Emboldened by its success in arm-twisting Nepal into ratifying the controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact in February, the United States took on the equally hard task of getting Nepal to join its State Partnership Program (SPP).

But the ambitious move to give a military dimension to US-Nepal relations has boomeranged. Faced with strident and widespread opposition, even the pro-US government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has sworn not to sign up for the SPP.

Fear of becoming a theatre of military conflict between the US-India lineup on the one hand and China on the other, lies at the root of the rejection. It is a setback to US efforts to enlarge its strategic imprint in South Asia bordering China.

The SPP is a bilateral program which is outwardly peaceful in intent. But it is perceived to have deep-set military objectives with consequences not only for Nepal's internal security, but also for relations with its two big neighbours, China and India.

The impact on Sino-Nepal relations will be catastrophic if the SPP leads to stronger US-Nepal military ties. The Indian army's exclusive and unique relationship with the Nepalese army will be diluted, a prospect the conservative Indian top brass cannot reconcile with.

Be that as it may, a fact that cannot be brushed under the carpet is that from 2015 onwards, successive Nepalese governments, whether pro or anti-US, had sought admission to the SPP. They were apparently attracted by its potential to help Nepal tackle natural disasters.

In October 2015, Nepal wanted US humanitarian assistance to meet the challenges posed by the earthquake and sought membership of SPP. Nepal's request was repeated in 2017 and 2019.

The SPP got no public attention until recently. According to veteran Nepalese journalist, Yubaraj Ghimire, this was because there was no requirement for the SPP to get Parliament's ratification unlike in the case of the MCC. But what eventually brought the SPP under suspicion or scrutiny was a flurry of high-level US diplomatic activity in Nepal in a short span of time after the ratification of the MCC. The frenetic US activity made observers wonder if the US had something up its sleeve.

Uzra Zeya, US Under Secretary of State for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, and US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues made a highly publicised visit to Nepal in May. She created waves by meeting Tibetan refugees, thereby touching a raw nerve in China and creating tremors in the corridors of power in Kathmandu. She took up the refugees' undocumented status since 1995, and urged documentation.

To encourage Nepal towards this end, Zeya offered a developmental sop of over US$ 600 million. But her prescription is unlikely to be accepted by Nepal because China wants Nepal to send the refugees back to Tibet. Like Zeya, the US Ambassador, Randy Berry, met Tibetan refugees and went to upper Mustang to visit Tibetan monasteries.

The Commanding General of the US Army Pacific, Gen. Charles A. Flynn, was the next to visit Kathmandu adding grist to the rumour mill. He had apparently urged Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and General Prabhu Ram Sharma, Chief of Staff of the Nepal Army, to put Nepal in the State Partnership Program. Nepalese fear that all these moves will have a negative impact on Nepal's balanced foreign relations, marked by equidistance from India, US and China

Worried about Nepal's coming under more pressure from the US, the Chinese Ambassador, Hou Yanqi, called on Nepal's Home Minister ostensibly to get confirmation of Nepal's continued adherence to the "One China" policy. Nepal's condemnation of Russia for its aggression in Ukraine had also made Beijing suspicious about the links between the Deuba and the Biden regimes.

Meanwhile, a document purporting to be an agreement between Nepal and the US on the SPP, emerged and went viral in the media. It spoke of a strong military content, including joint US-Nepal army training and also sops in the form of Fellowships for Nepalese officers in US academies.

It said that the US National Guard and US contractors, related vehicles and light aircraft operated by or for the United States, may use agreed facilities and areas for training, transit, support and related activities, refuelling, temporary maintenance of vehicles and aircraft, accommodation of personnel, their dependents, communications, staging, deploying of forces and material.

The US embassy promptly said that the document was fake. The government too said that there has never been an agreement. The government's line is that while the SPP has indicated its readiness to admit Nepal, there has been no follow-up.

This is what is said in defence of the SPP, "the State Partnership Program (SPP) is an exchange program between an American State's National Guard and a partner foreign country. The US National Guard domestically supports US first responders in dealing with natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, and wildfires."

"In the event of natural and other disasters, ranging from hurricanes to earthquakes, floods, and fires, the United States seeks to share the best practices and capabilities of our National Guards — our first-line responders. SPP can be an effective means of facilitating this type of cooperation."

The SPP has existed for over 25 years and includes partnerships with over 90 countries.

But the rub lies elsewhere. The SPP is administered by the National Guard Bureau, guided by State Department foreign policy goals, and executed by the state Adjutants General in support of the Department of Defence policy goals.

"Through SPP, the National Guard conducts military-to-military engagements in support of defence security goals but also leverages whole-of-society relationships and capabilities to facilitate broader interagency and corollary engagements spanning military, government, economic and social spheres," a US government website states.

In other words, the SPP is a multi-purpose vehicle to advance wide-ranging US political and strategic objectives under the overall cloak of humanitarian engagement.

In view of the public furore about the possibility of Nepal's being drawn into the vortex of geopolitical conflict between the US and China and possibly between China and India too, all Nepalese parties, including the ruling the pro-US and pro-India Nepali Congress, have said that they would not countenance entering the SPP.

Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand, said on behalf of the government, that the government strongly believes that Nepal's territory should not be allowed to be used against any friendly nation. Airing his views in a meeting of the House of Representatives, the Home Minister said: "Nepal is not connected with the SPP. No decision has been made towards this end. It has not imagined proceeding towards that end either."

Comparing SPP with the MCC, Khand said, "we consider and recognise the MCC as a pure development project and not a military project. It was endorsed by all." It is learnt that India too was not in support of the SPP as it feels that the pushy US will unsettle the traditional special relationship between the Indian and Nepalese armies.

Nepal's Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is to visit the US mid-July. Observers say that if the SPP had not got the adverse reaction it has, he would have signed the Agreement while in Washington. But now he cannot. The other consideration is that he has to face parliamentary elections in November this year. As it is, Deuba is unpopular and is on a weak political wicket, seasoned Nepal watchers say.