Sign OBOR MoU Or Get Left Aside
Presenting the ‘report on the work of the government’ in the year of 2016 at the inaugural of the 5th session of the 12 session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) on March 5, 2017, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had highlighted that ‘rapid progress was made in pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, and a number of major projects and industrial capacity cooperation projects with other countries were launched’.
‘We will make solid efforts to pursue the Belt and Road Initiative,’ Premier Li had said while speaking about the government’s major areas of work for 2017. ‘Guided by the principle of achieving shared growth through consultation and collaboration, we will accelerate the building of overland economic corridors and maritime cooperation hubs, and establish cooperative mechanism for achieving compatibility in customs clearance procedures along the routes,’ Premier Li had said about the BRI, commonly/initially known as OBOR.
In an interview published just a month ago in this daily, Foreign Minister Dr. Prakash Sharan Mahat had said that Nepal was eager to join the OBOR initiative being pushed forward by China, the northern neighbor, and that Nepal had expressed its concerns with regard to the initiative (in fact the MoU put forward by China).
PM’s China visit
The focus of the Chinese government on BRI as expressed in the report of Premier Li and Nepal’s concerns in relation to the same initiative as said by Foreign Minister Mahat make up a part of the background of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda’s weeklong visit to China starting from probably March 23, probably because the Cabinet is yet to decide on the visit. Propounded Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, the BRI is a major foreign policy thrust of China for what they call ‘opening up’ to the world. Some 26 countries including China’s other neighbours numbering 15 have already signed the MoU related to the BRI. However, Nepal is yet to do so although the draft has been exchanged. Indian pressure over Nepal has been blamed for Nepal’s non-commitment to the BRI or the lack of the signing of the MoU. Understandably, China may have been suspicious about Nepal’s dillydallying to sign the MoU.
In addition to making a special participation in the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2017 to be held in Boao of Hainan province of China from March 23-26, PM Prachanda has more important issues to discuss with the topmost Chinese official. His visit comes just a year after some important agreements including trade and transit, import of petroleum product, construction of electricity transmission line, construction of railways, between Nepal and China. Around this time last year, during the visit of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, Nepal and China had signed a ten-point agreement that included vital issues. The agreements were of far-reaching importance. However, there has not been expected progress toward implementing them. From Nepal’s perspective, China has not opened the customs office at Khasa, the Chinese small town at Nepal-China border, which has added difficulty to import goods from China, particularly at this time of reconstruction in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in April 2015.
For sure, China has always been a friend in need for Nepal. China has also helped Nepal in various sectors for its development. The assistance of petroleum products during the time of the Indian blockade has remained the latest instance although it was a symbolic gesture, it was very meaningful. Nepal needs investment and assistance for development, and as the second largest economy China has the resources. Nepal has committed to diversify its trade. In this context, for improving connectivity with China with advanced transportation and communication facilities, Nepal has no option but join the BRI. It is understandable, it is not easy given the domestic political condition in Nepal and tacit Indian pressure in this regard, but Nepal has no choice but to move ahead for development efforts.
In a recent conversation with this scribe Professor Huang Youyi of the Charhar Institute in Beijing has said that OBOR is about connectivity and development. Its key is mutual discussion, joint action and sharing of the result. The blueprint should be drawn by countries working together. It is not just about one country making investment in another country but rather about building together a shared future. Given its geographical location Nepal has great potentials in taking part in and benefitting from this effort.
It is clear, being a part of OBOR does not necessarily mean receiving Chinese grant or assistance for development works as it means sharing the cost as well as fruits of development. But it means more than that for countries like Nepal. Nepal has to have connectivity with China as sole dependency on India has undermined its decision making power time and again. Moreover, it is an initiative taken by an always reliable neighbor. Hence, it will give only a negative impression to our northern neighbor if PM Prachanda fails to sign the MoU on BRI during his visit this time. The tri-lateral cooperation as sought by PM Prachanda among Nepal, China and India since 2008 can also be part of the BRI. It will be just daydream to wish for a railway line from Kerung to Lumbini via Kathmandu and Pokhara without being a part of BRI. It is wrong to think of BRI as a project to expand market only. Even if it is that, market is not open for one side, it opens for both ends of the road.
It is also expected that during the visit, there will be some concrete progress on implementing the Nepal-China trade and transit agreement and pushing forward Nepal-China Friendship Treaty. It is also important that issues related to delays in implementing some development projects including West Seti Hydropower that are awarded to Chinese companies are also raised at least in the sideline meetings during the Boao Forum For South Asia Annual Conference if not during the official meeting.