Nepal is today a very valued partner in the Indo-Pacific. We’re working together to ensure that we have a free, open, secure, prosperous region”- Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.
It has been a major topic in Nepal for the past few years as a result of US pressure for Nepal to be a part of its security plan, known as the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). The US sought a “central role” from this extremely delicate and small Himalayan nation for the first time during the visit of then-foreign minister Pradeep Kumar Gyanwali to Washington, DC, as part of its “Indo-pacific strategy”—widely perceived as a counter to the ambitious Chinese connectivity project.
Furthermore, China is described as a revisionist force and a threat in the United States’ June 1, 2019, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, despite Nepal maintaining cordial ties with China. It also further states that the US is working to operationalize the major defense partnership with India while pursuing an emerging partnership with Nepal as well as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives.
In the report, the US clearly mentions that it seeks to expand its defense relationship with Nepal. The same report had added Nepal as its partner nation in the Indo-Pacific with the State Partnership Program (SPP). However, Nepal has not openly endorsed the US defense strategy amid countering China among the nations in the region of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Still, the US is trying to pull Nepal under its security umbrella.
Yet, again the US is pursuing Nepal to be the partner of US IPS. On October 30, the US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, before meeting with Nepalese counterpart Narayan Prasad Saud called Nepal a “very valued” partner in the Indo-Pacific without mentioning “Strategy”. And stated that both countries are working together to ensure “a free, open, secure, prosperous region”.
The US Raising Engagements its Interest
Nepal’s geo-political sensitivity and situation have increased geopolitical engagements. On the north the rising power China is pursuing its ambitious connectivity projects of “Joint Belt and Road” with “Shared Future”, while, in the South, India is pursuing its security alliances with the US and expanding its interest in the region. Nepal between the two giants is strategically important for both.
Soon after Nepal and China signed the MoU on Cooperation under the BRI Framework, in Kathmandu (March 2017), the US and Nepal signed 500 million dolor MCC in Washington (September 2017). Despite rumors and agitation, Nepal’s parliament ratified the MCC accord. Over the years, the engagement has grown even more noticeable both before and after the ratification. The rise in US diplomatic visits to Nepal is evidence of the US’s increasing involvement in the country. Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, USAID Chief Samantha Power, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Afreen Akhter, MCC Chief Executive Officer Alice Albright, and US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu are among the diplomats dispatched from the US.
Although the US was the second country to establish diplomatic ties with Nepal, high-level interaction has been uncommon and has become even more so since the end of the Cold War. Since Nepalese officials had not made a state visit of such a high caliber before, King Birendra paid a state visit to the United States in 1983. The Nepali PM would travel to New York for the UNGA and have a brief meeting with the US president for picture opportunities. Following a 17-year break, the then-foreign minister Gyawali and his US colleague Michael Richard Pompeo met bilaterally at a time when Nepal was deepening its diplomatic ties with China.
After the end of 2018, and today, the US has sent its officials to Nepal on a regular basis. After 5 years, again at the Thomas Jefferson Room of the State Department in Washington D.C. Blinken welcomed Saud. In 2022 May, Nepal, and the US signed a new development agreement for five years of grants, amounting to $659 million. Nepal had received $42.8 million through the US Department of Defense. The foreign military financing program was the main program prioritized by the US aid in Nepal during the period.
Nepal received a 16.93 million FMF program in 2021, third in the top activities. With 17.86 million, DOD was third in assistance partner and Conflict, Peace, and Security was third sector of priority with USD 17.82 million. In 2020, U.S. cooperation in the military sector was low. In that year, Nepal received 124 million dollars in aid, of which only 1 percent of military assistance was available. In 2019, an obligation of assistance was $174.2 million. Only 0.5 percent was military assistance. At that time, $1 million was spent on military education and training.
Concerns have been raised recently over Beijing’s increasing sway on Nepal, especially when it comes to investment and infrastructure development. This has given rise to some conjecture over Nepal’s potential future alignment with China, India, and other Indo-Pacific nations. According to this data, the US military is progressively providing more support to Nepal in an effort to keep China in check in the area.
The US Aids Interest in Nepal Yesterday and Today
US assistance to South Asia has traditionally been targeted against communist ideology. It was directed against the influence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and currently against China. South Asian states have long been seen by the US as communist-prone. The US was interested in Nepal because of its close proximity to China during the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s significant influence there. Enhancing Nepal’s “western orientation” and controlling the potential “threat of communism” were the main goals of US aid in that country. The United States of America has always maintained Nepal inside its security zone and offered military support.
In 1964–1965, the US contributed 1.8 million military personnel, according to a 1973 House of Representatives speech by James H. Noyes, Deputy Secretary of Defense Assistance. The US was Nepal’s biggest donor until 1965. During the height of the Cold War, Nepal received more US funding. Data from the Five-Year Development Plans show that from 1962 to 1965, US aid accounted for 46% of all aid. As the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, it was at a rate of 7%.
Yet, again the Chinese engagement in development and connectivity infrastructure in Nepal, the US aid is increasing significantly including the MCC, New Development Agreements, etc. Though US officials have vocally clearly that MCC is not a part of IPS after the agitation in Nepal against MCC, the official US documents and statements by US officials before including it as a part of IPS. On the other hand, Nepal has rejected the US SPP. But still, the US is pulling Nepal in its IPS, defining “Region” as different from “Strategy”. Whatever the name is given or pronounced, the ultimate interest of the US in Nepal is to Contain Chinese influence in the Region, as once PM Puspa Kamal Dhala “Prachand” in his political documents of the party convention stated that in order to deter China in the Indo-Pacific region, the US plans to have a special military partnership with the countries in the region to increase and strengthen military bases in various countries. The history and present context of US aid can justify that whatever assistance is provided by the US is ultimately targeted against China.