Dr. Narad Bharadwaj
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda’s ongoing visit to China in connection with the annual conference of Boao Forum for Asia has the potential of lending new dynamism to Nepal-China relations freeing it from the present state of uncertainty. Ostensibly, his current visit is only a formal requirement for a high level representation in the above-mentioned forum of which Nepal is also a founding member. His scheduled visit with China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing is likely to provide an opportunity to correct the drift experienced in the relations between the two countries during the last six months and open broader avenues of cooperation. Still, it will be too early to be overly optimistic about the range of achievements of this visit in the absence of clearly articulated agendas and the set objectives of the visit.
Nepal-China relations had acquired an unprecedented boost during the tenure of the K. P. Oli-led government. This was the period in which some epoch-making agreements were signed with the northern neighbour on trade and transit, trans-border connectivity, extension of Chinese railway to Kathmandu and Lumbini and exploration of oil and gases among others. Most outstanding of all, Nepal signed a trade and transit treaty with China enabling it to gain access to China’ s Port of Tianjin breaking the monopoly of southern neighbour to dictate terms for giving transit access for Nepal to sea.
Similarly, the K. P. Oli-led government had also expressed its commitment to be a part of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Project conceived by China’s President Xi Jinping in 2013 to link 65 countries in Asia, Africa, Oceania and Europe accounting for 55% of the global GDP, 75 %of the world energy resources and 70% of the global population.
By becoming a signatory to the OBOR Project Nepal could not only immensely benefit from its trade with China, it would pave the way for its evolution as a bridge of connectivity between two great economic powers of Asia.
The K. P. Oli-led government was rapidly moving ahead towards solemnising a number of agreements on issues concerning the bilateral interest of the two countries. But the change of guard at Singhdurbar affected the ongoing process of formalising understandings and a situation of mistrust was generated by the failure of the succeeding government to give continuity to the process of widening cooperation initiated by the CPN (UML)-led dispensation.
The policy of the present day coalition government to put on hold the initiatives of the previous government to widen and diversify the foundation of Nepal-China cooperation and its inclination towards the southern neighbour generated a cloud of mistrust. The eagerness with which Premier Prachanda gave preference to visit India immediately after his induction to power and the controversial agreement he signed with India agreeing to have a common view with India on major international forums gave a message of a serious foreign policy drift. Due to increasing political unpredictability, the proposed visit of President Xi Jinping tentatively scheduled for October 2016 was cancelled. It was a serious setback in the process of creating beneficial conditions for long-term sustainability of the Nepalese nation.
President of the Nepali Congress, Sher Bahadur Dauba’s controversial meeting in Goa with the Dalai Lama’s representative and so-called Prime Minister of the illegitimate Tibetan Government in Exile in November 2016 further exacerbated the situation. The level of mistrust reached such a state that China demanded a reiteration of Nepal’s commitment to One China Policy.
Instead of setting about removing constraints on the way of restoring amity and understanding with China, the incumbent government invited Indian President Pranav Mukherjee on a state visit to Nepal. The time for his visit was inappropriate as the sense of resentment of the Nepalese people was still too high against India after the traumatic experience they had undergone during the five month-long blockade. As expected, his state visit turned out to be a stiff state affair. Not a single Nepali stood out on roadsides either to welcome or even have a look at the dignitary.
The top leaders of the present day coalition government are shuttling back and forth New Delhi ever since. But a reciprocal state visit of India by Nepal’s President has not materialised yet. In fact, no new breakthrough has been achieved in improving India’s perspective towards Nepal. The leaders of the ruling party of India are still interfering in Nepal’s internal matters and are creating tension at the international border by encroaching into Nepal’s territory and shooting the Nepalese at the no man’s land. The recent incident of murder of Govinda Gautam in Kanchanpur in the firing of Indian Border Security Force (BSF) is the latest wake up call for the Nepalese rulers.
The Prachanda-led government has failed to give appropriate priority to China’s dignified overtures for signature on the OBOR and other bilateral and multilateral initiatives. Nepal’s partnership with that mega-infrastructure project has the potential of playing an unprecedented role in ending this country’s instability, poverty and vulnerability to external interference. But the present rulers do not appear to have this realisation.
China is visibly unhappy at the slow movement of the present government towards implementation of previous agreements and understandings. When the Chinese government sent a draft proposal on OBOR to the Nepal government last year, the Nepal Government, as reported in the media, returned the draft after dillydallying for over a month. This is irresponsible and may result in a lost opportunity for Nepal.
This kind of immature diplomatic behaviour has hindered the process of opening northern border points and bringing them to early operation to Nepal’s advantage. Even after almost two years of the devastating earthquake, the Tatopani border point has not been opened for commercial transactions. The Rasuwagadhi border point too is yet to be expanded and equipped with infrastructural facilities to make it fully operational. The delay is mainly due to Nepal Government’s reluctance to invest on large scale infrastructural development on the northern border.
Many people in Nepal and India consider that formidable geological realities of the Himalayan Mountains preclude the business and trade transactions in northern border points from becoming a sustainable alternative to the trade with India. However, increased connectivity in the Tibetan plateau, expanding settlements on both sides of the border and the miraculous success in linking Tibet with high speed railway with mainland China, seemingly insurmountable geological barriers have now been breached. Things are not as they were ten years ago.
In such a situation, Nepal’s eagerness to forge collaboration with both the economic powers and its initiative to forge partnership with China in the OBOR project is likely to unleash its economic potentials gradually evolving it as a bridge of connectivity between Central and South Asia.
Prime Minister Prachanda is visiting China in challenging times. He has to convince the Chinese leadership that the present government is committed to implement the past treaties, agreements and MoUs signed by the previous government assuring the northern neighbour that Nepal is ready to accept its obligation to be part of any regional initiatives including OBOR which is likely to become a game changer for leading Nepal to prosperity.
Nepal is passing through a dangerous phase of history. Growing divisive tendencies within the country and the provocative interference of the external powers in favour of the secessionist elements make it necessary for it to create alternative transportation and trade infrastructures along the northern borders.
Prime Minister Prachanda’s present visit should, therefore, be directed to reconnect the strands of good neighbourly relation with China. He can do so by expressing an unswerving commitment to one China policy and giving continuity to the broad spectrum of foreign policy initiatives started by the two governments during the tenure of the previous government led by K. P. Oli.