Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli left for Davos, Switzerland, on Sunday leading a Nepali delegation to the 49th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. This is the first time the Nepali PM is attending the WEF Annual Meeting. PM Oli will address two sessions — ‘Strategic Outlook on South Asia’ and ‘Shaping the Future of Democracy’ on January 22 and 23 respectively, as a panelist. He will also address an informal gathering of world economic leaders on the theme ‘The End of Global Trade as We Know It?’ on January 23, besides holding meetings with political and business leaders. Roshan S Nepal of The Himalayan Times caught up with Minister of Foreign Affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, a member of PM Oli’s delegation to Davos, to talk about Nepal’s participation in the event and other diplomatic affairs. Excerpts:

Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is taking part in the World Economic Forum for the first time and you are part of the delegation. What is going to be Nepal’s pitch at the conference?

It is a huge honour and opportunity for Nepal. For the first time, the prime minister and foreign minister of Nepal have been invited to the event. World Economic Forum brings together government representatives, business community, international and regional financial organisations and economists. This event provides an opportunity to understand the global economic trend, shape future agendas, and present our views.

Nepal expects three major things. First, we will convey to the world from an international platform where and what Nepal is. We will convey what Nepal’s potentials in terms of economic development are. We have a young and energetic population, a domestic market that is getting stronger, we are a country that focuses on clean energy. Most importantly, we are connected to the world’s two biggest markets and have friendly relations with both of them. We have improved labour relations. We are generating energy that meets our requirement. So we are going to convey that investing in Nepal is a profitable proposition. We will present Nepal’s new identity in the forum. We will convey the features of the developmental journey we want to pursue on the basis of our political achievements.

Second, since the event has the participation of esteemed business community, corporate houses and multinationals from around the globe, we want to develop a link with them so that we can forge cooperation with them in terms of investment and economic development.

Third, the conference is also an opportunity to develop bilateral contacts as we will be holding several bilateral meetings on the sidelines.

In a nutshell, we will convey to them that Nepal is headed towards development with a new momentum and the country will, within a few years, attain rapid economic growth. So we will urge them to forge economic cooperation with Nepal for a win-win situation.

Just after assuming the office of the minister of foreign affairs, you had said economic diplomacy would be an integral part of Nepal’s foreign policy, and our missions abroad would be oriented accordingly. What’s happening on that front?

It is true that economic development is going to occupy a major part of our diplomacy. It has five key aspects — boosting official development assistance from developed countries, attracting investment, promoting trade, and tourism and encouraging non-residential Nepalis to connect with Nepal’s development.

I have already instructed our missions abroad and diplomats to re-channelise their efforts for the same. Some of our missions have done well, while others are trying to do well.

We are also seeing some results such as opening labour market and attracting investment from Japan. Our relations with Gulf nations are no longer limited to that between labour-sending and recipient countries. We are redesigning and redefining our relations with Gulf nations in terms of investment and trade partnership.

Official development assistance has increased. We hope the upcoming investment summit in March-end will significantly boost investment.

Nonetheless, we still need to make our missions and diplomats abroad more efficient and smart and we are working on that front.

Following your recent visit to the United States, you said the two sides agreed to elevate bilateral relations to a new high, while the US side said Nepal would have a ‘central role’ in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Is Nepal really a part of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Either because of ignorance or prejudice, some people are trying to drag this issue into controversy. In the 71-year history of Nepal-US relations, the latest high-level visit was chiefly focused on matters of mutual benefit.

The US has extended assistance worth $500 million under its Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact Programme. The US has offered Nepal duty-free quota-free access to 77 products. There are also various other areas where the US is extending cooperation with Nepal.

After a protracted political transition, Nepal is now on the path to political stability and the entire country is focused on economic development and prosperity. So it was necessary for Nepal to seek additional support from an old and dependable friend like the US, and hold dialogue at a high level so as to attract investment from the US.

It is obvious that global and regional issues of common interest are discussed in these kinds of meetings. But this does not necessarily mean that there has to be an agreement.

As far as the US Indo-Pacific Strategy is concerned, we did not discuss the matter. It was not even on the agenda. Bearing in mind Nepal’s geographical location and membership of SAARC and BIMSTEC, the US raised the context of Nepal’s active role in the region spanning South Asia and BIMSTEC, which the US calls the Indo-Pacific region. But some people could not distinguish between ‘Indo-Pacific Region’ and ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’, and dragged this issue into controversy.

Observers say the US is pursuing Nepal to join its Indo-Pacific Strategy that aims at containing Chinese influence in the region, and hence the statement. How will Nepal act?

Nepal’s foreign policy has some fundamental pillars that are unwavering and unconditional. ‘Amity with all enmity with none’ is one of these. Another important aspect of Nepal’s foreign policy is maintaining balanced and strong relationship with neighbours based on mutual benefits, connecting with neighbours’ development and respecting the fundamental concerns of neighbours. Our declared policy is non-alignment, peace, not subscribing to any sort of security or other alliance, and playing a role for global peace by pursuing independent foreign policy. Nepal will not go beyond this policy.

Nepal went through a phase of instability and external intervention for a long time. As a by-product of all these, probably, people buy conspiracy theories in Nepal. I also see people have less faith in themselves. Also, there’s a trend of looking at foreign policy from a partisan point of view. Let me repeat, the government is always cautious and guided by Nepal’s best national interest.

The US has adopted the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act provisioning funds for NGOs working for Tibetan communities living in Nepal. How would Nepal act, especially as it is a strong supporter of the One China Policy?

Nepal is not a signatory to any of the international conventions or protocols related to refugees. But we’ve been providing sanctuary to Tibetan and Bhutanese refugees for the past several decades purely on humanitarian grounds. We want the refugees to stay in Nepal as per international standards and protocols related to refugees, and not get involved in any activity that would have a negative impact on Nepal’s relations with its friends. We would also like to request all related organisations to respect this sensitivity of Nepal and not get involved in any activity that would affect Nepal’s selfless service mentality.

Since Nepal has already signed up for the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative, how would Nepal balance all these new developments, and reap optimum benefits?

We understand BRI as a farsighted vision for inclusive development and shared prosperity. On that basis, Nepal signed up to BRI in 2017. I do not have to tell how important connectivity is for a country like Nepal. Being a land-locked country, we pay 20 per cent more on production or transit of goods compared to other countries with access to sea. This has weakened our competence in the global market. This is also negatively contributing to our least-developed status and poverty. We want to unlock the land-locked status by getting connected to the greatest extent.

We are aware of the fact that some countries have apprehensions about the BRI. But we are also aware of the fact that more than 70 countries are part of it. There might be concerns and competition among big countries. Nepal is not going to be part of that competition. What we look at is whether we can benefit from it or not. And, we can obviously benefit from it.

Second, we are not only a part of BRI, but also of BBIN sub-regional connectivity initiative, BIMSTEC grid connectivity and BIMSTEC connectivity master plan, and SAARC connectivity plan. All these are complementary. So Nepal judges any such initiative independently.

The most important aspect of BRI is that the concerned member country has the sovereign right to select priority areas. No project is imposed, but is decided by the country concerned.

Coming to regional groupings, what is going to be the future of SAARC?

Recently, we marked the SAARC Charter Day. That day, all the heads of state/government in their addresses expressed strong commitment to making SAARC more active and successful. SAARC is a common platform of South Asian countries of 1.8 billion population. Unfortunately, this region is least integrated despite the huge potential. This region is also grappling with poverty, climate change, terrorism, cross-border and transnational crimes. These problems can only be faced collectively. So we are in favour of regional alliance, collective effort, regionalism, and multilateralism. We are in favour of revival and bright future of SAARC.

Yes, there are some differences between some member states, which have resulted in delay in holding the SAARC Summit. But I hope member states will resolve their differences though dialogue and exhibit wisdom to make South Asia a vibrant economic region.