Nepal’s army chief is due to travel to the United States in what marks an increase in high-profile political and military engagements between Kathmandu and Washington.
Army Chief of Staff Gen Prabhu Ram Sharma will fly to the United States shortly before Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s visit, according to sources.
Sharma has already received an invitation from the US Department of Defense to visit, the sources added.
According to the schedule, Prime Minister Deuba will fly to Washington in early July or mid-July, in the first official visit by a Nepalese prime minister to the US in two decades.
Prior to the prime minister’s visit, the Pentagon will welcome Gen Sharma and preparations are underway for more visits at different levels, according to the Nepalese Army.
Nepal Army Spokesperson Brig Gen Narayan Silwal told the Post that preparations for Gen Sharma’s visit to the US, as well as some countries where the Nepal Army has been deployed as peacekeepers, are underway.
“The chief received an invitation from the Pentagon. Once the Cabinet agrees, a formal announcement will be made with dates,” Silwal said.
The proposed dates for the army chief’s visit are from June 27 to July 1.
In addition to meeting with senior US military and defense officials, Gen Sharma will visit a defense university and a military training center.
During the visit, General Sharma will meet with Amy Searightis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Pentagon.
Sources said the procurement of some US military equipment is also high on the agenda for Gen Sharma’s meeting with US military officials.
Army sources said Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, is visiting Nepal ahead of Sharma’s visit to the US. Aquilino is the 26th commander of the oldest and largest US fighter command. The Indo-Pacific Command includes 380,000 Department of Defense soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, guardians, coast guards and civilians and is responsible for all U.S. military activities in the Indo-Pacific, covering 36 nations, 14 time zones and more. 50 percent of the world’s population, according to the US Navy website.
The Nepalese and US military share a long-standing partnership.
The Nepalese Army has received different types of support from the United States.
The US Army has provided assistance for disaster risk reduction and training for Nepal Army personnel. It also provides support and assistance to Nepalese peacekeepers deployed in various conflict-affected countries.
There were regular exchanges of visits and sharing of knowledge and experiences between the armies of the two countries in the area of training, disaster management, capacity building in peacekeeping and security cooperation, logistical management, counter-terrorism and so on, according to country briefing Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Although the army chief’s visit to the US is considered to be regular but has been postponed due to the Covid pandemic, some defense experts said that US engagements in Nepal have increased in recent times and Gen Sharma’s visit this time may be more than an event routine.
Lately, especially after the ratification of the Millennium Challenge Corporation pact by Nepal’s parliament, Washington appears to be showing renewed interest in sending high-level officials to Kathmandu.
Last week, US Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya concluded her three-day visit to Nepal, the highest-level visit by a US official since 2012. US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu visited Kathmandu in November last year. Before that vice president of Compact Operation MCC Fatema Z Sumar was in Kathmandu in september.
Nepal and the US are celebrating the 75th anniversary of their diplomatic relations this year.
Nepal-US ties have been stable for the past seven decades. Washington, however, appeared to have become frustrated only recently when the Nepalese political leadership faltered in ratifying the MCC Nepal Compact, a $500 million grant that Nepal signed in 2017.
Nepal suddenly faced the risk of falling into a geopolitical quagmire after the State Department in a December 2018 statement said Nepal was part of the Washington-led Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Some observers were quick to take note.
The confusion grew even more after some US officials commented that the MCC was part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, which some believe is a ploy by Washington to combat Nepal’s northern neighbor China.
In May 2019, US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, David J Ranz, during his visit to Nepal, said that the Indo-Pacific Strategy is not against any country and that the United States is not asking Nepal whether it is “for” or “against” it. .
It is uncertain whether Nepal’s participation in the Indo-Pacific Strategy will be discussed during Gen Sharma’s meeting with US defense officials. There is, however, a component called the State Partnership Program under the Indo-Pacific Strategy for which the Nepalese side has been positive.
“Wasington’s political engagements have increased in Nepal and his interest is also increasing,” said Binoj Basnyat, a retired major general. “We are becoming a playground for great powers.”
Nepal’s decision to ratify the MCC has already worried Beijing, which is wary of Washington’s growing footprint in Nepal. The recent meetings of US Undersecretary Zeya, who is also the special coordinator for Tibetan issues in the Joe Biden administration, with Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu were not well received by Beijing.
Basnyat said a number of issues related to military and defense cooperation could be discussed during the visit.
“In the past, the US would convene a Pacific region meeting once a year, and our boss used to attend and visit the Pentagon,” Basnyat said. “The visit is now taking place at an interesting time amid rapid geopolitical changes. Great powers are openly emerging and Nepal has not been able to tame such activities. This is a political failure on Nepal’s part.”