Dr. Balmukunda Regmi
Historically, our relation with the north began through social interactions between the people living in the areas under the spheres of influence of two different geopolitical powers under different names, now called Nepal and China. Sparsely populated by nomads and periodic migrants, political division of the subjects was more obvious than in the geographic maps. Mostly the Himalayas formed a natural border, with occasional crisscross around the mountain passes.
Anthropological studies suggest there has been a historical trend of southward migration of the people, whereas at least after the emergence of Buddhism, the languages, cultures and religions have made a northward push. These phenomena seem natural and a logical extension of each other. These were comparable to the movements seen between contemporary Asia and America.
Unlike the European migrants who made mostly a one-way journey to the Americas and Oceana, settled there, and brought the languages, cultures and religions with them to force upon the aborigines, our Mongoloid guests seem to have moved to and fro, mixing with the people living in the south through generations of interactions and nuptial ties, in a slow natural process, leading to the development of the Himalayan culture and people, the smartest possible human population and civilization to suit the cold, high altitude terrains.
Divided politically, as with many borderland inhabitants in the world, these people carry shared values, act as peacekeepers, create a buffer zone and maintain a buffer effect, enjoy the benefits of cross-border trade when it flourishes, and tolerate the harms caused by conflicts between the power centres of the two territories. These people know if the other country across the border is a card, a tool or a neighbour, a friend.
The term “China card” has been used by anti-Nepal forces, in their attempt to belittle Nepal’s friendship with China. Be the kings in the past or the prime ministers thereafter, they have sought to cooperate with the northern neighbour with great trust in the friendship. Our collaboration with China is based on mutual interests and the ground reality. Our efforts are not aimed at any third party. Sure, there have been ups and downs in our relations with neighbours, including China. Like any country, we want to preserve our sovereignty and national integrity; we have to use all possible strategies and tactics for this.
Secondly, we should not make any cosmetic efforts at engaging our friends in the name of infrastructure development, sans economic justification. Nepali nationalist scholars are opposed to carrying out less cost-effective trade and commerce in the name of policy consistency. We are an open policy market economy. We should let our consumers and taxpayers decide where and how to spend their invaluable resources.
Friendships get tested at hard times. Nepal has always backed the “one China” policy, and has never recognised Taiwan as a country. Nepal lobbied for the entry of the People’s Republic of China in the United Nations and the entry of China in SAARC. Nepal has provided shelter to Tibetan refugees despite its poor economy. Nepal has always given China’s concern about Tibet high priority. We have always willingly participated in China’s economic, cultural and regional cooperation initiatives. It has hosted the Confucius Centre, allowed China-related social interest groups to function in its territory. Nepal has unilaterally provided free arrival visas to Chinese tourists. I believe, Nepal will also participate in the China’s “One Belt One Road (OBOR)” initiative.
And China has reciprocated. It began to provide economic assistance to Nepal right from the 1950s when China itself was economically weak, in conflict with the major world powers, and trying to regain its lost glory. It has educated Nepalese students, helped Nepal build roads, industries, hospitals and research centres. China has invited Nepal in many of its regional initiatives.
In the aftermath of the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake and months-long undeclared Indian border blockade following Nepal’s new constitution, China voluntarily came forward with financial and moral support. Chinese investors participated in the Nepal Investment Summit held in Kathmandu this month and signed LoIs with the government to inject $8.3 billion in different sectors, making China the leading investor in Nepal. This type of long-term two-way relationship cannot be considered a game play.
The rumour that Nepal forgets China when its relation with other neighbours improves is baseless. China and Nepal have signed different friendship and trade treaties, and all the understandings once reached are active and respected by both sides. Both Nepal and China are worried about the trade imbalance and are trying to mitigate the situation through increased Chinese investment in Nepal.
We should ask the concerned authorities to take measures that work long-term. Nepal should raise its concerns, China, theirs. Negotiations will then lead to mutually agreeable solutions. New provisions are necessary to enhance bilateral economic and viable people-to-people cooperation.
Nepal should not shy away from demanding reciprocal free arrival visas for Nepali citizens visiting China by land and air routes, asking to solve the bilateral trade imbalance through Chinese FDI aimed at enabling Nepal to earn foreign currency through increased exports, removing tariff and non-tariff trade barriers to favour Nepali exports and also facilitating the use of Chinese ports, roads and railways for import-export of petroleum and other essential commodities. In economics and trade, objective practice and final price are more important than the subjective mood of the people. In the modern era, all non-sovereignty interests are secondary to economic interests.
Compared to the neighbours, Nepal is a small country. With an average east-west length of 885 km and average width of 193 km north-south, and Nepal-China mutual understanding of defining the area within 30 km on both sides of the border as the border area, almost 16% of Nepalese land falls in this category, whereas it counts for only 0.25% of the Chinese land area. In terms of population, it is negligible for China but significant for Nepal. This shows the asymmetric importance of the border areas and their status to Nepal and China. Nepalese border area has a significant and sometimes decisive role in the central government policy; disturbances in the border area can impact the stability of the whole country.
According to the World Bank, the 2015 per capita GDP of China was US$ 8,028 and that of Nepal was US$ 743. Such a cross-border gap should be a grave concern for both the neighbours. Nepal should make the highest efforts to improve its economy and living standards.
China definitely wants its bordering friend to achieve a similar pace in economic development. Donation of dollars and consumables will not help us prosper. What Nepal needs is facilitation. All non-emergency support Nepal receives should go to building up the system, grooming it to become a self-sustainable, forward economy. We should seek preferential trade policy from China towards this endeavour. Once we become self-supporting, our reliance on the global players will diminish. Then our foreign policy will become more consistent, and there will be less turbid water to meddle in.
(Dr. Regmi is a professor at Tribhuvan University Institute of Medicine, [email protected])