PM Oli’s China Visit Opens New Chapter Of Cooperation
Ritu Raj Subedi
While addressing a joint session of Nepal’s parliament in April 1960, Chinese premier Chou En-lai had offered his practical views with regard to the fate of Nepal and China that had just achieved political liberation. He said: “Both China and Nepal are faced with the arduous task of building up their own countries. We deeply realise that for us Asian and African countries, only when we have become independent economically, can we enrich the content of political independence and provide a complete guarantee for our independence. Up till now both our countries are backward and lack experience in construction.” Chou’s remarks carried important political meanings for both neighbours. Both were economically weak and were effortful to bolster their hard-won democracy, and they needed mutual collaboration to expedite development and boost bilateral cooperation. Their inherent message is clear and candid: Without economic independence, the political sovereignty remains a far cry.
Today China is no longer a ‘backward’ nation. It has transformed itself from “the sick man of East Asia” to a global power. It has strengthened its political sovereignty on the back of mesmerising economic growth. Unlike China of Chou’s days, today’s China under Xi Jinping is strong, assertive and determined to write a playbook on the international affairs. Quite the contrary, Nepal could not make strides in economy owing to internal as well as geopolitical factors. Even if Nepal was condemned to reel from vexing political transitions and bickering, it has stood by China through thick and thin ever since both the nations opened diplomatic relations in 1955. When Chairman Mao had announced that China had finally ‘stood up’ from the decades of struggles for liberation at the Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, he was unaware of a bitter fact: the communist China was to face acute isolation in the world dominated by the capitalist nations. That time Nepal extended a solid backing to China for its legitimate place in the United Nations as well as in the comity of nations. Nepal had cosponsored a resolution to induct China as a new member of the UN in October 1971.
While sticking to ‘One China Policy,’ Nepal has been a true friend of China and unwaveringly supported for its stability. In THE early 1970s, Nepal disarmed and punished the Khampa rebels hell-bent on destabilising Tibet from Nepal’s northern border. These historical references amply suggest that Nepal is not merely a ‘receiver’ nation. It can exercise its geopolitical clout when it asserts the sovereignty. It is believed that these historical episodes will be in the institutional memory of the two countries as they chart out a new course of bilateral relations. As a close friend of Nepal, China has always supported Nepal for its economic development no matter which political system it employs. Nonetheless, Nepal has been unable to reap benefits from China’s rapid economic growth as desired largely owing to the geopolitical obstacles and internal chaos.
Today Nepal and China stand to usher their relation in a golden era. Nepal is unlikely to face direct retaliatory response from India just because it forges a comprehensive economic and trade cooperation with China. It is worth remembering that the three blockades India imposed on Nepal in 1962, 1970 and 1989 were the reactions to Nepal’s bold steps to define its sovereignty and enhance relations with China. Following the 2015 Indian embargo, India has lost the moral fibre on its Nepal policy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led regime is not in a position to explicitly execute the Nehru doctrine that sees Nepal as its Himalayan frontier and an exclusive sphere of influence. Under Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, India has stopped brazenly interfering in the internal affairs of Nepal as reflected in the joint statement issued during his Indian visit two months ago.
PM Oli, who is riding the crest of sweeping electoral mandate, is in a far better position than any other of his predecessors to apply independent foreign policies and muster larger economic support from the northern neighbour. He leads a strong majority government capable of implementing the deals reached with China. Oli, who is embarking on China visit from June 19, has the primary task of implementing the 10-point agreement, including the trade and transit accord signed during his first premiership in 2016. These deals were signed when Nepal was enduring inhuman blockade. They mark Nepal’s deep desire to come out of India-locked position by invoking its rights as a landlocked country. The historic trade and transit treaty provides Nepal with an access to the sea, which is a crucial step to attaining economic sovereignty. But those deals were ignored in the absence of political will and pussyfooting of highly politicised bureaucracy.
Now the visit must concentrate on implementing these agreements aimed at boosting Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity. During Oli’s visit, Nepal and China will sign around a dozen accords that include a joint venture to construct 1,000MW hydroelectricity project, a protocol to open eight entry points between the two countries, survey of Kerung-Kathmandu railway and its detailed project report (DPR), construction of Nepal-China Friendly Bridge at Tatopani in Sindhupalchok and Rasuwagadhi. The two sides will come up with concrete plans to build road, railway, cross-border transmission lines and infrastructure, generate electricity and increase trade and investment under the framework of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has also agreed to resume the Tatopani trading point from May next year.
The Chinese cooperation is also important for PM Oli to realize his agenda of ‘prosperity’ that he sold to voters during the polls. In the eyes of his critics, Oli’s China trip is also the test of his nationalism that he demonstrated during his earlier term in office. They argue that his nationalistic spirit has mellowed after his visit to India as well as Modi’s trip to Nepal. In addition to implementing the past deals, Oli must silence his detractors through sagacious diplomacy with the Chinese leaders. Some have challenged him to raise the issue of Lipulekh. Border expert Buddhi Narayan Shrestha insists that Oli should ask the Chinese leaders to locate Nepal on the map of the BRI. It is also an opportune moment for China to vigorously implement the bilateral BRI projects in Nepal that now guarantees the political stability, policy certainty and investment security. Now China should open its heart to strengthen its small neighbour’s economic independence by recalling those days when Nepal did everything to get the Chinese political system and sovereignty recognised in the world.