Wang's Nepal Visit And The Bridge Discourse : Nandalal Tiwari
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's three-day visit to Nepal this month was extraordinary, particularly for two reasons: first, he announced more than a fourfold increase in Chinese assistance to Nepal from the existing 150 million RMB to 800 million RMB for 2015/16, and second, he shared the Chinese official concept that Nepal could be a bridge between China and India. He even went on to say that Nepal could be a bridge for the whole of South Asia. Both these two things have far-reaching significance for Nepal. They show that Chinese assistance to Nepal will increase, particularly in infrastructure development, and that Nepal needs to play a proactive role to establish itself as a bridge, especially in the context that India has not yet bought this idea of Nepal acting as such.
Wang's prediction that Nepal could serve as a bridge has formally invited a discourse on the issue. In Nepal, such a discourse was started after former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda', who is also the UCPN-Maoist chairman, made his maiden visit to China in 2008. Upon his arrival in Kathmandu after the visit, Prachanda had then said at the press meet at the Tribhuvan International Airport that he had talked about making Nepal a dynamic bridge between China and India and that the Chinese top officials were positive about the idea.
Ever since, there has been discussion about this 'bridge discourse' taking over the 'boulder discourse', a notion that Nepal is a yam between the two giant boulders coined by King Prithvi Narayan Shah some two-and-a-half centuries back. Now with the Chinese officials' support for the bridge discourse, this concept is likely to gain renewed momentum.
The way China has come up for this bridge discourse is also very important. Just recently, during the 18th SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu on November 26-27, two South Asian nations, Pakistan and Afghanistan, had claimed that they both could be a bridge between South Asia and Central Asia because of their location.
Surely, Nepal has also been making such statements for the last few years. But at present, as Afghanistan is still in turmoil due to the conflict between the government forces and the Taliban extremist militants and Pakistan is also facing difficult days due to attacks by the Taliban and other militant groups in the country, it is very likely that Nepal could be that potential bridge. This becomes even clearer when we see the ups and downs in the relations between Pakistan and India.
But translating this bridge discourse into practice has many challenges. How Nepal ensures the security interests of China and India, its northern and southern neighbours, respectively, is as challenging as getting India to buy the idea and working towards realising it. India might as well open up more of its border points with China and fail this idea from getting materialised.
There is an equally tough challenge - whether China is ready to open all the border entry points for trade or will remain selective in doing so. China might as well be selective due to fears that anti-Chinese elements might enter Tibet and pose law and order problems in the autonomous region. No doubt, the bridge concept is all about doing trade or making Nepal a transit point for trade between China and India or between China and South Asian countries.
Definitely, Nepal will reap benefits if it becomes that bridge. But for this to happen, it should focus on developing the physical infrastructure such as roads and railways - even waterways - as far as possible to link China and India via Nepal. As Nepal may not be financially able to develop such highly costly infrastructure projects, it should be able to ensure investments from both China and India.
There has been much talk about linking the railway to Lumbini from Lhasa, but there has not been any practical work to that end. Till date, the bridge discourse has been just talk and no work.
Now that China has shown its interest in making Nepal a bridge, it is Nepal's responsibility to convince India in contributing to this. India may have some reservations on this aspect because the southern neighbour harbours the suspicion that China will have greater influence in Nepal through greater investment in the name of the bridge concept. Since China has been suggesting that Nepal have even better relations with India, India should rest assured that relations between China and India will gain new dynamism if Nepal is made a bridge between the two powers.
As Nepal and China are celebrating the 60th year of their diplomatic relations in 2015, it is very likely that Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay an official visit to Nepal as he has been formally invited. It is also likely that Prime Minister Sushil Koirala will visit China as he has accepted the invitation of the Chinese president. Many even say that Minister Wang's visit was to prepare for the Chinese president's visit to Nepal.
New foreign policies of neighbours
Whether the bridge concept/discourse is realised or not, Nepal must strive to reap benefits for the time being from the two new foreign policies being promoted by its immediate neighbours - India's first neighbourhood policy and China's neighbour priority policy. But this will not happen if the country remains solely engaged in settling its internal political matters, such as constitution writing.
Almost all leaders, including Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, have repeatedly said that following the promulgation of the new constitution, the country will be focused on economic revolution/development. Surely, promulgation of the new constitution through broader political consensus will allow the leaders to focus on economic issues. But if constitution writing takes longer, even the possible benefits of the new foreign policies of the immediate neighbours will be missed. If the leaders realise this point, ensure the timely promulgation of the new constitution and then focus on ways for economic development, Nepal can, in fact, become bridge, as it was part of the ancient Silk Road.