Anil Sigdel – Interview

‘India is cautiously watching US role in Nepal’- Dr. Anil Sigdel

Interview at Nepalkhabar.com with Sitaram Baral

(**This is a loose English translation of Anil Sigdel’s interview for Nepal Khabar with Sitaram Baral published on August 13th, 2022**)

There are hardly any Nepalis who sit in Washington DC and discuss with authority the geopolitical issues of Nepal and South Asia. Sigdel is filling that gap in Washington who holds degrees in international relations and geopolitics. Sigdel is the founding director of an organization called Nepal Matters for America and is the author of the book India in the Era of China’s Belt and Road Initiative: How Modi Responds to Xi.  Sigdel’s opinions are being published and broadcasted in different media of the world.

A conversation with Dr. Anil Sigdel on Nepal and its geopolitical situation, especially the US-Nepal ties:

Journo Sitaram Baral: America is becoming important for us. How important is Nepal for America?

Sigdel: Nepal is important for America for various reasons. Since America is a world power, it makes its economic, security and other policies that correspond to the global level. Therefore, like other countries in the world, Nepal will also become important. Another reason why Nepal is important is the geo-strategic importance of the South Asian region. The importance of this region was there earlier too.  During Henry Kissinger’s time, China and India were of different importance. But two decades ago, it seemed that the importance of this region was diminishing. However, the importance of the region began to rise once again, especially due to the rise of China.

Journo: How does the rise of China has increased Nepal’s importance for the US?

Sigdel: America considers itself a ‘resident power’ in Asia. America’s declared policy is that ‘I am across the Pacific Ocean, but I am a power here’. It also has military and security facilities in this region as it has military bases at various places. Under the ‘Conventional Deterrence Strategy‘ the US has set up such facilities for the stability in Asia. The deterrence strategy that the United States had in place for long time now seems to be weakened by the rise of China. In the past there was no power to challenge the US leadership. However, now China has emerged as a power that can challenge the US. As a result, the US has added the ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ to the existing deterrence strategy.

Journo: What strategic needs of America can Nepal fulfill and how Nepal has become important for that?

Sigdel: This is an interesting question. However, the answer to this question depends on the extent to which Nepal wants to welcome America here. Under the ‘Global Great Power Relations‘, the big powers try to make various types of agreements with all countries. Security is the main foundation for this. If we cannot provide stability by strengthening the foundational security, other things become less important. After building the foundation for security, an economic framework will be built. The question that what kind of economic structure or policy can be developed for the progress of this region is equally important. Therefore, every country is equally significant. Apart from the economy, the issue of promoting democracy is also part of America’s declared policy. Since the policy of open society and open politics will be promoted under this, it is equally important for all countries including Nepal to be ‘engaged’ with America.

Journo: Since Tibet is in our neighborhood, there is a comment in Nepal that America has given importance to Nepal to make the rising China difficult. How close is this commentary to the truth from an American perspective?

Sigdel: Tibet is an important issue. However, Nepal does not seem to be in a position to cooperate with the US in the Tibet issue. Nepal has adopted ‘one China policy‘. China is on the border of Nepal. Nepal maintains that it does not tolerate anti-Chinese activities.

Journo: It seems that the commentary that China has come to Nepal or South Asia in India or Western countries is established. Is that so?

Sigdel: My friends in America also ask me this question – ‘Has China come to Nepal? Has  China brought Nepal under its influence?’  China has also come up with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and engaged with Nepal. Chinese President Xi Jinping also came to Nepal. Leaders of Nepal are also going to China. India is also very worried. Therefore, they have the curiosity that ‘Nepal is about to fall into the clutches of China?’ I answer to those friends saying that neither China just came to Nepal to increase its role nor did America. They have increased their role everywhere; they will continue to increase it everywhere.

Journo: How much importance is given to Nepal by America?

Sigdel: We think we are always important to America. However, it does not look like this from Washington DC. All the countries of the world are important for them. If we are talking about America, it is important to see how Nepal is seen. The agencies that have the special responsibility of following Nepal definitely understand the context of Nepal more and have given importance to Nepal. However, in general, regrettably, Nepal is not that important for Washington DC. Nepal is not part of their big agenda. Our ambassadors get the opportunity to meet the President only once when they submit their credentials in a courtesy meeting . Due to the corona epidemic, our last ambassador did not get this opportunity either. After the effect of the epidemic has decreased, our current Ambassador has got the opportunity to meet the US President Joe Biden. If the US had given us such importance (as we share our border with Tibet) our ambassadors should have had regular meetings with the US President or the Secretary of State and had more visibility and clout.

Now let’s talk about the Indo-Pacific Strategy…

When talking to American officials about this, they say, “The Indo-Pacific strategy that has come up is a great opportunity for Nepal”. Because we invest in Nepal, we help Nepal to develop as a country that believes in good liberal democratic values.’ In the superpower rivalry, the big powers want to keep all countries on their side diplomatically. So, they say this. Let’s say, if the war is going to start (hopefully it won’t happen), it is necessary to have a good relationship with the security agencies of that country, so that in case of war, you have upper hand or there is no lack of information. If they need investment for that, they will bring that too. The US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has also come in this context.

The government of Nepal has also been saying, ‘Help us in investment, and help us in technology‘. Americans are looking at these things, they are calculating their options.

Journo: In the name of stability, is there an advantage or a disadvantage for Nepal with the ‘deterrence strategy’ adopted by the US?

Sigdel: There is benefit. Because when the ‘deterrence strategy’ is successful, then no country goes to war. Countries go to war only when the deterrence strategy fails. Or when one side comes to the conclusion that it has no other option but war, then that country starts attacking the other country. We are seeing this situation in the Russia-Ukraine war. But in Russia-Ukraine case, Russia has always been an aggressor; any nation that is not in an alliance for survival or has not had enough capabilities to deter Russia, would fall into Russian aggression (this line is added for more clarity on deterrence point).With regard to China, US has emphasized the deterrence which in turn will avoid war. This policy is in the interest of Nepal because this US policy will avert war in Asia.

Journo: There were many debates about MCC in Nepal. What does this project look like from Washington DC?

Sigdel: In my understanding, when the ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ came, what the countries in this region, especially in South East Asia, said to the US was, ‘You come to this region only with your security interest. We will listen to your security concerns, but what about our economic interests? America is not engaged with us sufficiently in economic issues, nor is it in the social issues. Being engaged only in security issues does not look good and it is not in our interest either.’ Because of this complaint, when the Indo-Pacific strategy was announced during the Trump administration, some investment in that regard was announced, even if it was a small amount. If we look at the documents of the US State Department, we can see this. There are plans to support and invest in the digital sector, technical sector, work in economic partnership, etc. Such plans have been put forward so that there is an increase in trade and business on both sides.

It seems that the aim is that there should be growth of business companies – American companies can work in Asia and Asians can also benefit from the American market. Doing so will benefit us (Nepal) too. American companies also have interests. Talking about MCC, it also promotes business to business ties. US will increase its relations with the business houses here. Different types of ‘platforms’ are being built. Many such mechanisms are created so that American companies become acquainted here. When American companies go to a country, their standards do not match. They cannot do business until the level is met. They have also taken a policy of building a favorable condition by investing themselves first. Projects like MCC do help in that regard.

Journo: Can it be connected with the ‘China threat’ that America is feeling or not?

Sigdel: It is also because of ‘China threat’, but not 100 percent. Commercial interest is also attached to it. Because Chinese government-owned or private Chinese companies have gone all over the world. This is the world market, where there is a lot of competition. America wants American companies to benefit from this competition by investing.

Journo: As America becomes more active in Nepal, which is located between China and India, Nepal will be more geopolitically vulnerable. What does America think about this problem that we have?

Sigdel: It is said that ‘we have been squeezed’ by the US, however, we are equally engaged with China. We are also having a traditionally deep relationship with India. I don’t think that America has also hindered Nepal’s relationship with China. America has come up with new initiatives. We are seeing it as pressure because Nepal is feeling that the US is now very active. We are worried about what to say to America, how to say it, how to make it happy, whether to give or not to give what it asks for. This is the reason why we feel being caught between a rock and a hard place, but in my view, Nepal should not take it this way, there is no reason.  

The Americans are publicly saying that ‘we have an old relationship’ with Nepal. This means we want to have good relations with Nepal. It seems that their interest is not to entertain anyone who is against international values ​​and norms upheld by the US. So the US only wants to warn Nepal not to get into a relationship in which there is a danger to those values or there are other hidden motives to create dependency. They do not tell us not to have relations with China. We also have good relations with China. We have already signed the BRI. Besides, it seems it is hard to stop China regardless of what one says. What America is saying that ‘We welcome the contribution that has been made to the world due to the rise of China, but we also have a role in building your (China’s) strong economic and security position. Therefore, China should not do such a thing, which will affect the US adversely.’

Journo: It was believed that America has been looking at Nepal through Indian eyes for a long time. Recently, it seems that America has become active here and India is falling into the background. What could be the reason for this?

Sigdel: America made India the ‘net security provider’ of this region. For this, they say they would help India in the domains of economy and security. Since India is a regional power here, America asked India to play this role. This is why we saw India being active in all matters related to the security of Nepal or Bangladesh or the security of the Indian Ocean region. However, as a ‘net security provider’, India did not exert as much force as it should have or to put it differently, India did not allocate sufficient resources that ‘provider’ role would assume.

Also, in the competition between China and India, the countries of this region look at China in good faith. This is because they want to balance India’s influence in the region. But the impact of such balancing of these nations was on American strategy. If India and its surrounding countries had joined hands in deterring China, America would not have faced any problem. However, those countries want to have good relations with China due to their difficult relations with India. Nepal also wanted the same. As a result, the US felt that India could not play the role of ‘net security provider’.

On the other hand, it was seen that India was not able to develop its relationship with America with the depth and strong partnership it should have. And now India increasingly sees Russia as a necessity for India.

US was not satisfied with India’s less than tough policies and strategies. Similarly, US also did not work as India wanted regarding its concerns surrounding Pakistan-Kashmir and Afghanistan matters. There are many such problems, misunderstandings and divergences, due to which America itself seems to be increasingly pro-active in this region. The countries of this region also want the same. Nepal used to always complain to America, ‘You are always looking at Nepal through the eyes of India. When will you look at us with your own eyes?’

Journo: But now America and India have a good relationship. Will there be a conflict between these two after some time?

Sigdel: India needs America mainly because of China and Pakistan. This is the reason why India signed important agreements with the US. Agreements similar to those between the US and NATO alliance countries have been made between India and the US. However, mistrust remains between the two countries, which is natural. Because of that, India is also watching what America is doing in our neighborhood, what is its role. However, India does not want to stop America as it sees its interest in preventing China in this region. Without making any public statement, India is cautiously watching the American role.

India seems to be cautious that it won’t be very inconvenient for India or even detrimental to India’s security interests particularly due to American activity in its backyard. India wants the US to be active in this region, but to be active in a way that supports India’s leadership. It is for this reason that India had a very diplomatically cautious posture with regard to the US’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) debacle in Nepal. A component of MCC connects Nepal-India transmission line. India wants US investment in Nepal to be somewhat beneficial for India and has no reason to block it, rather the opposite

Journo: India prefers America’s State Partnership Program (SPP) with Nepal or not?

Sigdel: This is a very difficult subject. America is a world power. It gets things that it is determined to get. Being a world military power, it has dozens of military bases around the world. When the US comes up with a policy or plan, it does not stop just because one of its partners says ‘don’t do it’ or disagrees. It is natural for India to be skeptical and resentful when the US military comes to Nepal with initiatives without coordinating with the security establishment of India. It is also natural that if India is misled, it will increase mistrust and India will feel uncomfortable. However, the US also has its own problems with regard to India. It is not clear when and what policy India will take. Just like China, India does not like Western powers to be engaged in Nepal.

India does not like Western activity in Nepal because it wants to keep Nepal under its control. India seems to think that if Westerners come to Nepal, their influence will weaken here.

Journo: If America wants to be active here, not only from the point of view of security, but also from the point of view of economy, how can Nepal benefit from this?

Sigdel: What kind of plans are to be brought from our side, first of all it should be prepared. Earlier our carpets were exported. We should take steps to increase exports of products that have a competitive advantage like carpets. We can also take initiative in technology transfer. There can be cooperation between Nepal and USA regarding pharmaceuticals. After the corona epidemic, important agreements have been made between the US and India regarding the establishment of the pharmaceutical industry. It is also possible in Nepal. For this we must strive. In addition to investment, employment can increase in Nepal through cooperation with America. People-level relations between Nepal and the United States are growing. Now what we have to request is that ‘America should increase investment in Nepal’.

Journo: Will Americans be willing to increase investment in Nepal?

Sigdel: In terms of increasing investment, the complaint of the American side is that ‘Nepal does not have the policies and environment we need’ – ‘on what basis do our companies invest in Nepal?’ We also need to be clear about what kind of liberal policies to take to bring in American investment to Nepal. What I mean is that we should take the geopolitical changes that have happened now as an opportunity. We should be able to seize this opportunity in time. If we don’t see the situation created by the geopolitical change as an opportunity, if we only look at it with suspicion, we can’t take the opportunity if we just say, ‘We have a geopolitical problem’.

Originally published on August 13, 2022, Kathmandu, Nepal

Translation published at Nepal Matters for America on September 06, 2022

Other interviews of Anil Sigdel- Online Khabar (English), Nepali: Online Khabar