscious of domestic opposition to any security deal with the US, has been hesitant.

“We have not reached any conclusion as the Nepal Army has some reservations about some paragraphs of the draft. Nepal does not want to be seen as having joined some US-led security and military alliance or the Indo-Pacific Strategy,” a senior official at Nepal’s Ministry of Defense was quoted as saying by The Kathmandu Post.

Upset opposition

However, within days, political leaders from both the ruling coalition and opposition questioned the government, raising concerns over any possibility of Nepal entering into a military alliance and thus falling into the geopolitical game -- a scenario which most certainly will damage its ties with China.

Notably, during his visit to Nepal in March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in what appeared to be a warning to Kathmandu that “China opposes …. geopolitical games in Nepal. Nepal should become a shining example of cooperation between China and South Asia”.

Leading the charges against the government, former foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali of the main opposition CPN-UML
said: “Signing the SPP will push the country into a geopolitical conflict… it is unacceptable… Nepal’s foreign policy will be breached if it decides to be part of any military alliance.”

Military interested?

Interestingly, a leaked letter later revealed that it was during the CPN-UML government that then Nepal Army chief wrote to the US Embassy, expressing willingness to join the SPP.

“As authorised by the government of Nepal, it is our honour to formally request the establishment of the National Guard State Partnership Program for Nepal,” read the leaked letter by then Army chief Rajendra Chhetri to Alaina B Teplitz, then US ambassador to Nepal. 

Under pressure, the government responded with contradictory messaging as Law Minister Govind Sharma Bandi first denied either receiving any such proposal or the government applying for it.

Later, Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand told the parliament that the country was not part of the State Partnership Program of the United States and it had no intention to join it either. 

China worried

Notwithstanding the Deuba’s government push to strengthen ties with the US, Nepal is still far from signing any security pact with Washington. Furthermore, the Chinese, despite suffering a relative pushback in its foreign policy in Nepal, is unlikely to take such a deal kindly.

The signing of the MCC, Washington’s growing interest in Kathmandu indicated by the growing pace of high-profile visits and the US Under Secretary Zeya's meeting with Tibetan refugees during his Nepal visit have already unnerved Beijing enough. It is unlikely that Nepal will take any step further, which could antagonize Beijing beyond its threshold.

(SAM)

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