By P.K. Balachandran/The Diplomat
June 22, 2022: Fearing that the U.S. State Partnership Program (SPP) is a trap to involve Nepal in an anti-China military alliance, the Sher Bahadur Deuba government has rejected the program.
The Deuba government – like predecessor governments in 2015, 2017 and 2019 – was initially impressed with the SPP for its disaster mitigation content, but it had to reject the partnership in the end, because the mood in Nepal is unambiguously against foreign programs that smack of a military alliance.
Nepali governments have generally not wanted any transnational agreements that could jeopardize their delicately balanced relationship between India and the United States on the on hand and China on the other.
Flush with success in convincing the Deuba government to get the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact ratified by the Nepali parliament in February, the U.S. moved to bolster the military dimension to Nepal-U.S. relations by pushing ahead with a pending request from Nepal to join the SPP.
The SPP is a bilateral program that is outwardly peaceful in intent. But it is perceived to have deep-set military objectives with consequences not only for Nepal’s internal security, but also for relations with its two big neighbors, China and India. Critics in Nepal say that joining the SPP would be tantamount to signing onto to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS).
The impact on Sino-Nepal relations would be catastrophic if the SPP leads to stronger Nepal-U.S. military ties. At the same time, India might not be thrilled either. Under the SPP, the Indian Army’s exclusive and unique relationship with the Nepali Army would be diluted, a prospect the conservative Indian top brass cannot reconcile with.
Faced with strident and widespread opposition, Deuba had to swear that he would not sign the SPP pact. The rejection is a setback to U.S. efforts to enlarge its strategic imprint in South Asia bordering China.
What Is the SPP?
The U.S. Embassy in Nepal has been at pains to change perceptions, highlighting on its website that “The State Partnership Program is not and has not ever been a security or military alliance. The United States is not seeking a military alliance with Nepal.”
The embassy’s official description says that the SPP: … is an exchange program between an American state’s National Guard and a partner foreign country. The U.S. National Guard domestically supports U.S. first responders in dealing with natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, and wildfires.
In the event of natural and other disasters, ranging from hurricanes to earthquakes, floods, and fires, the United States seeks to share and exchange the best practices and capabilities of our National Guards — our first-line responders.
The SPP has existed for over 25 years and includes partnerships with over 90 countries, the majority of which are not in the Indo-Pacific the embassy added.
It also explicitly said, in underlined text, “The United States is not pressuring for an SPP with Nepal. Nepal asked to participate in SPP twice, first in 2015 and again in 2017, and the U.S. accepted Nepal’s request in 2019.”
Critics say that while disaster mitigation is fine, the rub lies elsewhere: The SPP is administered by the National Guard Bureau, guided by State Department foreign policy goals, and executed by each U.S. state’s senior military officer (the state adjutant general) in support of the Department of Defense policy goals.
“Through SPP, the National Guard 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,” the U.S. National Guard website says.
In other words, the SPP is a multi-purpose vehicle to advance wide-ranging U.S. political and strategic objectives under the overall cloak of humanitarian engagement.
Be that as it may, in October 2015, Nepal applied to join the SPP as it wanted U.S. humanitarian assistance to meet the challenges posed by the April 2015 earthquake. Disaster-prone Nepal requested to join SPP in 2017 and 2019 also.
At that time, the SPP did not attract public attention. This was because there was no requirement for the SPP to get ratification from parliament, unlike in the case of the MCC. What brought the SPP under public scrutiny was a flurry of high-level U.S. diplomatic activity in a short span of time after the ratification of the MCC on February 27. The frenetic U.S. activity made observers wonder if the United States had something up its sleeve.
High-Level U.S. Visits
Uzra Zeya, U.S. under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights and U.S. special coordinator for Tibetan issues, made a highly publicized visit to Nepal in May. She created waves by meeting Tibetan refugees, thereby touching a raw nerve in China and creating tremors in the corridors of power in Kathmandu. She took up the refugees’ undocumented status since 1995 and urged Nepal to give the refugees documentation. To encourage Nepal toward this end, Zeya offered a developmental sop of over $600 million. But her demand is unlikely to be accepted by Nepal because China wants Nepal to send the refugees back to Tibet.
The Commanding General of the U.S. Army Pacific, Gen. Charles A. Flynn, was the next to visit Kathmandu, adding grist to the anti-SPP mill. He had apparently urged Deuba and General Prabhu Ram Sharma, chief of staff of the Nepal Army, to put Nepal in the SPP.
The U.S. Embassy in Nepal admitted that “General Flynn did briefly discuss the State Partnership Program with his interlocuters” but said the main purpose of the trip was “to discuss the long U.S.-Nepal partnership on humanitarian assistance and disaster management.”
Worried about Nepal coming under more pressure from the United States, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi called on Nepal’s home minister, ostensibly to get confirmation of Nepal’s continued adherence to the “One China” policy. But sources said that the SPP was the envoy’s main concern. Nepal’s condemnation of Russia for its aggression in Ukraine had made Beijing suspicious about growing links between the Deuba and the Biden regimes.
Sources say that India was not in support of the SPP either, as it feels that the U.S. advances would unsettle the traditional special relationship between the Indian and Nepali armies.
Nepalis fear that all these moves would have a negative impact on Nepal’s balanced foreign relations, marked by equidistance from India, U.S., and China.
An Alleged Agreement Highlighting Military Content
Meanwhile, a document purporting to be an “agreement” between Nepal and the United States on the SPP emerged and went viral in the media. The alleged agreement had strong military content, including joint Nepal-U.S. army training and fellowships for Nepali officers to train in U.S. academies. It said that the U.S. National Guard and U.S. contractors, related vehicles, and light aircraft operated by or for the United States, may use agreed facilities and areas for training, transit, support and related activities, refuelling, temporary maintenance of vehicles and aircraft, accommodation of personnel, their dependents, communications, staging, deploying of forces and material. That played into existing concerns about the SPP as a de facto military alliance.
The U.S. embassy promptly stated that the document was a fake, adding, “There is no ‘agreement’ to sign. That is false.” The Nepali government too said that there has never been an agreement. The government’s line was that while the SPP had indicated its readiness to admit Nepal, there has been no follow-up.
Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand said that the government strongly believes that Nepal’s territory should not be allowed to be used against any friendly nation. Airing his views in a meeting of the House of Representatives, Khand said: “Nepal is not connected with the SPP. No decision has been made towards this end. It has not imagined proceeding towards that end either.”
Comparing SPP with the MCC, Khand said: “We consider and recognize the MCC as a pure development project and not a military project. It was endorsed by all.”
Deuba is to visit the U.S. in mid-July. But if Washington expected to officially mark Nepal’s entry into the SPP on that occasion, it will be disappointed. Deuba has to face tough parliamentary elections in November this year and cannot afford to take such a controversial step.
(GUEST AUTHOR P.K. Balachandran is a freelance journalist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka)