Prospects From China's Initiative
In view of critical, stable and modern connectivity needs of a landlocked country, China's One Belt and One Road (OBOR), now also referred to as Belt and Road (B and R) Initiative, offers beneficial prospects for Nepal. These prospects are historic and unprecedented. For an independent-minded Nepali citizen it is neither legitimate nor appropriate to doubt China's intention about this initiative. Instead, what is more correct for a Nepali citizen is to ask how expeditiously Nepal is duly placed in and benefitted from this open and inclusive framework development initiative of China.
Nepal is in an existential fight due to poverty and underdevelopment accentuated by the colonial mindset of sphere of influence of its southern neighbour. Now the people have become increasingly aware that the disruptions caused by the then western empires to the celebrated Silk routes have made all hinterlands in the trans-Himalayan region to suffer greatly making them much poorer. These trans-Himalayan hinterlands are in a dire need of aligning their development planning strategy with that of OBOR. Development opportunities offered by OBOR, as a Chinese saying has it, are like life-giving spring breeze and rain that have come just on time.
A World Bank report has identified infrastructure gap as having serious impact on the level of poverty in South Asia. According to another World Bank report, Nepal alone needs to spend USD 13 to 18 billion by 2020 to bridge this gap.
Nepal’s political leadership is constrained by the colonial mindset of sphere of influence and is yet to be able to complete necessary instruments to formalise its rightful placement in OBOR. In the mean time, OBOR has already contributed in creating an enabling environment of cooperation for Nepal in two distinct ways.
First, there is a much knowledge-based awareness in the people about it. "The Governance of China," a book penned by President Xi which has also been translated into Nepali language, provided a total perspective on OBOR with a great inter-disciplinary sense of history, diplomacy, culture and development.
In this context, Chinese defense minister's recent visit to Nepal followed by a joint military exercise of the Nepal Army and China's People's Liberation Army as a part of their annual cooperation was handy to highlight the non-traditional security dimension of development. This aspect was so far a missing link in ancient Nepal-China ties.
Second, all the concerned public and private agencies have now started more correctly appreciating alignment of development planning strategy for policy harmony, infrastructural connectivity and non-traditional security collaboration with China. This appreciation is not liked by a section of the intellectuals and ruling elites who would like to be a part of a terror of disinformation saying OBOR is beyond Nepal's capability; if it joins OBOR, it would be drowned in China.
The ground reality is different. Chinese investors are preparing to invest in an industrial park in Jhapa in eastern Nepal. About 438 hectare of land is acquired for the park with the support of the local municipal government in the initial phase. The investment is being channeled through OBOR international trade platform in Nepal. This indicates the acceptability of OBOR even in the local Nepali society. Moreover, over the last three years, China has topped the list of direct foreign investment in Nepal.
Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) president Jin Liqun who attended the Nepal Investment Summit 2017 in Kathmandu has expressed his commitment to working with Nepal government and private sector to make a meaningful difference in the country's economic and social development. Further, it is educating to note what Arun Jaitley, Finance and Defense Minister of India which has not joined OBOR for the reported reason of sovereign territorial issues, had said in the same Summit, "What should matter is the construction of the infrastructure and its contribution towards economy, not who builds it." As has been the case, out of the total investment pledge of US$13.5 billion made in the investment summit, the biggest chunk of US$ 8.3 billion was from the companies of China.
China never had a colonial expansionist design on Nepal. It always supported Nepal's independence and territorial integrity. With an eye to ensure better security environment for infrastructural development against terrorism and other non-traditional sources of insecurity, China joined hands with Nepal to successfully conduct the first-ever joint military exercise in Nepal. The treaty of Betravati that was signed between China and Nepal more than two hundred years ago after a Nepal-Tibet war has made a provision stating that China would help Nepal defend against any external aggression. Another provision in the treaty has recognised Nepali citizens' right to visit, trade, and establish industries in any part of Tibet and China.
Based on the lessons of OBOR implementation and the enabling cooperation environment contributed by it, Nepal needs to have a pragmatic 10-year three-stage connectivity enhancing strategy to materialise the prospects OBOR holds for Nepal.
In the first stage of three years, development at the local level needs to be prioritised to boost bottom-up bilateral connectivity cooperation. Developing Nepal's remote and underdeveloped areas in the south of the Himalaya and linking it with the amazing development made in Tibet will also provide an important local safeguard to larger OBOR projects. According to a figure, provided by Tibetan Purang county public security chief Nima Tundup, more than a thousand youth from Nepal's adjoining Humla district visit Purang for employment annually earning about USD 1000 per month in a work season.
In the second stage of five years, unprecedented benefits should be brought by projects like Bejing-Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini railway. When the Shigatse-Jilong or Kerung section of China's Trans-Himalayan railway is finished, sometime before 2020, the China-Nepal Railway will be a powerful revival of the seventh century snowy caravan route through Tibet to Nepal.
In the third stage of two years, regional connectivity of the China-Nepal transportation projects should be considered and implemented.
OBOR intends to harmonise trade, transport, communications and energy systems in a two-way mode. Its work culture cannot be the conventional type of client-donor relations; rather it represents a fair relationship of resource and technology exchanges. OBOR philosophically integrates dimensions of development, diplomacy and defense into one. In Hindu philosophy, one represents all. The Sanskrit sentence - "Aham Brahmasmi" means "I am the Infinite Reality". It is one of the supra-sentences used to explain the unity of one with all.
Once Nepal is efficiently connected with the multi-modal transport networks of China, a "double happiness" will greet us. Nepal will not only be a part of Silk Road Economic Belt but also of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road as its access to Port of Guangzhou in South China, and link with Gwadar Port in Pakistan through China will provide Nepal balance and optimisation in its geopolitical and economic relations in the trans-Himalaya region.
Nepal needs China not only as a friend in need but also as a close friend with whom our development planning strategies are aligned, relationship at the multiple channels and levels are regularised and coordinated. In this context, great Chinese people's sense of history and sense of struggle have always remained a constant source of inspiration for the Nepali people through all these years of hardships.
The great wisdom of Benjamin Disraeli may enlighten those who blindly follow colonialists and see OBOR as China's imperialism. He said, "It is much easier to be critical than to be correct." The Chinese nation is much appreciated because it always tries to be correct.
(Prof. Gautam, PhD, is Secretary General of China Study Center Nepal)