New Dynamism In Nepal-China Relations : Nandalal Tiwari

Nepal recently reached a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China, the northern neighbour, to import fuel, particularly petroleum products - petrol, diesel and cooking gas. The fuel pact signed between Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) and Petro China on October 28 has been hailed as yet another milestone in the centuries-old trade relations between the two neighbours. It has also added new dynamism in the formal diplomatic relations of the two neighbours of more than six decades. As per the agreement that ended the monopoly of Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) to supply fuel to this country, Nepal will now import at least 30 per cent of its domestic demand of fuel from China.

No doubt, Nepal reached the pact at a time when the IOC restricted the supply of fuel to Nepal referring to instructions from 'above', meaning the government. And the Indian government has been imposing an unofficial blockade since September 20 when the new constitution was promulgated. Evidently, India, the southern neighbour, did not welcome the new constitution adopted through a democratic process by the historic Constituent Assembly (CA). Statements by the Indian Foreign Ministry issued just before and after the new constitution made it clear that the Indian government was not happy with the new constitution and that it would teach the Nepali leadership a lesson for not listening to it.

Stranded tankers

It should be noted here that the agitating Madhes-centric parties had announced a sit-in at the border only two days after India restricted fuel supplies to Nepal. Hence, the Indian argument that supplies have been cut due to the sit-in at the border is simply invalid. Moreover, thousands of Nepal-bound containers loaded with goods imported from third countries have been stranded at the Indian ports for more than a month and a half, and only a handful of fuel tankers have entered Nepal from entry points other than Birgunj from where nearly 70 per cent of the fuel is imported.

Clearly, India has created such a situation in Nepal, a country devastated by an earthquake of 7.6 magnitude, where even medicines cannot be transported from one part of the country to the other. While venting their ire against the Nepali rulers, the Indian rulers have victimised the common people in Nepal. The Indian rulers have taken an inhuman measure disregarding the cultural, religious and economic ties between the two neighbours.

And it is not for the first time that India has used the blockade as a political weapon to coerce Nepal to do what it wants. India had imposed a blockade over Nepal in 1989 when Nepal purchased some arms from China, and earlier in 1977 when Nepal had expressed its sentiments against the 1950 Treaty.     

It is in this context that Nepal has sealed the fuel pact with China. Given the geographical conditions, the status of the roads to China and other infrastructure, importing fuel from China may not have been a priority for Nepal. But then it is a necessity for the simple reason that, had there been such an agreement in the past, the Indian authorities would not have been so hegemonic, and the common Nepali people would not have had to suffer time and again.

It is a happy matter that China has also provided a thousand tons of petrol as a grant when the country is fuel-starved. It is a good neighbourly gesture at a time of need, which China had shown even in the past.

Although the MoU has been signed, detailed technical issues have yet to be resolved to import fuel from China. There is a likelihood that the Nepalese authorities might even forget the issue altogether if the IOC increases the supply of fuel or India lifts the unannounced blockade. Doing so will be a diplomatic blunder on the part of Nepal.

Considering this, Nepalese authorities should take prompt steps and make the necessary preparations to translate the pact into practice. Nepal should also seek a Trade and Transit Treaty with China so that we can use Chinese ports as a landlocked country. Reports say that China is ready for such an agreement.

Moreover, reports say that China is also willing to reach an agreement to develop and purchase hydropower from Nepal. If that is the case, why delay in sealing such an agreement? Nepal cannot be solely dependent on one neighbour for everything.  It should have evenly balanced relations with both.

Irrespective of what interests China has in South Asia, the northern neighbor has always been a good friend in difficult times of Nepal. Nepalese authorities must realise this and act accordingly. The expression of the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, that China is supportive of Nepal's efforts to safeguard its sovereignty should also be taken in the same light.

The gravity of such an expression should be understood in the context that cadres of the agitating Madhes-based parties have chanted slogans against the fuel pact, and some of the leaders of Madhesi parties have issued secessionist threats indirectly, saying the agitation can take any route. And it is clear as daylight that India has provided all support to the agitation.

Clearly, the agitation in the southern plains by the Madhes-centric parties against some provisions in the new constitution and the Indian blockade in support of the agitation have been a boon as it has forced Nepal to sign a pact to import fuel from China. But the government should also understand that any effort to move ahead without addressing the demands of the agitating parties cannot serve the long-term national interest for peace and prosperity.

The people in the southern plains have been in the streets for more than two months, and there have not been any prompt and effective steps to resolve the problems. Now, the government must come out clearly about which demands of the agitating parties can be addressed now and which later.

Changing demands

The Madhesi parties should also understand that it is one thing to raise demands and quite another to have them fulfilled, and they should not keep changing their demands when some are fulfilled. First, they were concerned about inclusion, proportional representation, but now they have focused on demarcation of the federal provinces. Such constant change of demands can also not lead to a successful dialogue.   

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