Nepal: Opening Up For China
Dr. Upendra Gautam
On June 13, foreign ministries of Nepal and China duly announced the date for Prime Minister Oli’s visit to China. At the invitation of Premier Li Keqiang, he is on an official visit to China from June 19 to 24. Describing China and Nepal as comprehensive cooperative partners with ever-lasting friendship, China’s foreign ministry’s spokesman said, “This visit is Nepali Prime Minister’s first visit to China after Nepal’s political transformation, which will provide important opportunities for the leaders of our two countries to chart the course for and guide the development of China-Nepal ties.” Chinese and international media were also informed that during the visit, President Xi Jinping will meet with Prime Minister Oli and Premier Li Keqiang will hold a talk with him.
The spokesman was upright on China’s expectation from Oli’s visit. He said, “China hopes to take Prime Minister Oli’s visit as an opportunity to deepen our practical cooperation under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and enhance cooperation in such areas as politics, economy and trade, infrastructure, post-disaster reconstruction and cultural and people-to-people exchanges so as to scale our bilateral ties to a new height.” Nepali people’s expectation from Oli’s China visit absolutely matches with that of China. A larger section of the so-called mainstream Nepali media has failed to understand and appreciate this genuine expectation and has continued to harp on a “geopolitical frame” for Nepal where Nepal’s independence is undermined vis-à-vis India’s China relations.
Unlike in the past, Oli leads a powerful delegation that consists of Home Minister Badal, Minister for physical Infrastructure and Transport Mahaseth, Energy and Water Resources Minister Pun and Foreign Minister Gyawali. In 2016, when he signed landmark energy, transit and transport agreements with China, Nepali people had expected the end of Nepal’s long-drawn brutal dependence on India. These agreements with China support Nepal’s strategic economic autonomy including its unhindered international transit and trade. But the vested interest faction in Oli’s ruling partnership by raising the slogan of Nepal’s so-called “geopolitics of balanced relations” has remained dominant enough so far to undercut his efforts aimed at opening up China for Nepal.
As a matter of fact, Nepal’s independent foreign policy in substance and form alone can effectively handle the geopolitical game in the region. Handling geopolitics this strategic autonomous way can not only reform biases of geopolitics but also serve Nepal’s long-sought critical connectivity and development needs. 0Nepal’s independent foreign policy cannot be founded on the so-called “balanced” relations with the neighboring countries. Independent foreign policy must not be used as a cunning cover to appeasement and playing one with another compromising Nepal’s national interest at Nepal’s own cost. Nepal can maintain an absolute balance in relations only in one area, that is, it will not allow its soil to be used against any friendly country. Nepal needs to deal with each country including India and China based on the character and goodwill it maintains in the implementation of their foreign policy towards Nepal.
Determination of political leadership and a sense of struggle must support execution of Nepal’s independent foreign policy. Even in 1960s, Kodari road linking Nepal with China could be built because of this leadership merit. Above all, “Internal unity” is the factor Nepal’s leadership should always rely and nurture. It is an act of treason on the part of the political leadership to invite foreign interference for short term partisan personal interest. Whatever the support base including the 2\3rd vote in the parliament should not be a ground for building arrogance. The political leadership should go mustering more legitimacy in the eye of the general people who massively supported the Oli led government for its promise to make Nepal free from any humanitarian and economic crisis resulting from a blockade.
Interference in Nepal’s internal affairs would not recede. It would rise to weaken the “strong” government. It would however change style and be more subtle to seek policy and institutional gaps to interfere from within which, for onlookers, would look like Nepal’s own internal governance issue. The latest cases of West Seti Hydropower and so-called expert report on Pokhara airport are the evidences of such interferences.
For India, China was no neighbour till early 21st century. Indian foreign ministry recognised China as a country in the East Asia. China’s unprecedented economic advances and development in transport and communication has reformed the Trans-Himalayan geopolitics forever. Now China has rediscovered the history in the modern context and become an inter-continental country that links Asia with Europe. In early 1980s it was President Ronald Reagan who called Nepal a neighbour of the United States in the northern hemisphere. This was rather an articulation of a US president on the communication, technological and economic capability of the US that could even view Nepal as a hemispheric neighbor.
China’s economic and technological ability through comprehensive and green construction and modernisation of shared Trans-Himalayan ecological civilisation and connectivity, a world heritage, converts it into greater public good, which BRI targets to produce. Such a value-addition in the bilateral relations should be the top priority of Oli’s China visit. He needs to appropriately institutionalise as well as operationalise the “evolved” dynamics that he himself spearheaded when he visited China in 2016.
Development culture of China takes all development products and serves including that under the BRI in the framework of comprehensive development. In China’s development paradigm, there is no small or insignificant development- each development output can and should be comprehensive-meaning it has to be visionary, futuristic, up-scaling and virtuous. We would like to hope that Prime Minister Oli and his team have the basic understanding of China’s development and cooperation culture, philosophy and plan behind BRI and hold ability and sincerity to negotiate with the Chinese side with confidence and a national purpose.