Trilateral Co-operation In Limbo
The BIMSTEC-BRICS Outreach Summit in Goa, India, offered an unprecedented scene this week making banner headlines in media. Leaders of three neighbouring countries: Chinese President XI Jinping, Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were seen together in a hotel room holding a meeting along the sidelines of BRICS Summit.
Interestingly, the posture of Chinese premier was pretty calm and composed compared to his Nepali and Indian counterpart indicating the state of comfort of these leaders. According to media reports, the Nepalese Prime Minister first held a one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Indian Prime Minister Modi later joined them. It is also learnt that Nepalese Prime Minister floated a proposal for trilateral strategic partnership among the three nations.
Although it hasn’t yet been obvious if this was a coincidence or an intentional move, it has generated various opinions across the diplomatic intelligentsia including the common public regarding the future course of the diplomatic relations among Nepal, India and China.
While a bunch of diplomatic experts have viewed this as a beginning step towards fostering trilateral cooperation among the three countries, others have remained skeptical about such possibility. With the official confirmation of India that no discussion on tripartite agreement was held and contradictory statement by Nepal that the trilateral cooperation was an agenda of the meeting, it is very difficult to infer what actually popped out during the historic interaction.
India has long been uninterested in the issue of fostering a trilateral cooperation. In fact, India seems to be afraid of its decreasing geo-political clout with China’s resurgence and doesn’t want any deal of this sort. With its desire to continue expanding ‘big-brotherly grip, India is adamant to ink any agreement that gives more benefit to China. It has not welcomed any discussion between Nepal and China towards enhancing their relationship in this manner. Whether we cite an example of India’s resistance to ‘One belt One Road’ policy of China or its criticism of the trade and transit treaty singed between Nepal and China in March this year, it has openly expressed its dissatisfaction over the growing proximity between Nepal and China putting the trilateral relations in jeopardy.
Unfolding the relations between India and China is significant to understand the entire domain of trilateral cooperation. With growing trade relations between these two potential economic superpowers of the 21st century, both these countries consider themselves as arch-rivals and are also keen to complement each other in matters of trade, commerce and economic growth. With Nepal’s occupying a prominent position in this geo-political balance of power, taking Nepal into confidence and marching ahead seems to be the ‘Hobson’s Choice’.
Developing Nepal as a transit route between India and China to expedite the trade relations have been prioritised by China in several bilateral and trilateral forums. Moreover, Nepal is the only route for China to penetrate into South Asia owing to which it is practicing pro-active diplomacy with Nepal. Moreover, China is interested in reviving ‘silk road’ initiatives to accommodate as many countries as possible in this mission of economic revival for which Nepal has already consented.
While Nepal has also been reiterating the need of triangular relations, it lacks a clear roadmap of becoming a vibrant bridge between the two countries. Nepalese Premier Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda once again emphasised Nepal’s willingness to transform from buffer to bridge in the Goa summit but failed to adequately communicate the strategic priorities of Nepal and it’s state of resources and infrastructures to become the same.
Nevertheless, Nepal needs to first have a common foreign policy with clear priorities to pursue bilateral and trilateral cooperation with India and China. Wrangling over petty power politics for long has stifled Nepal’s diplomacy. Ambassadorial appointments based on political patronage have aggravated the problem with the decreasing stature of our diplomacy in the international arena. Without resolving pertinent issues, it is impossible to push forward the ambitious goal of trilateral relations.
The important questions that the political leaders should address are: What should Nepal do categorically to become a vibrant bridge between India and China? How to develop the necessary resources and infrastructures for building a better transport and communication system with adequate facilities in the transit route to facilitate India-China trade? How to reap the economic benefits for expediting Nepal’s development from the growing trade between these two economic giants? What sort of restructuring is required in the existing foreign policy apparatus of Nepal to grapple with the emerging challenges of international relations?
Seeking answers to these questions requires a committed political leadership that can mobilise a team of diplomatic experts. Tapping the attitude, knowledge and skills of the competent bureaucrats and strengthening the institutional capacity of line ministries like the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Industry and the Ministry of Tourism, among others, can be valuable in formulating a concept paper on trilateral strategic partnership that Nepal really intends to foster.