Nepal: Foreign policy challenges- issue of 1950 treaty

Binod P Bista

Foreign Policy Expert, Nepal

The revision issue of indo-Nepal treaty of peace and friendship’, considered unequal by most Nepalis, was first raised publicly by Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista in the year 1969 terming it as obsolete and outdated. The argument put forward for its revision had to do with India not abiding by the related clauses of that treaty (article II requires that both governments inform each other of any serious friction or misunderstanding with any neighboring state likely to cause any breach in the friendly relations subsisting between the two countries”). Letter exchanged with the treaty (July 1950-same date as the treaty) stipulates clearly that the two governments shall consult with each other and devise effective counter-measures” to deal with the threat from a foreign aggressor. India had taken two unilateral actions during its war with China in 1962 (along Ladakh region) and with Pakistan in 1965 (disputed region of Kashmir) without informing Nepal on both occasions despite the treaty obliging both parties to do so. Even later in the year 1971, India’s direct involvement against Pakistan for Bangladesh independence without Nepal’s knowledge breached the important article of that treaty.

Almost forty years down the line in 2008, the Prime Minister-in- waiting Puspa Kamal Dahal, terming Indo-Nepal 1950 treaty as unequal from a security relation point of view called for scrapping it off. He also called for a revisit and review of several other treaties such as the Mahakali treaty of 1996. Now a look at the clauses of the 1950 Indo-Nepal treaty that hurt the sentiments and pride of Nepalis who chose to remain independent at the cost of progress and prosperity.

The provisions that offend Nepali national sensibilities are those giving India a say in Nepal’s purchase of military equipment from a third country and granting India ‘first preference’ for industrial and natural resource projects in Nepal. Such provisions are clearly inconsistent with Nepal’s exercise of full sovereignty. Also the reciprocity sought by the treaty between a nation of over one billion population (India) and a mere 27 million people (Nepal) in according the same privileges to the nationals of both countries (articles VI and VII) poses a serious problem to Nepal in spite of a stipulation in the letter exchange for preventing unrestricted competition necessary for some time. The revision or signing of a new treaty with India, for which there are ample takers of this view in India, would not only restore full sovereignty to the Nepalis but also commence the beginning of a new partnership with Nepal’s closest friend and neighbor, India. Moreover, the 1950 peace and friendship treaty was signed towards the end of Rana oligarchy by the last Rana Prime minister Mohan Shumshere JB Rana which was not even distantly representative of the people, it was natural that the treaty included several clauses that tried to encroach upon Nepal’s sovereignty.

Other issues:

Successive governments under democratic polity since 1990 allowed foreign governments’ resident envoys to travel to any part of the country and offer donations or charities to educational, health and other social agencies without receiving prior approval and accompaniment of the government. That action coupled with the practice of weak government leaders seeking foreign advice and support in petty but internal matters such as resolving political disputes among nationally elected representatives of political parties has largely eroded Nepal’s sovereign status hard earned by their predecessors at a great cost and sacrifice. Increasing intervention in Nepal’s internal affairs by all foreign actors in the past decade or so has remained a major irritant in Nepal’s otherwise best relations with foreign countries. There is a need to resolve these unwarranted issues through astute diplomacy and tact.

Future prospects:

The study of international relations requires that it be viewed as a dynamic concept that is changing over time. The pace of change, however, is contingent on bigger powers, more so with the sole super power of today. The establishment of Security Council of the United Nations with two distinct types of membership, permanent and non-permanent, explains the concept of bigger power and lesser power better. Obviously, impact and influence of foreign policies of lesser powers is utterly limited when it comes to exercising it in the international scene. Although larger countries in the region such as India and China in Asia, Brazil and Argentina in South America or Nigeria and South Africa in Africa do exert some amount of influence in their areas yet when that regional dispute or conflict takes the shape of an international character, other stronger powers get into action encroaching (even stunting) upon their ability to influence the events there. For lesser powers it is even difficult to maintain their neutrality and exercise real independence, much less influence, in vital matters requiring decision at the global level

The people of Nepal must never forget that the country’s survival and progress as an independent and sovereign nation is possible only by maintaining best of relations with both of its contiguous neighbors, India and China. History is witness to it. This reality gives a clear message that even before contemplating an action, bilateral or otherwise and however beneficial to the people, Nepal must ever remain cognizant of the changing perceptions and priorities of her neighbors and take timely actions (or make adjustments) to be in line with the changing needs for protecting her national interest. A discourse on emerging challenges of Nepal’s foreign policy will remain incomplete (and perhaps useless) if it were not to try to take into full account the challenges faced by its two neighbors. Since it would neither be possible nor desirable to get into an in-depth analysis of real as well as perceived challenges of two most populous nations having to confront a myriad of internal and external issues. For the purpose of this paper and seminar, brief extract of views however limited, from observations and comments made by known experts through seminars and some publications is considered sufficient.

India related issues:

India’s foreign policy challenges can be summarized briefly on the following lines: Challenge of securing peaceful atmosphere in the subcontinent but also achieving satisfactory economic growth, curbing terrorism, promoting peace and human security as well as a right strategy to deal with the US, the only superpower, Pakistan, China and the other Asian states in the new era. Challenges are many but strategies for confronting these challenges are limited because with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, India’s strategy of nonalignment and close relations with the Soviet Union (Russian Federation) has lost much of its relevance. Internal problems, growing poverty, corruption, and poor infrastructure, and security challenges from Pakistan may constrict India’s role to the South Asian region only.

China related issues:

China’s foreign policy challenges extracted from observations made by experts can be laid down as follows: China is now in a delicate, sensitive and painful period of transition thus needs to maintain stable foreign relations while going through a learning curve. In the short and mid-term China would pay special attention to improving its relations with developed countries, particularly USA and with its neighboring countries for the modernization program and building a well-off society in an all round way by 2020. China’s major foreign policy challenge pertaining to the United States lies in generating responsible strategic policies that in demonstrated performance do not induce strategic uneasiness in the United States or to its allies to which it is committed to in the Western Pacific.

Nepal’s greatest challenge:

It is evident that Nepal’s immediate neighbors’ preoccupation in the twenty first century seems to be finding a right strategy to deal with the sole superpower, the US. It is needless to state that they have a larger role and responsibility in securing a peaceful and stable environment in their region. For sustaining their stupendous economic growth, they will be competing against each other for energy and markets under a stable regional environment. This necessitates that both need to cooperate at a certain level. It is all the more essential that smaller neighbors of the Asian region like Nepal maintained friendly and harmonious relations with both countries as their interest can be easily compromised when these giants find commonality in their larger interest. Owing to a transition phase in the formulation of foreign policy measures of both India and China, the situation is extremely volatile and sensitive. Any slip up by smaller countries in the region in their relations with these regional powers could extract a heavy price endangering national sovereignty.

For countries like Nepal, owing to its geopolitical situation (often considered as a buffer state between its two giant neighbors, India and China), scope and ability to play an effective role in international relations is greatly restricted. As things are, diplomacy should be the viable option for advancing Nepal’s relations with its neighbors as well as the rest of the world for safeguarding its national interest including enhancing socio-economic development of the nation.

Of the four major instruments (fifth one, namely imperialism and colonialism, has become out of context today and thus not considered for now) for the promotion of national interests outlined in most textbooks, it is hardly possible for countries like Nepal to think ‘war as an instrument’ or use ‘economic instrument’ or get into ‘propaganda and political warfare as instruments’. Given the present context, viable option would be to work on ‘diplomacy’ as an instrument of national policy Before getting into the discussion of the appropriateness of diplomacy for exercising Nepal’s foreign policy, it might be worthwhile to digress a bit on the definition given to it by the representatives of Super Powers during 1940s which is as follows:

General Joseph W. Stilwell (known as “Vinegar Joe”), the top American Military Commander in the China-Burma-India theater; calling himself as a ‘deckhand diplomat’ had said, “It is a serious business. A lot of big figures indulge in it and a host of little ones trail along. The term diplomat to the average American evokes a vision of an immaculately dressed being- pen stripe pant, spats, cutaway and topper-and a coldly severe and superior manner which masks the lightening like play of the intellect…”-The Stilwell Papers, edited by Theodore H. White (William Slaon Associates, 1948). Joseph Stalin from a different background seems to have described the art of diplomacy as: ‘A diplomat’s words must have no relations to actions-otherwise what kind of diplomat is it? Good words are a mask for the concealment of bad deeds—quoted in David Dallin, The real Soviet Russia (Yale University press 1944).

Whatever the definition, a diplomat is supposed to function on the following broad areas: representation, negotiation, reporting and protection of interests of a nation. Harold Nicolson (whose book diplomacy has become a classic) has given emphasis on three developments of the Nineteenth and twentieth centuries which have greatly affected diplomacy. Growing sense of community of nations, increasing appreciation of the importance of public opinion and rapid increase in communication have provided opportunities as well as challenges to diplomacy.

Nepal may need to resort to structured (normal channels) diplomacy as well as personal diplomacy Notwithstanding the advantages and disadvantages of personal diplomacy (practiced during critical periods of the events leading to World War II-Churchill and Roosevelt for Atlantic Charter (vision for post war settlement); with Chiang Kai Shek, Stalin; Churchill, Stalin and Truman, Potsdam Conference 1945- punishment to the defeated), and a regular practice followed by Nepal in conducting high level dialogue with India’s senior officials as well as China’s, resorting to this mechanism at a critical moment might prove to be better than following the normal channels. Such a practice would require a proper combination of diplomats functioning at different circumstances. Although the appointment of Ambassadors is considered to be political decision making yet one cannot expect the bureaucrats to perform outside of the normal channels. Personal diplomacy would thus require suitable persons who can read the minds of the government leaders accurately and perform expeditiously and always in the best interest of the country and its people. Nepal must ever remain alert to the demands and aspirations of its neighbors and act in a proactive manner to either douse smallest of their doubts or help prevent any untoward incident affecting it.

Nepal is destined to be in a 24-hour working schedule simply for its survival as an independent and sovereign nation. Besides, Nepal needs to make judicious use and application of its scarce but invaluable resources including water resources; protection and preservation of its natural environment including bio-diversity artistic and cultural legacy for choosing a pragmatic course for socio-economic development. While a bad internal decision on the use of public goods and resources would push back Nepal into a state of further underdevelopment causing rampant poverty and social unrest, lack of imagination in its bilateral relations with its immediate neighbors could easily land Nepal in an intractable situation taking decades to unwind unfavorable consequences and regain its composure. This is the biggest foreign policy challenge for Nepal. ( Concluded).

(This paper was presented by the author at a seminar organized by the Institute of Foreign Affairs, Nepal, November 14, 2011. Thanks to the author and the organizer: Chief Editor.


1. L.F. Stiller, S. J, Prithvinarayan Shah in the light of Dibya Upadesh: 1968

2. Leo E. Rose, Nepal Strategy for survival: 1971

3. Norman D. Palmer and Howard C. Perkins, International relations-the world community in transition: 1985 (Indian Edition)

4. Indian Foreign Policy in the 21st century: Prospects and Challenges.

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