Dr. Narad Bharadwaj
With the meeting of the high government officials of Nepal and China in Kathmandu Wednesday to agree on the text of protocol to the Transit and Transportation Agreement signed in 2016 between the two counties, Nepal appears poised to take a decisive step towards opening new horizon of trade expansion.
There is considerable excitement on both sides of the Himalayas over the possibility of agreement coming into force after being pushed to the limbo for about two years for lack of required follow up work from appropriate level. The agreement on Transit and Transportation had taken place at the background of six-month long blockade by India against Nepal. Signed as the treaty was under such circumstances, this agreement was hailed by the people as a momentous step in the history of bilateral relation between the two countries.
Nepal’s initiative to open northern border for trade and business was the culmination of Nepal’s strategic quest for finding a way to end the dependence on one country for international trade and the consequences associated to it. With the solemnisation of the treaty, Nepal had theoretically succeeded in diversifying its cross-border connectivity and access to international markets by exercising its sovereign right to protect its economic interest from shifting geo-political calculations of other countries.
As good neighbours sharing centuries of traditional bond of friendship, Nepal and China have formally agreed to broaden their engagement intensifying cross border trade and transportation connectivity. China has been in the process of implementing a flagship project known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to enable its neighbours to benefit from its ever expanding economic prosperity. The modality of bringing the economically less developed countries of South Asia, South East Asia and Africa is to connect them with the economic corridors being conceived as nodes of prosperity along what used to be once called the Silk Road.
So far as Nepal-China border connectivity is concerned, it is Nepal’s existential necessity and China’s geo-strategic priority. Nepal has amply made it clear to Chinese leaders through a number of forums that it is Nepal’s wish to create favourable conditions for cross-border people to people transaction. Nepal wants the cross-border connectivity for developing collaborative mechanism between the two countries for the protection of ecology of the Himalayan region and to put concerted effort in mitigating the impacts of climate change.
The villages of Nepal and China lying on the either slope of the Himalayan ridges are extremely remote, inaccessible and isolated from both sides. Road and railway connectivity has greatly increased on the Chinese side of the border. But many remote Tibetan villages and towns are still out of the reach of modernity. The increase in the road and railway connectivity has started to bring unprecedented changes in the life of the people. But the life on the Nepali side of the border is still primitive. People are cut off from modernity and are struggling with deprivation and impoverishment. The opening of more border points and enhancing connectivity can bring about unforeseen changes in the life of the peoples living on both sides of the border.
At present the cross-border connectivity between Nepal its northern neighbour is restricted to one border pass only. This situation has been brought about by the devastating earthquake of 2015 and the landslides that are natural features during the rainy season. The road, immigration and customs infrastructures are severely damaged in Tatopani border point. As a result, the border point in that part of Nepal-China border still remains closed.
The Rasuwagadi border point, which is the only modern mountain pass with necessary infrastructures capable of handling high volume of merchandise, has been closed because of road blocks caused by landslides at several places. The Nepali people living along the northern borders aspire for cross-border trade, railway and road connectivity. It is, therefore, urgently necessary to reopen northern border points like Tatopani and Rasuwagadi while trying to develop other strategically important border points such as Korala and Hilsa in the west and Kimathanka and Wolangchunggola in the east.
The Nepali government has laid out its strategic plans for developing the above border points for promoting cross border trade between the two countries. Nepal government has been doing its best to expand essential infrastructures at different border points of Nepal and China putting equal emphasis on building road infrastructures with a view to link northern borders with the hinterlands of the country.
As part of its strategy to expand trade connectivity with China, Nepal has requested the Chinese government to extend its Lhasa –Keorung stretch of railway to Rasuwagadi with an objective of linking it with Kathmandu and Lumbini. Feasibility study of the proposed railway project has revealed that the railway project is feasible though it is going to be highly cost intensive and vulnerable to disasters as it has to pass through seismic fault lines where the Eurasian and Indian plates meet and collide.
Trans-Himalayan railway connectivity is Nepal’s dream project. If it is implemented surmounting the great problems that lie ahead, it has the potential of changing the economic life of the people living on both sides of the border. Nepal is eying the Chinese sea ports for carrying out trade transactions with even the third countries in addition to China. The bilateral talks going on in Kathmandu for finding consensus on the text of the protocol to the Trade and Transport Agreement signed in 2016 in Beijing, therefore, carries a critical significance.
The Nepali Government is said to have asked for the permission of the Chinese Government to run its trade from three major ports of Tianjin through specific sea routes. But the Chinese government is said to be ready to give access to the sea ports with reservation to designate the sea routes. If the Nepali government succeeds in convincing the Chinese government how important the cross-border connectivity and port utilities are for Nepal, the two countries will usher in a new era of economic prosperity for the people of both the counties.