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US policy towards Nepal expected to remain unchanged whoever wins White House race

With excitement over the imminent outcome of the US presidential elections and Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s victory expected, a new discourse on whether Washington’s foreign policy towards Nepal will change is likely to dominate in Nepali diplomatic and political circles in the coming days.

Diplomats and foreign policy observers say that although the fundamentals of US foreign policy in the region will remain largely unchanged and Biden’s election will not affect Nepal much, the style and conduct of its foreign policy is likely to be significantly different.

“Some major tensions in bilateral and multilateral fronts between the US and other countries and organisations are likely to cool down if Biden wins,” said Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali. “But fundamentally US policy towards Nepal will not change if Biden wins.”

But its approach to relations with China and India could have repercussions in Nepal, observers say.

Due to the rise of China, the geo-political, geo-strategic, geo-economic, security, trade, energy, commerce and other interests of the US have exponentially risen in the last one decade in Asia in particular and across the globe in general.

“Therefore, the Biden administration will push the MCC to a greater extent to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Nepal and that will likely invite friction between two powers in Kathmandu,” a Nepali diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The outstanding issue between Kathmandu and Washington DC has been the parliamentary ratification of the $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact grant. But with some sections within the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) having reservations about the compact since it is part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, it hasn’t been ratified even after three years of signing of the agreement between Nepal and the United States.

But observers at the same time maintain that US foreign policy will be more stable if Biden wins, unlike the volatility during the Trump presidency.

“We often observed some unpredictable, volatile and fragile US foreign policy in the last four years, which is likely to end if Biden wins,” said Gyawali. “Some partnership between major powers is expected as Biden has announced that the US will re-enter the Paris climate deal.”

But despite a predictable and stable foreign policy under Biden, the US in its foreign policy will continue its traditional aggression in military and strategic affairs, said Gyawali.

This more sober view will also be evident in regional affairs, according to observers.

“Regional tension is likely to be eased, trade deal between the US and China is likely to be changed,” said Nepal’s former ambassador to the United States Suresh Raj Chalise.

“If Biden wins, the radical centrism will once again prevail in the US administration and policy, making its stance a less hardline approach rather than the current aggressive stance on various global and regional issues.”

During the run-up to the elections, President Donald Trump in order to bolster his support base made scathing attacks on China and time and again called the coronavirus the Chinese virus.

“Their engagement with China may not remain the same. Under Biden’s leadership, the US may not opt for militarisation like the Trump regime did,” said Shambu Ram Simkhada, another Nepali ambassador to the United States.

“The relationship between the US and China will be based on cooperation and competition as and when necessary.”

The growing engagement of the US in the region has also been evident in the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to India, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

The signing of Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) between the United States and India and the whirlwind visit to other South Asian nations was clearly a countermove against the growing Chinese influence in the region.

BECA will help India get real-time access to American geospatial intelligence that will enhance the accuracy of automated systems and weapons like missiles and armed drones. Through the sharing of information on maps and satellite images, it will help India access topographical and aeronautical data, and advanced products that will aid in navigation and targeting.

Under Trump, the bilateral relationship between the US and India has taken a definitive strategic turn with both countries coming together in the shared vision of Indo-Pacific and the Quadrilateral Dialogue along with Japan and Australia.

Recent security and strategic ties between the US and India are also a key factor while determining its South Asia policy, say some experts.

“How ties between the US and India evolves if Biden wins is also of great interest to watch for,” said Simkhada.

But as far as Nepal is concerned, according to Chalise, the US remains its trusted friend and partner for the last seven decades since Nepal and the superpower established diplomatic ties in 1947 and irrespective of any governments in DC, the US will continue to support Nepal.

According to a Nepali official, US foreign policy towards Nepal is influenced by some senators and congressmen in some issues like Tibetan refugees and religion.

“Although there is tremendous goodwill towards Nepal in the US, sometimes due to pressure from some senators and congressmen, Nepal has been put in a tight spot on Tibetan issue,” the official said.

China, on the other hand, does not want Nepal to be used for any anti-Chinese activities. While the US wants Tibetan refugees that cross over the mountains into Nepal to be allowed safe passage to India, China wants them repatriated.

Nepal and the US have multifaceted relations ranging from trade and commerce to development assistance such as transport, communication, public health, family planning, malaria eradication, agriculture, forestry, energy and tourism.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, of late, US cooperation is geared towards the institutionalisation of peace and democracy and US cooperation has equally been instrumental in the field of human resource development.

Given the divergence of ideology between Democrats and Republicans, it is said that a more liberal, open, progressive ideology based on civil liberty and social equality may be promoted if Biden wins, according to observers.

“Although its foreign policy will not change that drastically, changes are likely to be witnessed in areas like its engagement with Asia, human rights, trade and some multilateralism issues,” said Simkhada.

This is also a view from within the ruling Nepal Communist Party.

“US policy towards China, the Middle East, multilateralism and climate accord are expected to change if Biden wins,” Bishnu Rijal, deputy chief of the ruling party’s foreign affairs department, told the Post.

“But as its policy towards Nepal is largely stable and unchanged for decades, I do not see much changes in it. The US has been our development partner and friend for 70 years without any big ups and downs.”

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