Nepal-China Ties On Even Keel
Dr. Narad Bharadwaj
The ongoing official visit to China of Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradip Gyawali weeks after Prime Minister KP Oli’s state visit to India is being viewed as an initiative of the newly elected left government to evolve a durable framework for cooperation with its closest neighbours. In view of Nepal’s declared policy of acting as a bridge between the two Asian giants, this visit of Nepal’s Foreign Minister to China can be expected to bring the issues of development of cross-border connectivity and the expansion of economic engagement on the table.
Tight rope walk
As a small country located between two Asian economic and military super powers, Nepal has often been called upon to perform a tight rope walk in getting its economic and political interests served by one neighbour without ruffling the feathers of another. This art of diplomacy has enabled this country to survive the ebbs and flows of time to become the oldest independent country of South Asia winning respect and understanding from both of them.
Nepal is deeply rooted in the cultural, social and civilisation values steeped in Confucian, Buddhist and Vedic philosophies that had flourished in both China and India in ancient times. Through ages, the Himalayan land mass has, therefore, served as a hub of cross-cultural fertilisation and a bridge for a cross-continental flow of population, cultures, commerce and scholarship. Today’s challenges that Nepal faces is not propounding new principles governing relation with two of its closest neighbours but to rediscover the ancient values that form the moral and ethical boundaries of the relationship existing among these three countries.
These value systems have served the principal plank of external relation of Nepal with its neighbours. The diplomatic advances which the present left government has taken with the visit of neighbouring countries should be explained in this light.
Prime Minister KP Oli paid a state visit to India early this month at the invitation of his Indian counterpart. Though his visit had taken place in the background of deep misunderstanding and distrust between the two countries, Prime Minister Oli appears to have succeeded in convincing the Indian leaders that Nepal is neither interested nor capable of playing one neighbour against another. Nepal’s sole interest and the main priority have been and are the preservation of its sovereignty, independence and the promotion of prosperity of its people.
For reason of its land-locked condition and a state of poor infrastructure, Nepal has natural expectation to reap benefit from the large and relatively prosperous neighbours for overcoming the constraints of backwardness and poverty despite it being endowed with abundance of productive resources.
In the past, when Nepal basked in relative prosperity owing to its privileged position of being a trade entrepot catering to the commercial transaction in cross-Himalayan trade, it had contributed in the creation of wealth and affluence of the people living on both sides of the Himalayas. Now Nepal’s neighbours are more fortunate in achieving a relative level of growth and prosperity owing to their stable politics, proper institutional development and existence of basic transport and industrial infrastructures which they received as a legacy from their colonial past as a blessing in disguise.
On the other side, Nepal has a history of fiercely protecting its sovereignty and independence against the onslaught of colonialism and imperial aggression but it came at a cost of isolation, underdevelopment and absence of infrastructure development and transport networks. Today, the long-drawn political conflict that Nepal experienced has been finally resolved with a repeated movement of the people against authoritarianism and for democratisation. The major political forces of the country have forged consensus to move ahead on to the path of socialist transformation of the Nepali society through peaceful election.
The past decade was characterised by a period of instability in the country primarily because of the formation of fragile coalition governments as a result of elections producing fractured parliament. The political instability that ensued one after another parliamentary election precluded Nepal from developing balanced and gainful foreign relation with its neighbours. Now, Nepal has a unique opportunity of leading a stable government which is capable of assuring its ability to prevent its soil to be used against neighbours at the same time winning their acceptance for it acting as a bridge to help two largest economies of Asia gain access to each other’s markets.
The recent visit of Nepal’s Prime Minister to India can be explained as the first such attempt on the part of Nepal to present its perspectives in regard to Nepal’s foreign relation vis-à-vis its closest neighbours. The highest level visit from Nepali Prime Minister is expected to have succeeded in allaying several doubts that lingered with the Indian leadership regarding Nepal’s foreign policy priorities.
The commitment which India made towards implementing railway project connecting Raxaul with Kathmandu, assisting in agricultural modernisation and exploring possibility for inland navigation have been taken as some of the indications of changing foreign policy perceptions of India towards her small neighbour, Nepal. In this connection, the ongoing visit of Nepal’s Foreign Minister to China appears to be geared towards preparation of the Nepali Prime Minister’s upcoming visit to China. Though no major agreements are not likely to emerge out from the foreign minister level engagements going on in Beijing, this visit will surely outline the framework of the agreements to be reached at during Prime Minister’s visit in the near future.
Nepal China relation constitutes an unchartered terrain of infinite possibilities. As the second global economic power China is trying to play a substantial role in developing cross-continental connectivity through its flagship project called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Nepal has a high aspiration for coming out of the present level of poverty and backwardness by associating itself with this project. Nepal’s endorsement of the BRI and the understanding reached with China in the field of trade, transit and access to alternative sea ports reveals Nepal desire to link itself with the growing economic markets of Central Asia and the Caucasians accessible.
Nepal-China relation and Nepal- India relation had come into existence in a specific historical context and are developing in line with the present day imperatives. Nepal shares long open and geographically accessible border with India in the south but with China, it shares geographically inaccessible geography characterised by a harsh climate. It is, therefore, much easier for Nepal to develop cross-border economic transaction with India than it is with China.
Developing cross-border economic zones in the north is challenging but it is more essential for creating sustainable life among the people living along the northern borders. The upcoming visit of the Prime Minister of Nepal is expected to lay stress on seeking China’s help in developing at least three cross-border economic zones - Korala in the western region, Keorong in the central region and Kimathanka in the eastern region.
The opening of northern border through road and railway connectivity is also equally important for Nepal’s balanced regional development and prosperity as enunciated in a series of government’s policy declarations. In the process of acquiring assistance from its neighbours, Nepal should, however, be able to reassure both them that its connectivity with one country should in no way be understood as a breach in the security and economic interest of the other.