Interview with Nepal's newly appointed Ambassador to US. He is an East-West Center almuni

'I will strengthen ties and make them more productive'

Dr. Shanker Sharma, who was an East-West Center fellow from Nepal, has been appointed as the Nepali Ambassador to the United States of America. Former Vice- Chairman of the National Planning Commission, he is an experienced hand in the Nepali affairs, in particular with regard to trade and commerce. Kamal Sigdel, Prithivi Man Shrestha and Pranab Kharel spoke to Sharma about his plans for a successful tenure.

Q: How do you plan to take U.S.-Nepal relations forward?

Sharma: I would like to do two things in the broader context. One is to strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries and make the relationship more productive. Strengthening relations means not to have problems between them.  Relations between the U.S. and Nepal have been excellent. This is one part. The other is to make the relationship more productive. Productive means we need to engage more in terms of economic diplomacy. So we would like to see more benefits coming in the areas of trade, tourism, foreign assistance and maximum support and cooperation from the Nepali diaspora settled in the U.S. And also taking the maximum benefits from Americans who love Nepal.

Q: The
U.S. government continues to label Maoists as terrorists. What role would you play in easing tensions between the U.S. government and the Maoists?

Sharma: I will try to find out in detail the U.S. assessment of the Maoists and in particular this terrorist tags. When I have a firsthand assessment, it will be easier for me to communicate things to parties here in Nepal. And if there are any issues that I need to communicate to the Maoists and to Washington, then I will do that.  

Q: How do you look at the U.S. role in the peace process?

Sharma: So far as I know, they are definitely interested in political stability in the country. They are also looking forward to the new constitution being made as soon as possible. And they would like to see a logical conclusion of the peace process at the earliest. The Americans have been providing assistance in that regard as well. 

Q: Could you elaborate on the various kinds of assistance being provided by the U.S. government?
Sharma: If I know correctly, I think this is also coming through USAID in Nepal. This is in terms of foreign assistance for institutionalising democracy and governance in Nepal. Also, there is aid being provided in the fields of poverty alleviation and health care. Assistance in the areas of food security and climate change is in the pipeline. So the Americans have contributed significantly to the peace process. This is one part, the other thing that the Americans say is that if they can do anything to expedite any of these, they are ready to do so. I am also involved with one of the committees of the Constituent Assembly, I have contacts with a number of scholars in the U.S. So I think they have shown interest in the overall process.

Q:  In the past few years, there has been increasing convergence of interests between the Americans and the Indians. How do you view this?
Sharma: Economically, the Americans can have independent policies say in the field of trade, tourism and foreign assistance, that is, in matters relating to bilateral relations. There are certain issues for which the Americans are looking for regional perspectives. For instance on the issue of climate change and food crisis. Politically speaking, I need to find out the issues that they are tying together. But I can’t say anything specifically in that regard.

Q: How do you view the difference in policy that the Chinese and Americans have towards Nepal, in particular on the issue of Tibet?
Sharma: Nepal has always maintained the one-China policy. In the meantime, Nepal is party to a number of international treaties including those dealing with refugees. So my feeling is that it should do whatever it has committed to do. There could be some problems with regard to implementing these commitments. But they are not intentional. And if there are some problems, they need to be tackled within the given norms.

Q: Some Bhutanese refugees have alleged that the Americans are trying to complicate the problem by pitching for third country resettlement rather than repatriation. What is your take on that?
Sharma: The government has already decided on this matter. Meaning that whatever has happened in the past, a decision has been taken, and we need to ensure its implementation. I have been to Bhutan several times in the past one year or so. And speaking to the Bhutanese people, especially those of Nepali origin, I didn’t find them displeased with what Nepal and the international community have done.

Q: There are some activist groups who say that third country resettlement legitimises the ethnic cleansing undertaken by the Bhutanese government with the support of the Americans and Indians?
Sharma: Now that the decision has been made on the issue, we should focus on implementing it. The refugees are being sent to different countries including the U.S.  I think it’s too late to talk about all these things. But there are lessons other countries could learn from this.  

Q: How do you plan to engage the non-resident Nepalis residing in the U.S.?
Sharma: There are a couple of ways in which I can ask the NRNs to help me in my mission. I know the Government of Nepal doesn’t have enough resources to promote Nepal in the U.S. The NRNs could help organise fairs, arrange meetings with the chambers. That is one way of getting their support. The other is to request them to bring their knowledge, money and skills to Nepal as far as possible. As we are opening up our service sector from 2010, the Americans including NRNs will have a competitive advantage. In addition, the NRNs are permanent ambassadors, so we need to ensure their support and institutionalize the relationship.

Q: Repeated attempts by Nepal to get duty-free access to the U.S. market have failed. What would be your effort in this regard?
Sharma: We need to make our case strong. We first have to look at the commitments made by the developed countries at the LDC summit in Brussels. In addition, we need to explain to the U.S. the benefits it will reap out of this access. And my feeling is that consumers in the U.S. and the LDCs who will get access to the U.S. market stand to benefit. In the case of Nepal, we need to explain how liberal and open we are in terms of trade and investment. The Americans are number two in terms of foreign investment in Nepal. For Nepal, it will be beneficial in the long term if we develop better trade relations with the U.S.

Q: But is it possible to keep politics out of economics?
Sharma: Our liberal economic policies have not changed. We are a member of the WTO, and are preparing to enter the IMF agreement on enhance credit facility. All this indicates the continuation of our liberal policies.

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