Dr. Niranjan Man Singh Basnyat
Nepal’s Former Ambassador to Malaysia
Member, Nepal Council of World Affairs
In this article, the author has tried to explain the history of the foreign policy of Nepal since the time of King Prithvi Narayan Shah in a nutshell. The article explores the situation during the Rana regime including the return of four districts from the British namely Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, and Kanchanpur with the efforts of Prime Minister Jung Bahadur during the 1850s. The Agreement signed in 1923 between Nepal and the British Government was very important in which for the first time a big European power of that time recognized Nepal as a sovereign and independent nation. This Agreement was made possible by the efforts of Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher. The present status of foreign policy and its basic principles and objectives, in particular, Nepal’s relations with the United Nations have been analyzed. The article also elaborates on the new concepts of modern diplomacy and comments on our need to cope and adapt to the newly evolving international order. In conclusion, the article suggests an all-party consensus on the foreign policy of Nepal, failing which Nepal would have the chance of becoming a failed state in the near future.
Modern Nepal, as is known today all over the world as an independent nation in South Asia, came into existence with the unification of fifty-two small kingdoms and principalities by King Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha in 1769 AD (Pant, 1971). Many people in the military and civil services of Gorkha sacrificed their lives to build a strong nation with a bigger territory. Some historians have stated that Nepal or Nepal Mandal had already existed since the time of Licchavi Kings till the eighth century AD, but it became fragmented into multiple kingdoms in the subsequent Thakuri period.
King Prithvi Narayan Shah started the expansion of Gorkha with his first victory over Nuwakot on September 27, 1744. Since then, he had been struggling to unite other small and big kingdoms through intense battles, it took him twenty-five years of his life to finally capture Bhaktapur on November 12, 1769 (Tandon, 2020), the last major victory over Kathmandu valley. This victory and victories over the states of Chaudandi and Bijayapur in eastern Nepal culminated in the successful unification of a modern nation state.
After Bhaktapur was annexed to Gorkha, he declared Nepal as a sovereign country with Kathmandu as its capital on March 21, 1770. A noted writer on history and culture, Dr. Govind Tandon, has said that “King Prithvi Narayan Shah had actually regained the respect, esteem, and grandeur of Nepal by his good efforts, otherwise these features had been degrading and were at the state of decline for one thousand years” (Tandon, 2020).
Initially, King Prithvi Narayan Shah had assigned some officials to look after the matters related to foreign affairs. His officers as well as astrologers Bhanu Jaishi Aryal and later his son Balkrishna Aryal used to cover international relations at the outset (Acharya, 1981). Subba Dinanath Upadhyaya was appointed Nepal’s first envoy to East India Company in Calcutta in 1770 and Gajraj Mishra, who belonged to the family of King’s priest, was appointed as a head merchant (a consular officer) of the government of Nepal in Banaras (Acharya, 2004, pp. 479-482).
Similarly, Lal Giri was sent to Lhasa to improve relations with Tibet, and Biswamitra Upadhyaya and Gangananda Acharya were sent to Sikkim. “Thus he [King Prithvi Narayan Shah] was also a pioneer in the institution-building of the current Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal” (Basnyat, 2021, p. 112).
Nepal’s Geo-strategic Location:
Geographically Nepal was situated in the middle of the two big empires even at the time of King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s reign, namely the British in the south which had occupied India, and the Chinese in the north. But the political situation was completely different then in terms of development in war technology and the norms in interacting with foreign powers. Nevertheless, Nepal, a mountainous country with primitive war technology and small military force at its disposal, was able to maintain its independence as a sovereign nation in the course of its history from 1769 to the present day, despite many upheavals and wars it had to face. Nepal fought its major wars against Tibet and China in 1791-92 and with East India Company in 1767 and 1814-16. The war with Tibet/China ended with the signing of the Treaty of Betravati in 1792. Two years before the unification of the country in 1767. Gorkha was able to crush the attack from the East India Company forces in Sindhuligadhi. It was an outstanding victory for Gorkhalis against an emerging global power of the day.
King Prithvi Narayan Shah was a visionary and far-sighted statesman. He had already contemplated about the future and had given following important instructions to his successors in his “Dibya Upadesh” (Divine Counsel) that says as follows:
“This State is like a yam between two rocks. Establish enduring peace with the Emperor of China. Establish peace with the emperor from south-sea (East India Company, King of England) but he is very shrewd. He is controlling Hindustan (India) and has taken our territory in the plains which are at our border.
If Hindustan (India) will unite, they (East India Company) will be in difficulty and they will come searching for forts. Establish forts based on the prevailing situations in the potential routes and put obstacles and hurdles in them. One day that force (East India Company) will come. Do not go to attack them but only if they attack, start the war and many of them will be slain at the Chure Pass. We can also seize the treasure-trove of weaponry which can be used by our five to seven generations. The border will be fixed up to Ganga (Ganges) river. If they cannot win the war, they will come through persuasion or using so many tactics and deceptions (against us)” (Basnyat, 2021, p. 76).
These instructions cited above have been the basis of our foreign policy and they will remain so in the future as well. The last sentence is much more important in the present context. In this connection, it is worthwhile to quote a historian who has said “it seems sufficient to add here that the foreign policy evolved by King Prithvi Narayan Shah and incorporated in his Dibya Upadesh (Divine Counsel) was sufficiently sound to bring the newly born Kingdom of Nepal safely through more than thirty years of very troubled times before the clash between Nepal and the Company occurred. This was no small achievement in the subcontinent in the eighteenth century (Stiller, 1989, p. 57).
As was suspected, the East India Company again attacked Nepal after 48 years in 1814 with a much larger number of forces. They won this war and Nepal had to lose thirty three percent of its territories as per the terms and provisions imposed by the Treaty of Sugauli signed in 1815. King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s successor at that time was King Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah who was a minor. The state affairs were controlled by Mukhtiyar General Bhimsen Thapa and his family members. So, he chose to go for war against the British despite the opposition against it in the meeting of courtiers which lasted for nearly 11 hours. The prominent among them who was opposed to going to war with the British was Bada Kaji Amar Singh Thapa. They could not prudently manage Nepal’s relations with the British diplomatically or militarily.
Thus, most of the territories that Nepal had conquered earlier in the southern plains from Satlaj in the west to Sikkim and Darjeeling in the east were annexed to British India. This was a big territorial loss to Nepal. The country was thus reduced to the territories in the middle of Mechi River in the east to the Mahakali River in the west. Though the size of the country was reduced, it was, nevertheless, saved and protected as an independent nation till now with the wisdom and courage of ancestors.
Noteworthy events during 104 years of the Rana regime were the return of Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, and Kanchanpur, which were taken by the British as per the Treaty of Sugauli, to Nepal after the important military assistance rendered by Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana to them to suppress the Sipoy Mutiny in 1857 in India and the Agreement of 1923 signed by Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana with the British which recognized Nepal as an independent sovereign nation for the first time.
After the overthrow of the autocratic Rana regime in 1951 by the democratic movement led by the Nepali Congress and King Tribhuvan, and supported by India, the foreign policy of Nepal evolved in the new spectrum.
King Mahendra re-initiated the steps to become a member of the United Nations, though the first step was already taken by the Rana government in 1948. Finally, Nepal became a member of the United Nations on December 14, 1955, after ten years of its creation. It had established diplomatic ties with the United Kingdom, United States, India, and France during the Rana regime.
Nepal also established diplomatic relations with China in 1955 and USSR in 1956. With the participation of Nepal at the Conference of Afro-Asian Solidarity Conference in Bandung in 1955, Nepal was considered an important nation in the international arena for the first time. King Mahendra represented Nepal at the highest level and also participated actively in the deliberations of the first Non-Aligned Summit held in Belgrade in 1961. Nepal adopted non-alignment as its foreign policy. The principles and policies of non-alignment based on Panchsheel have been incorporated in the constitutions of Nepal adopted at different times from 1961 to the present one promulgated in 2015 (Article 51 m 1 and 2). The principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter have been also enshrined in our Constitution. When one reviews the diplomatic history of Nepal, it can be concluded that King Mahendra till 1971 and later King Birendra till 2001 had promoted and protected the national interests of Nepal in a proper manner. King Ma hendra’s efforts to enhance the dignity of Nepal in international forums are noteworthy.
Basis of Nepal’s International Relations:
In today’s interdependent world, the foreign policy adopted by a country should be good enough to preserve and protect its sovereignty, national independence, territorial integrity as well as promote national interests among the comity of nations. Nepal has been pursuing the policy of friendship with all the countries of the world through peaceful means. It maintains diplomatic relations with 173 countries out of 193 members of the United Nations at present. Nepal is also the second-largest contributor of peacekeepers for maintaining international peace and security under the UN flag. Among other positive activities that Nepal has been involved in, it has been calling for peaceful settlements of local and international disputes, adherence to democratic principles, values and norms, respect for human rights, and freedom of speech.
Nepal’s first elected Prime Minister B.P. Koirala addressed the 15th Regular Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1960 where he said “The primary objective of the foreign policy of every country is to secure its own political independence, sovereignty, and security and to promote international peace and cooperation…the foreign policy of Nepal is fully inspired by the principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter. We regard the United Nations not only as a bulwark of our independence and security, but also as the protector of our rights and freedom” (Koirala, 1960).
More recently Foreign Minister Dr. Narayan Khadka addressed the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2021 in which he has presented the views and positions of Nepal on all major issues of international concern.
This has been an annual practice to address the UNGA by the leader of the delegation, but Nepal must equally remain vigilant to fulfill its obligations on various major areas of concern raised by other members, in particular on domestic issues like rampant corruption, promotion and protection of human rights, gender inequality, health, education, representation of minorities, etc.
The UN has endorsed seventeen Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) and they are being implemented by the international community including Nepal for which targets have been set to achieve these goals by 2030.
Minister Khadka also called for the general and complete nuclear disarmament, but Nepal has not given any attention to ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which it signed in September 2017. This Treaty has already entered into force on January 22, 2021. As a peace-loving nation and the birthplace of Lord Buddha, Nepal should have ratified this important treaty earlier as this contributes significantly to world peace.
Fellow SAARC members such as Bangladesh and the Maldives have already done so along with 57 other members of the UN. Nepal attaches high importance to the UN activities by which maintenance of international peace and security could be achieved. Similarly, other issues such as trade and commerce, and environment protection, in particular, the melting of the Himalayas have been our principal agenda.
The Present Scenario in South Asia and Beyond:
Large-scale historical change has been witnessed in the international ambit during the last three decades just after the end of the Cold War. The disintegration of the Soviet Union was a monumental change. Such an important change in international relations has brought about the need to have a new outlook and it generated widespread interest which changed the thinking of diplomats and political leaders alike.
The emergence of China as the new world power only second to the United States has presented challenges and opportunities for many countries and businesses. It has created new realities for many observers in the context of new international economic order after such change which brought China to the center stage of the globe. Nepal signed the agree ment for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects with China in 2017 which is yet to be implemented.
As regards the regional organizations, SAARC has become defunct due to rivalry between India and Pakistan. BIMSTEC has also not been able to take off properly as was expected. Many mechanisms on several important areas of cooperation set up by these organizations have become obsolete without proper implementation. It seems that BIMSTEC has given more importance to only security issues rather than other economic and social issues plaguing the region. At the same time, the outbreak of Covid-19 has negatively impacted the world economy. The health and education sectors have also been badly affected. As a consequence, the world economy has slowed down tremendously and people in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are finding it difficult to cope with the new situation.
Besides this, the world has become more vulnerable to larger-scale war in terms of emerging new flashpoints such as the cases of the South China Sea and Russia-Ukraine imbroglio which can even trigger a nuclear war between big powers at any point in time. The US and UK’s announcement in September last year to export nuclear submarine technology to Australia is a breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
According to the treaty provisions, a nuclear weapon state cannot export nuclear technology to a non nuclear state like Australia. Similarly, other traditional inequalities prevalent in international trade and concerns on the matters of environmental protection remain more acute. The concept of globalization proposed and implemented by the developed countries for four decades has completely failed to show positive results, in particular, to narrow the gap between rich and poor countries. Rather it has squeezed poor economies in favor of developed ones.
New Concepts in International Relations and Diplomacy:
As the world changes, we need to adapt and adjust to the new diplomatic norms and values. The role of INGOs has been growing and they are regarded as change-makers. Internally, the relationship between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and line ministries is evolving fast. The ministries such as finance, agriculture, labor, energy, transport, justice, defense or commerce, supplies, etc. are claiming their roles in a country’s external affairs. Thus, a need has arisen also to coordinate the increasing global governance and international cooperation which may have a long-term impact. This also entails closer coordination in policy matters with these ministries by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In this connection, an expert on international relations has elaborated thus: “In international affairs, while states remain the primary unit, there are several non-state actors whose role and influence have grown considerably: supranational and international organizations (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), un civil society organizations like terrorist groups, arms and drug smugglers, and human traffickers, multinational corporations (MNCs), philanthropic foundations, celebrities, – transnational professional associations which establish global standards and norms, constitute networked global governance” (Slaughter, 2005). The MOFA should take into consideration such organizations while conducting diplomacy.
A well-known writer on the subject of diplomacy Ramesh Thakur has rightly observed that the concept of national interest“… is erroneous as a description of the empirical reality, substitutes tautology for an explanation, and is unhelpful to guide to policy. In addition, it captures human agency and allows for human error and multiple balances as weighed by different people reflecting their personal predilections, professional backgrounds, life and career experiences, and institutional interests and perspectives” (Thakur, 2013, p. 84). Furthermore, he has proposed to pursue ‘a balance of interests’ in international relations rather than only promoting ‘national interests in the present-day complicated world with multiple stakeholders.
The foreign policy of Nepal has not been well-coordinated internally as well as externally in the present context. Political parties are quite divided on the implementation of foreign policy objectives.
The relations with India have become ‘sour’ due to its incorporation of Nepal’s territory of Kalapani, Lipulek and Limpiyadhura in its official map on November 8, 2019.
Despite Nepal’s several requests to India to have official talks in this connection, India has not given any serious attention to this and it seems that it is trying to evade the talks on this matter.
In another example, there was a clear divergence of views on the US Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement among the coalition partners, opposition parties, and general public before it was finally ratified by the parliament on February 27, 2022. Even on the matter of appointing ambassadors to different countries, the political parties are divided and they have their own candidates for each country. In such a scenario, the MOFA has become a silent spectator and has no alternative but to wait for whatever instructions it receives from political leaders. Such instances do not augur well for the long-term international standing of Nepal.
Late Dr. Binod Bista, the then member of NCWA, had rightly stated almost one year ago, “The situation today appears untenable: India is angry with Nepal for releasing new map challenging its claim; China fears Nepal falling into the grip of Indo-Pacific strategy designed to restrain China’s unchecked use of resources of that region, and last but not the least, the US is unhappy with Nepal backtracking on its earlier commitment to MCC. The sensitivities inherent in international relations nudge each country to be among others, accommodative, patient, understanding with top-notch diplomatic skills. It is more so for poorer countries that lack resources. The geophysical setting, the geo political situation today does not allow Nepal to commit any slight mistake. Nepal must be alert and active with no respite for now” (Bista, 2021, p. 15).
In view of the above context in the execution of our foreign policy, it is recommended that all political parties sit together to formulate a consensus national foreign policy if Nepal wants to really protect its independence and sovereignty in the long run. In the absence of a firm strategy to develop the country through its robust foreign policy, the country may enter into the dark phase both politically and economically leading to the declaration as a failed nation by the international community. Thus, the leaders should unite and work for resolving domestic political issues and should not in any way involve themselves in inviting foreign interference in the internal affairs of Nepal.
# Text courtesy: Nepal Council of World Affair ( NCWA) Annual Journal 2022.
# Thanks the distinguished author Ambassador Basanyat.
# Journal received through Vice President Buddhi Narayan Shrestha. Thanks the entire team of NCWA.
Our contact email address is: [email protected]
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