KATHMANDU : Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli made a phone call to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on August 15 to congratulate him on the occasion of India’s 74th Independence Day. Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement after the telephone conversation between the prime ministers of two countries.
“Prime Minister Oli appreciated Prime Minister Modi’s renewed priority to neighborhood as spelt out in today’s Independence Day address. The Prime Minister of Nepal looked forward to meaningful bilateral cooperation,” read the statement. The statement concluded with this last line: The two Prime Ministers agreed to continue discussions on bilateral matters in the future.
The telephone conversation amid frosty bilateral relations due to the release of a new map by India including Nepali territories paved the way for two countries to resume the dialogue. However, the statement did not have specifics on how the dialogue will be resumed. But, a high-level diplomatic source claimed that the recent visit of Indian foreign intelligence agency RAW Chief Samant Kumar Goel was fixed around that time. Two months after the telephone conversation between the prime ministers of two countries, RAW Chief Goel-led team visited Nepal and met Prime Minister Oli.
During this period, Prime Oli also sent birthday wishes to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. Writing a tweet on September 17, Prime Minister Oli greeted Indian Prime Minister Modi on his birthday and wished him good health and happiness and expressed commitment to continue working closely together to further strengthen relations between Nepal and India.
“Warm greetings to Prime Minister Shri @narendramodi ji on the auspicious occasion of your birthday. I wish you good health and happiness. We will continue working closely together to further strengthen relations between our two countries,” wrote Prime Minister Oli in his tweet.
The relations between the two countries started to sour over border disputes after Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the link road to Lipulekh Pass in May. In response to Indian encroachment, Nepal released its new map on May 20 including Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura. After that, Nepal amended the emblem of the country in the constitution to include those territories in the map. Nepal’s response had angered India which refused to hold talks or dialogues at any level. However, Prime Minister Oli’s initiative to make thephone call to his Indian counterpart Modi on the occasion of Indian Independence Day marked the resumption of dialogue at the highest level.
What did RAW Chief discuss?
On Wednesday, the RAW Chief reached Prime Minister Oli’s official residence Baluwatar and held a meeting with him. Many analysts, diplomats and political leaders have been criticizing Prime Minister Oli for holding the meeting that is against diplomatic norms. However, there has not been much discussion about what actually they talked during the meeting and what message India sent through its RAW Chief.
Issuing a press note, Prime Minister Oli’s Press Coordinator Surya Thapa said that the RAW Chief expressed his views on ‘not allowing destabilizing India-Nepal friendly relations to continue, settlement of problems through dialogues and giving continuity to mutual cooperation’ during the meeting.
The press note, however, does not clarify whether India has not any interest in sending its RAW Chief to Nepal to mend the ties with Nepal. According to a high-level source, the RAW Chief’s visit is also aimed at promoting strategic interests of US and India along with improving bilateral relations with Nepal.
The recent border dispute with China in Ladakh has brought India and the US closer in recent months. Earlier on June 15, at least 23 Indian soldiers were killed in a brutal hand-to-hand-brawl between the soldiers of two countries in the Galwan Valley. India claims that there were casualties among the Chinese as well. China has neither confirmed nor denied any death of its soldiers. While the tensions at border areas have subsided in recent weeks, the solution for border dispute is not in sight. Despite agreeing to quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions in the border areas, both countries are deploying more forces in the border areas and flexing their military muscles, according to international media reports.
On the other hand, some of the India’s decisions to ban some Chinese companies and maintain separate relations with Taiwan have antagonized China. Ending its policy of balancing relations between China and the US, India is now getting closer to the US camp and becoming active in the US-led alliance. According to the source, RAW Chief’s Goel visit to Nepal is aimed at roping Nepal in the US-led alliance and distancing it from China.
US Strategy to raise Indian influence in South Asia
India’s influence in South Asia has been declining in last few years. China, which wants to be the world power, has been strengthening its dominance in South Asia. China’s influence is rising also in those countries with which India shares its borders.
China has been getting closer to Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan. India now wants to regain its influence in South Asia upon the support of the US. Though it is difficult to bring Pakistan on its fold, India is now taking initiative to strengthen its ties with other countries in South Asia. This is the mission that brought RAW Chief Goel to Nepal after completing his visit to Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. According to a source at the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, Goel is scheduled to visit Afghanistan after Nepal.
An informal strategic forum between the United States, Japan, Australia and India, known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), has been helping India to mend its ties with South Asian countries and increase its influence in the region. The Quad is a grouping of four countries that pursue shared objectives in the areas of strategic, connectivity and development, economic regional security and contain the rising influence of China. India has shouldered the role to pursue its objectives in South Asia.
The US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Quad have similar objectives. The US considers India a major player in its strategy. Many American officials have already made it clear that the biggest grant the US is providing to Nepal under the MCC Compact is also a part of its Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Indian media have been reporting that the US wants to implement its strategy in South Asia through India. US State Secretary Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper are visiting India on October 27 to sign an agreement with India for the implementation of the strategy.
Indian media have been also reporting that they are scheduled to sign an agreement with their Indian counterparts on an intelligence sharing agreement. Such formal agreement is expected to strengthen the strategic alliance with India on a driving seat in South Asia.
Similarly, Quad group is conducting large-scale military exercises from November 4 off the coast of India involving Japan, India, Australia and the US. Such military drill is aimed at demonstrating the strength and power of the grouping to China, according to international relations experts.
Quad countries are also working out on building an ‘alternative supply chain’ to assert their influence in international trade. For this, India has to take the lead in South Asia. With the rising polarization in the world, India has been showing its interest on security and trade issues in its neighbors. Baluwatar sources say that RAW Chief Goel’s visit is an initiative toward that end. At a time when the election fever is gripping the country, the US State Secretary and Defense Secretary are visiting India. They also plan to visit other Asian countries after India. As part of efforts to strengthen its Indo Pacific alliance in Asia, the US is tapping India to contain the growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Maldives and Bhutan.
Though the US State Secretary and Defense Secretary are visiting other Asian countries, they do not have any schedule to come to Nepal. This also indicates the US long-held policy to deal with Nepal through India. The priority that the US has accorded to India has also prompted New Delhi to take initiatives to mend its ties with the neighboring countries including Nepal.
What does India want from Nepal?
At a time when the polarization in the world is increasing at a rapid pace, India now considers its border disputes with Nepal normal. RAW Chief Goel has given a message to Prime Minister Oli that India agrees to amicably settle the border dispute at an appropriate time. However, the Baluwatar source said that Goel has put forth a condition that Nepal has to support India on some issues.
The border dispute between Nepal and India will be settled in the eve of Nepal’s election which will give an edge to Prime Minister Oli, according to the source. The source said that the eve of the election has been chosen as the ‘appropriate time’ so that it can help Prime Minister Oli to claim the credit of improving bilateral relations, return the encroached territories from India and reestablish an image of nationalist, and win the election again.
RAW Chief Goel gave two key messages to the Prime Minister:
1- Nepal should clear its position at a time when tensions between China and India are escalating. Our minor disputes would be resolved through dialogues;
2- India is not comfortable with China’s growing influence in Nepal. Such influence could jeopardize India’s security interests. Nor is the US happy. So, we all should have cooperation to contain China. Both the US and India are ready to support Nepal.
The RAW Chief is considered to be close with Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Prime Minister Modi. The source says that he came to Nepal as an envoy of Indian Prime Minister Modi. Shashi Bhusan Tomar and Arun Jain were also in the visiting team led by Goel. Tomar was earlier the RAW’s Chief to Bangladesh and currently oversees Nepal from the RAW’s headquarters in New Delhi. Jain was the deputy chief of Nepal station when India had imposed unofficial blockade to Nepal in 2015. Their participation in the visit is also interpreted in a meaningful way.
There will be a high level political visit soon to finalize the issues that the RAW Chief put forth to the Prime Minister, according to the source. “There will be a high-level visit and dialogue between Nepal and India soon. The preparation is underway for the visit of home minister, foreign minister or Prime Minister level,” the source said.Following the high-level visit, the agenda put forth by the RAW Chief would be finalized, according to the source.
The MCC Compact is still awaiting the parliamentary ratification. Prime Minister Oli is in favor of ratifying the MCC Compact. However, the intra-party disputes of the ruling Nepal Communist Party have delayed the ratification process. Former Finance Minister Yuba Raj Khatiwada, who was the supporter of the MCC Compact, has been nominated to the post of ambassador to the US. Deputy Prime Minister Ishwor Pokharel was stripped of the Defence Ministry portfolio before the visit of the RAW Chief. Prime Minister Oli has sent a signal of his willingness for the cooperation on the US-India alliance, say foreign relations analysts.