By Ritu Raj Subedi (7 September 2018) – Is Nepal caught in a dilemma of choosing either a “Look South” or a “Look North” policy? Has the country been under pressure to make a Hobson’s choice on the foreign policy front? Obviously not.
After regaining relative stability and building a stronger government, Nepal is in a comfortable position to execute independent and balanced foreign policy decisions to achieve its overarching goals of peace, development and prosperity.
Debates on whether Nepal should stick to a “Look South” or “Look North” policy hit media headlines after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s General Secretary Ram Madhav asked Nepal to adopt a “Look South” policy to get access to the Indian Ocean region through India’s Calcutta port and Bangladesh’s Chittagong port.
The BJP leader’s remark shows a sign of growing restlessness among Indian politicians, policy makers and media as Nepal deepens its relations with China.
However, a Chinese scholar offers an unbiased viewpoint in this regard. “Nepal should go for a ‘Look Global’ policy, not ‘Look South’ or ‘Look North’ to ensure economic development and prosperity of the country,” said Prof. Dai Yonghong, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University.
The “Look South” prescription is hardly palpable for Nepalis given the country’s bitter relations with India in the past. Nepal and India share an open and porous border, and people from both countries enjoy social, cultural and economic ties since ancient times. But relations at the political and diplomatic level have been rocky as Indian leaders continued to enforce British colonial attitudes on its small neighbors even after its independence.
Since then India has tried to keep the Himalayan nation under its boots, resulting in the imposition of four blockades on Nepal in 1960, 1970, 1989 and 2015. Even if India realizes its foreign policy blunder and takes conciliatory steps, people in Nepal are still not ready to trust the Indian leadership until it matches its actions to its words.
In reality, the “Look South” policy is not a new concept. Nepal has, for centuries, relied on India for trade, commerce and investment. But its excessive dependence on India proved damaging to its economy and society as witnessed during India’s 2015 unofficial embargo on Nepal.
The blockade forced the country to look to its northern neighbor for economic survival. This led to a landmark trade and transit treaty with China in 2016, allowing Nepal to have the access to the sea via Chinese territory.
Last year, Nepal signed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that boosts investment, connectivity, and cooperation in the fields of energy, technology, education, culture and people-to-people relations. Launched in 2013, the BRI seeks to connect three continents, namely Asia, Africa and Europe with a focus on win-win cooperation and partnership for shared prosperity.
As Nepal now has access to the Pacific Ocean through Chinese soil, India has asked Nepal to conduct international trade through the Indian Ocean. The argument that Nepal will benefit from the Indian Ocean does not hold much water as Nepali traders have constantly been facing restrictive procedures at India’s Kolkata port, delaying the clearance and consignment of goods for weeks.
Furthermore, the “Look South” policy is based on the outdated Nehruvian security concept that considers Nepal as India’s buffer state and the Himalayas as the natural frontier against China. As the BRI will eliminate this frontier through the Trans-Himalaya railway, India has frantically moved to sell the “Look South” policy to Nepal. This only serves to put a spoke in the wheel of the deepening China-Nepal ties.
Nonetheless, Nepal is poised to look South, North, East and West to reach out to all potential partner nations for economic support and investment, which it badly needs to lift millions of its people out of poverty. The BRI is one such vehicle.
During Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s visit to China last June, the two nations agreed to “intensify implementation of the MoU on cooperation under the BRI to enhance connectivity, encompassing such vital components as ports, roads, railways, aviation and communications within the overarching framework of Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network.”
There has been steady progress in the construction of the Kathmandu-Kerung railway, which is described as the “most significant initiative in the history of bilateral cooperation.” Both countries are now in the process of preparing a detailed project report (DPR) after completing its technical study.
A Chinese team is also going to Nepal next month to ink an agreement on the preparation of the DPR that will take more than one-and-a-half years to complete. The 72.25-km railway project, estimated to cost Rs 257 billion, is expected to be ready in nine years. Once this multi-billion dollar project is complete, Nepal can again truly look global and attain greater economic sovereignty.
Ritu Raj Subedi is an associate editor of The Rising Nepal. Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn. This article firs appeared in China.org.cn.