Nepal Army and SPP – Multiple Nuances
Brig (retd) Rahul Bhonsle

Nepal Army has emerged as a capable provider for UN Peace Keeping missions. The country’s Peacekeeping contingents as well as leaders have demonstrated professional competence standing tall amongst contemporaries from other nations in multinational missions.

The transition to a Republic government from a monarchy had scarred the Army particularly, as the former revolutionaries the Communist Party Maoist were elected to office in the first post Republic elections. Some bitterness and rancor prevailed.

However these are memories of yester years as the Army has stayed above the Nepal’s atypical politics with a frequent rotation of ruling parties in government and prime ministers.

Embroiling of Nepal Army in the controversy over United States defence Strategic Partnership Programme (SPP) in June this year led to some concerns of the uniformed leadership towing an independent foreign and defence policy line from the elected government.

Deeper investigations however reveal that this is far from the truth. Nevertheless, a detailed examination of the issue is called for given the significance in the regional as well as bilateral perspective for India.

What is the SPP?

The State Partnership Program (SPP) was initiated by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and individual states, territories, and District of Columbia. The programme is now operated by the U.S. National Guard which as per the website of the organisation , “conducts military-to-military engagements in support of defense security goals but also leverages whole-of-society relationships and capabilities to facilitate broader interagency and corollary engagements spanning military, government, economic and social spheres”.

Nepal Army had applied to be part of the SPP in 2015 which was reiterated in 2017 and an agreement with the Utah National Guards was to be inked after due approval of the national government. Even though the initial application had been signed by then Chief of Army Staff of the Nepal Army, there is enough evidence to prove that this had the concurrence of the government through the Ministry of Defence and foreign office. In fact, Army Chief Rajendra Chhetri had written to US Ambassador Aliana B Tepliz on October 27, 2015, saying that “As authorised by the government of Nepal, it is my honour to formally request the establishment of a National Guard State Partnership program for Nepal in the near future.”

Given the overall geopolitical and internal political developments along with civil military decision making however, a controversy was set to emerge as discussed below.

Nepal’s Search for Balance in Foreign Policy

Given emergence of a competition between the major global powers the United States and China-Russia evidently multilateralism is under threat with a strong trend of reemergence of “block” politics. This is seriously undermining Nepal’s traditional policy of non alignment particularly due to the geographic location of Nepal south of Tibet. China’s concerns of greater engagement of the United States in Nepal and as an important partner in the Indo Pacific Strategy are growing.

In the field of development the China US competition was evident during ratification of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (Nepal compact) which occurred after much delay of five years on February 28 this year. Recent visits by US Deputy Secretary of State Zeya Ujra visiting a Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal; and General Charles A Flynn, Commanding General of United States Army Pacific has added to the impression of growing proximity of Nepal with the U.S. and IndoPacom (US Indo-Pacific Command) making a push for military to military cooperation, the SPP has also come in the limelight. However, Nepal’s political parties and leadership sees this as upsetting the balance of, “nonalignment,” by close military partnership with the US. China’s attempts to dissuade Nepal’s leaders from doing so are also evident.

While India has been observing the situation, there have been no official comment so far on this issue, but suffice to say Nepal’s leadership may also be sub consciously if not openly looking at New Delhi’s reactions to increase in activities of regional and global militaries in the neighbourhood.

The outcome was uproar in parliament and flak faced by the Nepal Army including the Chief appearing before the parliamentary committee. But the Army was clear as on June 15, the military clarified that it would not in favour of the SPP. The concerns though not stated openly were a perception of possible alignment militarily with the US, Indian inhibitions and provocation to China.

Politics of Nepal

A related facet is the typical politics of Nepal with the communist socialist spectrum being the most dominant. While apart from the CPN Maoist Centre, other parties as the CPN UML that was in power during in 2015 when the application was made by Nepal Army to join the SPP are centrist, however there is a general hesitancy in deeper engagement with the United States. China has very deftly exploited this and Communist party interlocutors in Beijing have built very strong relations with their counterparts in Kathmandu with regular interactions.

Given the nature of Nepali politics, parties are however unwilling to be seen as anti the US or the other, an outcome has been evident in the blame for initiating the proposal for SPP on the Nepal Army. At the same time a host of events linked to the US such as ratification of the Millennium Challenge Cooperation (MCC) development project, visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Zeya Ujra and General Charles A Flynn, Commanding General of United States Army Pacific in rapid succession has increased concerns of the political parties which went on to express the same publicly in the House of Representatives and other wise. The visit of Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) Prabhu Ram Sharma to the United States followed by that of the Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has added to concerns of law makers raising a din in the House of Representatives and other forums in June.

Appearance of fake new such as conduct of joint exercises in high altitude terrain in Nepal hinting at the China-Nepal frontier added grist to the rumour mill.

Civil Military Decision Making Process

While civil military relations in Nepal have been cordial, decision making process has yet to evolve particularly in terms of intermix of foreign policy and defence cooperation. The lines appear to be somewhat blurred, though the Nepal Army is vehement that it has progressed all proposals through the foreign ministry and thus the government.

Importantly the defence portfolio in the recent past has been generally handled by the Prime Ministers be it Mr. K P Sharma Oli of the CPN UML or the present PM Mr. Sher Bahadur Deuba. Time and operational constraints may have prevented devoting attention to the defence portfolio leaving much to the army and the bureaucracy. This has also facilitated the leaders to duck difficult questions being asked by law makers with Prime Minister Deuba deftly avoiding appearance before a parliamentary committee on the SPP.

Conclusion

The controversy over the SPP may continue till the visit of the Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to the United States in July and beyond. With the national and provincial elections scheduled in November this year, this may also be an electoral issue.

A political consensus to keep the Nepal Army out of controversy however may be in the larger national interest.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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