US pushes military pact with Nepal, puts Himalayan peace at stake for geopolitical ambition
Published: Jun 20, 2022 03:49 AM
Nepalese protest against the MCC in Kathmandu, Nepal on February 20, 2022. Photo: AFP
Nepalese protest against the MCC in Kathmandu, Nepal on February 20, 2022. Photo: AFP

After pushing Nepal to approve the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) economic pact, the US may have also urged the Himalayan country to join its military alliance, the State Partnership Program (SPP), widely believed to be another component of the US' Indo-Pacific Strategy. 

Observers from both Nepal and China warned against the program's heavy military focus on the containment of China in the region.

Nepalese media reported that the US renewed a push last week on Nepal to participate in the SPP during the visit of Commanding General of the US Army Pacific, Charles Flynn, to Nepal. Flynn called for the signing of the SPP when he met with Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Chief of Staff of the Nepal Army General Prabhu Ram Sharma.

The disclosed six-page draft US proposal triggered a debate and faced backlash in Nepal for the possible US military presence in Nepal, which, many warned, contradicts Nepal's non-aligned foreign policy.

The SPP, once approved, would draw Nepal one step closer to the US' military alliance, despite Washington's denial and calling it a development assistance, said experts.

Under huge pressure from the public and lawmakers, during his meeting with coalition partners on Wednesday, Deuba said that he will not sign any agreement with any country, including the SPP, that could bring harm to Nepal, the Kathmandu Post reported.

The American embassy called the SPP draft circulating online "fake."

Inspite of this, many suspect the disclosure of the SPP in Nepal could be intended as a tactic to test the waters, as the ambition and intention of the US to strengthen its military presence in Nepal have long been clear under the core purpose of the US' Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain China.

Concluding his four-day trip to Nepal, Flynn said on Twitter that "we cherish our decades-long defense partnership and look forward to opportunities for collaboration."

Observers told the Global Times that the US has increased its penetration and interference in Nepalese politics in recent years, and the approval of the US-pushed MCC program in Nepal in February is an example.

If the MCC has supported US control and influence in Nepal economically, the SPP could be used to strengthen the US' military ties in the Asian country, Qian Feng, director of the Research Department of the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, said.

"The US has always valued the geographical importance of Nepal which borders Southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region. Since the Trump administration, the US has been trying to include Nepal in its Indo-Pacific Strategy to achieve its multiple political and security goals toward China," Zhang Yongpan, a research fellow of the Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, suggested. "In recent years, the political situation in Nepal has been turbulent, and the divided parties are vulnerable to pressures of external forces. The US takes the opportunity to increase influence and infiltrations in Nepal via multiple ways, trying to make it a tool to promote the US' Indo-Pacific Strategy," Zhang told the Global Times.

But such US tactics to contain China are bound to be futile, and Nepal will not easily become the frontline of the US' attempts to suppress China, experts concluded.

The US-led 2020 Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal 
Photo: VCG

The US-led 2020 Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal Photo: VCG

Dangerous move with risky clauses

Widespread debate and criticism surged in the public opinion against both the US and Nepalese governments, after the draft of a proposed agreement by the US Department of Defense on the State Partnership Program between the US National Guard and the Nepal Army was disclosed on June 13.

The six-page draft agreement has 10 clauses, in which the US promises to provide Nepal $500 million for five years in addition to non-lethal equipment to the Nepal Army, the Kathmandu Post reported, citing officials privy to the draft.

The leaked document says it is for strengthening the "partnership, in the areas of defense and security," between the US and Nepal. One of the clauses in the leaked document mentions that the "US National Guard and US contractors, related vehicles and light aircrafts operated by or for the United States, may use such agreed facilities and areas for training, transit, support and related activities, refueling, temporary maintenance of vehicles and aircrafts, accommodation of personnel, their dependents, communications, staging, deploying of forces and material."

The proposed agreed areas of cooperation also include joint training exercises "in high-altitude terrains in Nepal," with experts alerting the risk to the security and stability of China's Xizang, in the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau that borders Nepal, as well as potential infiltration of American forces into the border area.

This clause will make the security situation in western China more complicated with higher risks, considering that Nepal has long been at the forefront of preventing Tibetan separatist forces from destroying stability in Xizang, said Qian.

Demonstrators protest against the proposed grant agreement from America under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), in Kathmandu on February 24, 2022. Photo: VCG

Demonstrators protest against the proposed grant agreement from America under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), in Kathmandu on February 24, 2022. Photo: VCG

Unanimous disapproval in Nepal

Public anger pumped up across social media over the last week with criticism against the Nepalese government and questions over the US' intention in pushing the program. Netizens flocked to social media to urge the government to stop turning Nepal into a battlefield of geopolitical rivalry. Others shared their fear that the Deuba government is tilting toward the US and may submit to their pressure to advance in the SPP while ignoring the risks of harming the friendship with China.

Deuba is scheduled to visit the US in mid-July. Meanwhile, the Chief of the Army Staff, General Prabhu Ram Sharma, will be visiting the Pentagon before the Prime Minister's trip, from June 27 to July 1, upon the invitation of the Pentagon, local media reported.

"This time, unlike the MCC, there is almost unanimous public opinion in Nepal that the SPP should not be approved by Nepal," Ritu Raj Subedi, deputy executive editor of the Nepalese newspaper The Rising Nepal, told the Global Times.

"It can harm China-Nepal friendship and mutual understanding if the SPP gets approved. It can lead the nation toward long internal conflict and unrest. This type of activities will enhance distrust toward leaders because it is not transparent and was kept secret until the issue came to surface. Conflict mongers will try to reap benefits out of the situation. Internal conflicts can invite the involvement of foreigners and permanent corruption. There are so many byproducts of such issues," Yogeshwar Romkhami, a former senior superintendent of the Nepal Police Service, told the Global Times.

Local people are not in the favor of MCC or SPP. Those who have even a little knowledge about it are worried. The West has penetrated every political party and the public believe these conspirators are pulling the country into internal conflict or uncertainties, said Romkhami.

Demonstrators protest against the proposed grant agreement from America under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), in Kathmandu on February 24, 2022. Photo: VCG

Washington's promotion of the SPP in Nepal comes at a time when the US' Indo-Pacific Strategy is accelerating. The Biden administration's essential competition with China through working with neighboring countries has never changed, Qian suggested.

US Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya concluded her three-day trip to Nepal on May 22, the highest-level visit by a US official since 2012. Additionally, US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu visited Kathmandu in November last year. Before that, Vice President of MCC Compact Operations Fatema Sumar was in Kathmandu in September, local media reported.

The US is ramping up efforts in allying with Asian countries to suppress China both economically and militarily, Zhang said.

US foreign security tool

The US first came up with the concept of the SPP in 1993 as a humanitarian and disaster response training program. 

Now the program has been established for over 25 years and includes more than 80 partnerships with over 90 countries. According to the SPP fact sheet of the National Guard, the program "supports the security cooperation objectives of the United States and the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCC) by developing enduring relationships with partner countries and carrying out activities to build partner capacity, improve interoperability, and enhance US access and influence while increasing the readiness of US and partner forces to meet emerging challenges. The SPP helps the United States react effectively to anticipated or unanticipated global scenarios as they emerge."

Notably, Ukraine has been partnered with the California National Guard under the SPP since 1993. Over the past 29 years, the California National Guard conducted regular military-to-military exchanges with Ukrainian forces contributing to Ukraine's continued defense modernization.

Since its inception, the SPP has been managed by the chief of the US Defense Department's National Guard Bureau, a four-star general and also a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Department of Defense, equal to the heads of the army, navy and air force. This highlights the SPP's military importance, according to Qian.

Although the SPP purportedly emphasizes disaster relief and anti-terrorism efforts, and intentionally downplays the military intentions of the US, its military essence has been clear in its implementation. It has served as an important foreign security cooperation tool for the US to achieve its foreign policy goals, said Qian.

Due to the unstable leadership in Nepal and possible reshuffled political landscape in the national elections at the end of the year, the operations and outcomes of the programs like SPP are still in doubt.