Re-energising Nepal’s Foreign Policy – Back To Business – After 15 Years

Now, His Majesty King Gyanendra’s addresses to various forums guarantee a keen audience that takes a close study of the texts. From the Asian-African Summit in Jakarta through the Second South Summit of the Group of 77 plus China in Doha and the recent Dhaka Summit of SAARC leaders, the Nepalese people and the international community alike are well-versed in the consistency and clarity that mark the royal addresses at such forums.

All along, His Majesty King Gyanendra has aptly outlined the objectives and priorities concerning the kingdom’s domestic and foreign policies without any ambiguity or doublespeak. The royal address to the November 12-13 Dhaka Summit of the seven-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) characteristically dispensed with high rhetoric and worn-out terminologies.

Speeches delivered at international gatherings more often than not shy away from clarity and veer off specifics. The Jakarta Asian-African Conference in April signalled a significant shift in Nepal’s foreign policy delivery. Likewise, the Second South Summit of the Group of 77 plus China held in Doha in May underscored that the Jakarta address was no flash in the pan. And the latest edition of the SAARC Summit has definitively set the pattern as well-established.

Candid and Dignified

The emphasis is on clear, candid but dignified and correct content. The result: the royal addresses make compelling reading for the cross-section of the Nepalese people as well as the diplomatic and international fraternity. Commitment to re-energising democracy and call for an unambiguously uniform world policy on terrorism have been the recurring themes of the royal speeches. It is against this background that the King’s participation in and address to the 13th SAARC Summit should be viewed.

To quite an extent, the summit was dominated by specific issues that Nepal raised. This was so on the first day when the heads of state or government of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka made their addresses. The retreat organised for the summiteers on the second day was no different. On the eve of the summit conference, most media – within and outside the region – gave the impression that Afghanistan’s entry as the eighth member of the world’s largest regional grouping was a foregone conclusion. This was far from so. The media basing their reports solely on speculation or cavalier sources went off the mark, as the eventual development so embarrassingly pointed against them.

At the Standing Committee meeting, the participating foreign secretaries had not been able to agree on granting membership or an observer status to any country. Afghanistan had shown interest in SAARC membership while China requested for an observer status. Japan also showed interest in being associated with the organisation. Admitting a new member or granting the status of an observer or dialogue partner to any new country requires an amendment to the SAARC Charter. Nepal called for formulating modalities to address all requests instead of treating cases individually from summit to summit. There was no opposition from any member country to admitting Afghanistan.

Regarding China, too, there was no opposition from any country except India, which opposed the idea outright. This was rather revealing in view of the hullabaloo by the Indian media over what they saw as new strides and progressively positive signs in the relations in recent years between the world’s two largest countries, accounting for 2.5 billion people. China borders not only four of SAARC’s seven founding members but also the member-in-waiting, Afghanistan.

As an emerging economic superpower, it could contribute to pacing up the grouping’s efforts at developing collective self-reliance and improving the living standard of an average South Asian. While the other five countries seemed to remain tentative, Nepal strongly pleaded China’s case. India stood firm in rejecting China’s request but proposed that Afghanistan be admitted as a member. Nepal treated the issue of Afghanistan’s membership and China’s observer status as a package.

The Indian Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahmed seemed to be vacillating when his Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran spoke out of turn and rejected China’s admission as an observer. Apparently, the Indian side had expected Nepal to acquiesce in line with many occasions on various issues in the past. But the next step was a quick exchange of vetoes by the two neighbours. India torpedoed Chinese request, and Nepal quashed the Indian proposal that only Afghanistan’s case be recommended to the summiteers.

A surprised and disappointed Saran was overheard telling other delegates: “I never expected this from Nepal.” Meanwhile, the Indian media finally got some wind of the deadlock but did not know the details. Most other members let Nepal and India do the talking over the Afghanistan-China issue. They apparently wanted a free ride on this score. They were, however, rather liberal when it came to briefing a few Nepalese journalists on the sidelines.

A day prior to the inauguration of the summit meeting, Indian journalists told some Nepalese media persons that a South Block spokesman indicated “only one country opposed the admission of Afghanistan.” That Nepal linked the cases of Afghanistan and China as a single package for endorsement was obviously not mentioned. Until then, not everyone wanted to give Nepal the credit it deserved.

Our own Foreign Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey maintained too serious a face to make substantive briefings. “Wait and see. You will know the final development soon.” Apparently, he was not for creating an uneasy atmosphere when the summit was to take place and His Majesty and the Indian prime minister were scheduled for a bilateral meeting.

An Indian journalist confronted him with a query as to whether the King had fulfilled the commitments made to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during their Jakarta meet. Pandey was very forthright, perhaps, even blunt: “His Majesty has made no commitment to anyone (outside of Nepal). He has made commitments only to the Nepalese people.”

The Indians realised that the impasse concerning the issue of membership/observer status could not be allowed to continue without aggravating embarrassment. Damage control was the next option. The first day was devoted to inaugural statements by the summit leaders. There were also some bilateral meetings. His Majesty and the Indian prime minister were scheduled to meet on the second day prior to the retreat by all the seven leaders.

Indian bureaucrats were not at all keen on one-to-one talks between His Majesty and their prime minister. Their expectation, however, did not prevail. The exclusive meeting lasted for about an hour, during which free and frank exchange of views, characterised by a greater degree of informality, took place. This scribe has solid reasons to believe that the talks were indeed informal and frank. The approach to bringing all pressing issues in a forthright manner, especially between the two immediate neighbours, is notable.

Both leaders got to know the minds of each other better than when they first met in Jakarta. The stark ground reality and pragmatic prospects of enhancing cooperation were laid bare and respective stands made clear in search of points of agreement. Obviously, the bilateral meeting facilitated the two leaders in agreeing to endorsing Afghanistan’s membership and China’s observer status.

At the retreat, Japan’s case also figured for an observer status. All the seven leaders agreed in principle to admit Afghanistan as a full member and grant observer status to both China and Japan. They instructed the foreign ministers to undertake the necessary work for formalising the summit agreement at the foreign ministerial meeting scheduled to be held in Dhaka next July.

The ensuing days should reveal how the bilateral ties are affected by the exclusive meeting between His Majesty and the Indian prime minister. In the past, the South Block found it very convenient to plant slanted stories in the pliant section of the Indian media for stirrings that suited it most. This time, both sides in the one-to-one talk seem to be maintaining their respective side of discretion. Sustained and sincere efforts should augur well for deepening ties based on trust and sensitivities of the two sovereign, independent immediate neighbours.

Right Chord

His Majesty’s Dhaka address drew appreciation from various delegates as well as journalists, especially those representing the international media. Some of the highlights of the royal address were Nepal’s offer of serving as a transit point between India and China, developing Lumbini as a “common religious and cultural centre” and emphasis on “a visa-free regime in South Asia along with a free trade regime.” It also stressed regularity of SAARC’s annual meetings, endorsed SAARC Development Goals and acquainted the gathering with Nepal’s municipal elections scheduled for next February and parliamentary polls to be held by mid-April 2007.

If the King’s Jakarta address was easily the most elaborate and eloquent statement on terrorism that drew wide appreciation, the Dhaka speech spoke against the application of any “double standard and selective approach” when dealing with the issue of terrorism anywhere and of any guise or shade. For terrorism is terrorism by any name. There can be no distinction as good or bad terrorism.

In appreciation of the royal address, the November 13, 2005 Dhaka Declaration incorporated portions transparently inspired by His Majesty’s speech. The declaration reads: “They (the leaders) strongly condemned terrorist violence in all its forms and manifestations, agreed that terrorism is a challenge to all States and a threat to all of humanity, and cannot be justified on any ground. They underlined that there should be no double standards in the fight against terrorism.”

According to an impeccable foreign source, “The manner in which His Majesty made Nepal’s presentation was very impressive. He was well-informed, knowledgeable and effective in raising and dealing with various issues. Homework was not lacking.”

The King also addressed the second phase of the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) held in Tunis from November 16 to 18 and visited a number of other African countries in what is a seen as a clear signal that Nepal is keen to forge yet better ties for greater interaction and cooperation with the African continent. Hosted by Tunisia, the WSIS is an extension of the United Nations initiative with Secretary-General Kofi Annan serving as the patron of the organising committee. South Africa is the continent’s largest economy and the royal visit to Burundi was in connection with the UN peacekeeping force to which the Royal Nepalese Army has made remarkable contributions.

The visit to Cairo re-established the importance Nepal once attached to its ties with Egypt and gave an inkling of the turn the bilateral relations might take in the coming days. It will be no surprise if there is greater interaction between the two non-aligned countries in the ensuing days, in a departure from the lacklustre manner with which Shital Niwas conducted ties with Egypt for the last 15 years.

What the royal activities covering the two summits and visits to several countries announce is the inauguration of a new era in re-energising Nepal’s foreign policy that was in hibernation for more than a decade and a half. They reflect and echo a desire for presenting Nepal’s case to the international community in its proper perspective. The refreshing restart should be sustained and nurtured in the future by elected governments too. The country should make up for the lost ground in these times of intense competition and instant communication.