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Nepal’s withdrawal from BIMSTEC exercise shouldn’t affect ties with India, says PM Oli’s spokesperson

As India conveyed its “disappointment” to Nepal over the withdrawal from BIMSTEC’s multinational military field training exercise, Nepal Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s spokesperson told The Indian Express that this is a “small incident” and “should not have any negative consequences on its relationship with India”. He added that Nepal, under Oli, was committed to “equal relationship” with both India and China.

Sources told The Indian Express that the Indian side had conveyed its “disappointment” with Nepal over its last-minute withdrawal through diplomatic channels, but added that there was no official communication expressing displeasure during the conversations.

While there has been no official response to Nepal’s withdrawal, a source in New Delhi explained India’s position, “We are not reading too much into the cancellation. This is like, you call seven friends for dinner at your home and are all prepared, and two of them regret last minute. So, you express some disappointment to them, but you cannot say that will impact your relationship with your friends.”

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Speaking to The Indian Express over telephone from Kathmandu, Kundan Aryal, media advisor to the Nepal PM, said, “The issue of joint military exercises was first put forth by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the first day of the BIMSTEC summit.” But, Aryal said, at the conclusion of the summit on August 31 in Kathmandu, the joint statement did not mention any such exercise.

“Prime Minister K P Oli, time and again, spoke inside and outside the (Nepal’s) parliament that these exercises were not a military pact,” he said. “India and Nepal have lot of training exercises, just as we have with China, US and other countries. So, it is not a military pact.” In April 2017, a military exercise of armies from 28 countries, including India and the US, took place in Panchkhal, 60 km east of Kathmandu. It was jointly organised by Nepal Army and US Pacific Command.

This time, Aryal said that “within and outside the party, and within intelligentsia, the decision to participate in the exercise was criticised. So, in this background, it was decided to not send a Nepalese army delegation for the exercise. This decision was taken 2-3 days after the BIMSTEC summit.”

On whether the Indian side had expressed displeasure, he said, “I don’t think the Indian side has expressed displeasure.” On linking Nepal’s participation in military exercises with China and its decision on the BIMSTEC exercise, he said, “I don’t think one should go that far. Nepal has indulged in such exchanges in the past. Even Thailand did not participate in the exercise. Now, the matter has been resolved.”

“This incident should not have any negative consequences. It is a small incident. The situation is normal (now),” he said. “Nepal is very committed to its relations with its neighbours. It is committed to have an equal relationship with both countries, India and China. This decision to withdraw from BIMSTEC exercises and to participate in joint exercise should not be interpreted in one way or the other. This incident is not a big thing.”

On whether this was conveyed at a senior level, Aryal said, “Nepal and Indian governments are in communication with each other, I cannot say at which level…. Oli and Modi share their views, or put their views across frankly and with logic.” Indian government sources said that New Delhi understands that there are “internal compulsions” within Nepal that prompted it to withdraw from the exercise. “We have a good understanding with Nepalese side. There will be times when partners disagree, so we will have to respect that… As long as our interests are not harmed, we should not be too sensitive,” a source said.

The BIMSTEC field training exercise, named MILEX-18, is being conducted between September 10 and 16 in Pune. While Nepal and Thailand decided not to participate, and just be observers, armies of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are taking part. Nepal and China conducted their first military exercise in April 2017, and the second edition will be on September 17-28 in Chengdu.

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