Deepening Nepal-China Relations
Hira Bahadur Thapa
As the State Visit of our first female President of Federal Republic of Nepal, Bidya Devi Bhandari, to China concluded a day before yesterday as she needed rest due to breathing problem in Lhasa, where many people have high altitude sickness, both the Nepali and the Chinese people have felt the warmth and cordiality. Ever since the diplomatic ties were formalised between them in the mid-fifties, relations have always remained cordial and friendly. Uniquely, these neighbours have the geography of separating their national territories by the towering Himalayas. Happily, no border dispute has occurred so far. No wonder that our border stretches as far as 1400 kilometers in the north, an area that is wholly covered by Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), an integral part of People’s Republic of China.
The geostrategic location of Nepal, a country of nearly 30 million population seen as a natural transit point of two economic powerhouses of emerging Asia, China and India, characterised by their impressive annual growth rates and thus in fierce competition with each other in overtaking the economic leadership in the region, is both a challenge and an opportunity depending on how Nepal capitalises on her advantageous position. Too often, we have heard about the positive aspects of Nepal’s geography, which could be utilised for enhancing the economic cooperation between the two Asian giants and simultaneously could reap immense benefits by playing the productive role of a viable transit point against the background of boosting economic relationship of her two immediate neighbours.
Many countries around the world can learn lessons from the Chinese and the Indian experiences, whose history is not without war due to claims of each other’s territories. In 1962 both China and India went to war and since then their territorial grievances have not subsided but rather remained as fresh as ever though Sino-Indian border talks are held time and again with a view to resolving the differences.
Nepal as a peace loving nation always endeavours to maintain equidistance with her immediate neighbours though owing to some unavoidable reasons she is constrained to depend more on India compared to China. India feels that the latter is becoming more assertive vis-à-vis her territorial integrity and national independence. The 1972 economic blockade by India in the aftermath of differences on the issuance of a republican constitution, which is indisputably Nepal’s sovereign right, was a scar on the Nepal-India relations and most of us have the bitter memory of that era when the country was devastated by a powerful earthquake, killing more than 3000 people besides wounding thousands and damaging our cultural sites and public buildings, including health centers and schools. Fortunately, Nepal and India are working together for mutual benefit although Indian financial assistance is no less crucial to Nepal’s development and more so at a time when our national slogan has been “A Prosperous Nepal and Happy Nepali”.
While not underestimating India’s role in helping us progress economically, we need not be complacent and continue relying on their generosity only but prudently Nepal, as it is committed to graduate from the status of a Least Developed Country (LDC) by the year 2022, should explore possibilities of expanding her economic opportunities for example working productively and constructively with another neighbours with whom we have contiguous border in enhancing connectivity to further boost the chances of diversifying both our export and import markets. Realising this fact our Prime Minister K.P. Oli took the bold step of signing Transit and Transport Agreement with China in his first tenure in 2016. This agreement though would not bring any advantage to us unless fully implemented, has been described as a milestone for the furtherance of Nepal’s national economic interests especially in the sector of trade and transit, which is vital for increasing our bilateral as well as multilateral trade. The sole dependence of Nepal on one neighbour for trade and transit facilities is never economically sustainable and moreover, the country has been made a hostage when bilateral relations are soured because of such dependability.
Our president’s state visit to China has been markedly significant in the signing of a Protocol to implement the Nepal-China Transit Transport Agreement (TTA), a long overdue for which we were anxiously waiting to see that Nepal’s trade potentialities are exploited to the fullest extent to materialise our national slogan of prosperity. The said protocol, which will pave the way for implementation of the TTA, allows Nepal to use Shenzen, Lianyungang, Zhanjiang and Tianjian seaports, removing Nepal’s constraint of being forced to sole dependency on India for overseas trade. Under the arrangements contained in the document Nepal has also been allowed to use Lanzhou, Lhasa and Xigatse, the dry ports. More importantly, Nepali traders will be allowed to use any mode of transport—rail or road—to access seaports for third-country trade.
Another significance of the presidential visit lies in the inking of Agreement on Cooperation on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Customs Matters, Memorandum of Understanding for Cooperation on Standardisation, Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation, Minutes of Meeting on Strengthening Assistance Cooperation in the Field of Livelihood in the Northern Region of Nepal, Agreement on Preventing Theft, Clandestine Excavation and Illicit Export Import of Cultural Property and Handover Certificate of Grant-Aid for the Repair and Reinforcement Project of the Existing China-aided Projects.
As per the official press release issued from Nepal’s Beijing-based embassy under the Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation, China will provide a grant assistance of RMB 1 billion for the implementation of mutually-agreed projects in the fields of livelihood improvement, post-disaster reconstruction and infrastructure.
One of the major achievements of our president’s visit is that the Chinese president Xi Jinping has accepted her invitation to reciprocate her visit at a convenient time. How much benefits can Nepal get from China-assisted projects and its mega infrastructure project known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) depends very much on our preparedness relating to connectivity, whether by road or rail.
(Thapa was Foreign Relations Advisor to the Prime Minister from 2008 to 2009. He writes on contemporary national and international issues)