June 27, 2017 marked a turning point for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional grouping of Sunni Muslim countries under Saudi Arabian leadership. On that day, the GCC, along with other Saudi allies, imposed an economic and diplomatic blockade against Qatar, a small, fellow GCC member country. Qatar faced accusations of funding Muslim extremism, and was presented with a long list of demands to be fulfilled in order to restore the status quo. Qatar rejected the demands, and sanctions continue to this day.

The Qatar sanction saga created ripples across the world, especially in smaller countries, with the potential disruption to oil and gas originating in the Middle East dominating global headlines. In Singapore, a heatedly contested national debate focused on what a small country like Singapore needed to learn from the Qatar episode, while in Nepal, the concern was more for the safety of a considerable number of its citizens working in the region.

Kishore Mahubani, a Dean of the Lee Kwan Yu School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, initiated the debate in Singapore. In an op-ed published in The Straits Times, he argued that small countries need to be aware of their geographical and population limitations, and had to exercise caution over the harboring of grand, regional and international ambitions. Regional organizations best protect the interests of smaller states, he argued.

A strong rebuttal to Mahubani’s hypothesis came from others including Singaporean ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan. They argued that, had Singapore not overcome its small country psyche, it would not have achieved what it has realized on the international stage. However, that does not mean that Singapore has not been aware of the limitations imposed on its foreign relations by its modest geographical size and small population.

The Nepal dilemma

A recently conducted national discussion in Nepal echoed the Singaporean discourse on the foreign policy of small nations. It seems that smaller countries share similar challenges when it comes to their foreign policy, irrespective of their economic heft. On the other hand, there are striking differences in the power and potential of different small nations. Singapore and Qatar, both important coastal trading ports, are wealthy, while Nepal is landlocked and impoverished. The double burden of being landlocked and suffering economic poverty constrains Nepal’s ability to pursue independent foreign policy compared to the relative freedoms of Singapore and Qatar.

For nearly two decades, Nepal was forced to restrict its foreign policy to interactions with three major powers – China, India, and the US. This came about after the Maoist party waged a “people’s war” against the Nepali state in 1996. The result was an over-dependence on the major powers during the domestic conflict. This only changed after the elections at federal, provincial, and local levels in 2017 following the promulgation of Nepal’s constitution in 2015.

With the resultant ever-expanding spread of the Nepali diaspora, the country’s reliance on remittances received from migrant workers and its ongoing search for foreign investment and development finance, Nepal has no option other than to expand and diversify its international dealings. Nepal’s multifaceted needs cannot possibly be fulfilled by India or China.

Similarly, in its national psyche, Nepal is not small. Its population is nearly seven times that of Singapore and the Nepali landmass is slightly bigger than that of Bangladesh. Journalist Kanka Dixit best describes Nepal’s national dilemma as being that it is not a small country per se, but that suffers from being far smaller than two of its giant neighbors. This sets the tone for a need to expand foreign policy relationships beyond the two giants.

In the eighteen months since the swearing in of the government of Prime Minister KP Oli, there have indications that Nepal’s foreign policy in the remaining period of his premiership will be multi-pronged. Oli has visited Nepal’s immediate neighbors (India and China), veto-wielding security UN council members (UK, France, and the US) and members of the Buddhist brotherhood (Vietnam and Cambodia). This multi-vector policy represents Nepal’s ongoing attempt to reach out to the world beyond China and India, and the effectiveness of Oli’s foreign visits has been the subject of intense national debate.

Net contributors 

A traditional view claims that poor, landlocked developing countries have an easy ride in the global and regional economic system. This argument contends that the poorer nations sit back while the upkeep of the system falls to the superpowers and regional power brokers. As it attempts to diversify its foreign relations, Nepal needs to establish new foreign policy narratives or to review its role in the region. Many commentators may declare such a proposition far-fetched. However, despite its population and geographical size, Nepal has made a direct and indirect contribution to regional peace and harmony.

The peaceful relationship that Nepal has had with both of its powerful neighbors has saved China and India costs related to military expenditures along the Nepal border. Similarly, the Nepal Police force, despite its shortfall in human and scientific resources, has been a significant power in the combating of cross-country organized crime, the drug trade, and human trafficking. Equally, Nepal has protected the core security concerns of both neighbors by not allowing the activities of groups or organizations that concern the two superpowers, notably Free Tibet for China and various separatist organisations in India. In addition, Nepal has freely opened its market to both countries, leading to India and Nepal enjoying significant trade surpluses. Furthermore, Nepali citizens employed in the Indian armed forces have made immense contributions to maintaining India’s territorial integrity.

In light of this, Nepal needs to be repaid for the long list of assistance it has provided to its resource-rich neighbors. This could come in the form of grants or non-interest-bearing preferential loans to aid Nepal’s infrastructural development.

The outmoded claim that only superpowers and regional powers contribute to regional peace and harmony, and that poorer, smaller countries are enjoying a free ride from the global economic system, needs to be turned on its head.