We wish to benefit from OBOR: Foreign Minister Mahat
Situated between two large countries, Nepal has persistently tried to seek a balance in its relations with India and China. Yet there have been criticisms in recent times that there has been a deviation from this policy. Foreign Minister Dr. Prakash Sharan Mahat, however, tried to allay this concern while talking with Nandalal Tiwari of The Rising Nepal about the present status of Nepal’s relationship with the neighbours. Excerpts:
A few days back you were saying that relations with both the neighbours had improved much more than in the past. What is the basis of your assessment?
We have very good relations with China and India. We had some problems in the recent past related to a misunderstanding with India. But through constant exchanges of visits and dialogue, we have been able to overcome that misunderstanding. Now our relationship is on track. We are now working towards promoting our interests and swift implementation of projects being carried out with Indian assistance. There is a bilateral mechanism on this, and this mechanism, which comprises representatives of both Nepal and India, has had two meetings already, and it has been very helpful in identifying the problems and reasons for the delay in implementing the projects. It has provided valuable suggestions to responsible agencies, and I think that the projects being run with Indian support will get the desired speed.
At the same time there were issues related to inundation, and also implementation problems pertaining to some of the agreements we have had with India, including the Mahakali Treaty and the Gandak Treaty. Through our bilateral ministerial meetings, we have been able to sort out the issues, problems, and India has agreed to implement the remaining issues that need to be settled. Regarding inundation also, we have agreed to identify the points of inundation and resolve the problems. And we are also working towards more connectivity, transit and trade facility, and transmission lines. Over all, we have identified most of the issues that existed between India and Nepal, and we are working towards a solution, which is good for both the countries. So Nepal- India relation is on the right track now.
At the same time we are in very good relationship with China. There are no major issues of disagreement between us. We would like to improve connectivity - railways, roads, transmission lines and other modes of connectivity. And we have conveyed to the Chinese government that we want to build a relationship based on mutual benefit. We would like to see more projects from China and that projects related to connectivity move fast.
We have invited President Xi Jingping to visit Nepal. Especially during the BRICS meeting in Goa, Prime Minister Prachanda made the invitation in person where I was also a participant. And President Xi has assured us that he would visit Nepal at the earliest possible.
I think that relationship with China is also moving for the benefit of Nepal. Overall, we would like to see good relations with both the countries, benefit from their growth, see more investment coming from both, and more tourists from these neighbours visiting Nepal.
You said that Nepal is eager to have connectivity, including railways with China. Some agreements have been made, would you like to share the progress on them?
Well, the past government had some agreements. Those are basically agreements, which now need to be implemented. Those are agreements in principle, and when we talk about implementing them, it takes a long time. For instance, when you are talking about railways, which is under construction in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, it may take some five years to reach the Nepali border. So, in terms of implementation, there are many things to be done, including survey, feasibility study. So I think we need to start with the first step toward implementing these projects. We are also saying that we need to have all weather roads between the two countries, and we would also like to see both border points being operated for trade and transit.
But it was reported sometime back that Nepal had not sent the necessary proposals regarding the implementation of the agreements?
That's not true. Actually, we have asked for this and sent proposals. There is a mechanism between the two countries, a bilateral secretary level mechanism. We have requested the Chinese side to hold this meeting. When we have this bilateral meeting, then we can discuss about how to proceed with the implementation of the agreements.
Sometimes it is reported that the Nepal government or Nepali leaders are staying away from accepting the Chinese One Belt One Road initiative.
We have already expressed our opinion regarding this (OBOR). OBOR is basically about connectivity. So there are connectivity proposals through land to Europe, South East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East to Africa, connecting right up to the sea. This is a good idea. As far as our interest is concerned, we would like to have better and more modes of connectivity between China and Nepal. So under this broader framework of OBOR, we would like to benefit from this, we would like to see road and railways connected to Nepal from China. We are not saying that we don't want to participate in it (OBOR). We say we want to participate in that and benefit from this concept. So there is no question about not responding to this mission.
At the BRICS meeting in Goa, the three leaders - PM Prachanda, Chinese President Xi and Indian PM Narendra Modi - also talked about trilateral cooperation. What do you think we should do for it to happen?
We welcome if there is trilateral cooperation, but it is up to the three countries. All three countries should agree on how trilateral cooperation can work. But as far as Nepal is concerned, if India and China are ready, we are ready because we want to benefit from such initiative.
You talked about exchanges of visits with India since this government was formed. Such visits are not taking place with China. Any reasons?
A lot of Chinese delegations have visited Nepal. We also had a meeting with President Xi Jinping in Goa even though it was not in Nepal or China, but we were able to use that venue. We had a very fruitful bilateral dialogue. And we covered all issues between the two neighbours. President Xi also promised to visit Nepal soon. So we are looking forward to welcoming him in Nepal.
Several Chinese delegations are visiting Nepal, and some Nepalese delegations have also visited China. We are discussing issues of interest of both the countries. We would also like to see visits at the foreign minister, secretary level. We have already sent our proposal for having a meeting of the bilateral mechanism. We are waiting for a response from the Chinese side. We want to visit China, we want to discuss those understandings and agreements reached by the previous government and work towards implementation of these agreements. We had three high-level visits to India for different purposes, and we went to India at their invitation. The PM visited India, the India President came here at our President's invitation. We like to see such visits with China as well. We have been saying all along that we want to have good relations with both the neighbours, and relationship with one country is not a substitute for the other.
We have different issues with India, and we focus on these when we have bilateral meetings with India. When we have a meeting with China, we have a different set of issues, and we focus on them. There is no need for comparison. Based on the need, and depending on how critical these issues are for our relationship, we focus on them, and depending on the need, we hold bilateral meetings. In the Nepali press/media, they talk about the frequency of visits. But the thing is, when there is a need or when you think that there are things to be worked out, then you make a visit. So it is not a question of frequency of visits, but the issues in focus, things that need to be resolved. But overall, the basis of our foreign policy regarding our neighbours is that being a small country between the two big countries, we have to have good relations with both on the basis of trust and mutual understanding. It is how we are working, and we are working to promote our national interest. How we can benefit from the relationship is the only thing in our mind.
You said Nepalese leaders visited India because they were invited, and there were issues to be sorted out. Does it mean that China has not invited us or we have very few issues to talk with China?
No, no, of course not. We have many issues with India because of the open border, you do not need a passport, visa to visit India, many rivers flow to India from Nepal. There are so many issues such as the open border, security, water resources, transit and trade between the two countries. That's why we need to have many more meetings. With China, basically our focus is on creating more connectivity. We have very limited connectivity. We have only two roads that also don’t work all the time. We want to have an all weather road. They also have their own issues.
Both the countries feel that Nepal must not be used against their security interests, and we have told them that Nepal is a friendly country, we want good relations with both of them and that we will not let our country be used against their interests. At the same time, we also expect them to respect our sensitivity and be supportive of our needs as a landlocked country. We need to develop our economy, create more jobs, and for this to happen, we need to have investment. So we would like to see both the neighbours be supportive and sensitive towards our needs.
Nepal and China are holding the first ever joint military drill this February. What is your take on it?
When I was on a visit to New Delhi, Indian media persons asked me about this, and I told them that it is a small training, and not a military exercise, so they need not make a big thing out of it.
Globalisation seems to be getting a setback, with the policy shift in the US. What impact will it have on us?
Actually, western countries advocated for free trade while the developing countries were reluctant. Their feeling was that if we reduced the tariffs, then we would be a market for the western countries. Once the developing countries opened their markets, their markets also became competitive as new technologies developed. Globalisation thus helped them. Western countries also got cheap services. But now they are feeling, probably, new /developing countries are getting more benefit and they are thinking of raising tariffs. I hope no step will be taken to reverse globalization.
Would you want to add anything?
This government, this ministry, I myself are trying or working hard to see that we benefit from our relationship with our neighbours, other friendly countries in Europe, Japan, America. And many other countries which were not on our radar, we want to build our relationship with those countries as well. We would also like to give priority to the Gulf countries, where a large number of Nepali people are working. We want to protect their interest, protect their right to work in safety and security. This is also our focus. Overall, we are trying to make sure that we can better serve them, because they are sending remittance, and because of the remittance we are benefiting. We cannot ignore them.