India should not think of Nepal’s bid to sign agreements with China as playing China card

GKBy Gopal Khanal–

The KP Oli government has completed the honeymoon period of 100 days, and the Prime Minister’s critics and supporters have been having a field day condemning or praising, as the case may be, the performance of his administration. One should not forget that the current coalition, consisting of the CPN-UML, Maoists, RPP-Nepal and seven other parties, was formed on the pile of troubles that has been festering for a long time. There was, and is, little possibility of smoothening them in an instant. One should say that the adverse domestic situation has prompted a feeling of resolve, and the current government has hit the right chord by starting off with constitutional amendments.
On the diplomatic front, the government has deployed its best minds to normalise relations with India and diversify commerce with China.

On the domestic front, the new constitution has been amended to address the demands put forth by the agitating Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha (SLMM). The amendment has given priority to population in creating 165 direct-vote constituencies with each of the 75 districts having at least one guaranteed seat in the House of Representatives. This provision, once and for all, meets the SLMM demand for proportional representation in the House. Another SLMM demand, which is proportional inclusion, has been included in the fundamental rights through the same amendment besides the directive principles of the state.

This is an extremely positive response from the government and Parliament which the agitating parties must reciprocate. The SLMM should note that a large number of people are not satisfied with this amendment because they say that it gives the Madhesi elite a higher priority at the cost of the general Nepali citizenry. With regard to foreign policy, let us see how the government goes about in the neighbourhood, which is a prime concern for everyone today.

Southern neighbour
When KP Oli took over as prime minister, the border blockade was already in place and a huge misinformation campaign against Nepal’s nascent constitution was being conducted. Against this backdrop, India should have welcomed the historic promulgation of the constitution, but it just took “note” of it, much to the surprise of ordinary Nepalis. Prime Minister Oli’s anticipation that a good friend like India would have supported Nepal’s decision to promulgate the constitution through the democratically elected Constituent Assembly, a burning desire of the Nepali people for seven decades, was not over-expectation.
During these 100 days, Prime Minister Oli has taken the initiative to conduct high-level diplomatic communication with India with the objective of normalising relations that had soured due to the border blockade and misunderstandings over the constitution. There have been three telephonic conversations between the two prime ministers, and several meetings at the ambassadorial level. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa has visited India twice. These efforts are likely to culminate in the resolution of the domestic political crisis and a thaw in Nepal-India ties besides setting the stage for Prime Minister Oli’s visit to India.
The most difficult task that Prime Minister Oli has carried out during these days is protecting the national interest and successfully defusing two dangerous trends that normally arise in such situations—dogmatic nationalism and national surrendarism. He has walked the judicious middle path, undeterred by extremist disdainers who see him as either employing hollow nationalism vis-à-vis India or veering towards China.

Northern neighbour
Ordinary people and experts have advised the government to enter into long-term business agreements with China. We should respect this advice. The prime minister has also internalised the appeal of the masses. But such an historic task of diversifying our petroleum trade with the northern neighbour may take time since both the countries need to make the necessary preparations. When our deputy prime minister and foreign minister visited China last December, a framework of bilateral trade was agreed which included importing 30 percent of Nepal’s oil requirement from China. Under this framework, Nepal and China will soon sign a business agreement. Chinese officials have said that they are eager to sign a commercial pact with Nepal during Prime Minister Oli’s planned China visit. Two historic agreements, transit treaty and Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (Bippa), are also likely to be signed then.

Broad diplomacy
Many Indian politicians and strategic analysts seem to have concluded that Nepal has been pushed into China’s arms because the Modi government did not respect the sentiments of the Nepali people. But the case is somewhat different. Nepal can never think of dealing with India and China as an alternative to the other. Even during this petroleum and gas crisis, Nepal has been making continuous efforts to normalise relations with India. We in Nepal think that everything will return to normal once the shortage ends. We have never said that China can be an alternative to India since we have a unique relation with both the rising economies.
While the world is following India and China for strategic partnerships considering their global strength, Nepal must develop a good rapport with both the neighbours. It cannot live in isolation as during the period of the Rana oligarchy. Above all, a shared culture and history and geographical proximity put Nepal’s relations with India on a different level. Moreover, Nepal cannot change its neighbours. Therefore, the only way to move forward is to win the trust of both of them and create a conducive environment for investment. Prime Minister Oli reaffirmed this during a recent visit by Indian journalists saying that he would like to see increased Indian investment in Nepal.
Diplomacy is something that requires careful handling. Indian politicians should not think of Nepal’s bid to sign agreements with China as playing the China card. The days of playing the China and India cards are over. Moreover, the leaders of these two countries will not allow such cards since global diplomacy is in a different league now. In this respect, the most important achievement of this government is the mature diplomacy it has demonstrated, especially in the conduct of its neighbourhood policy. After Prime Minister Oli assumed office and Kamal Thapa took charge of the Foreign Ministry, Nepal’s narrative has spread in the neighbourhood. If certain powers view Nepal’s affairs through another’s prism, it should not be seen as Nepal’s weak diplomacy.

(Mr. Khanal, a former editor-in-chief of Nepal Foreign Affairs, is currently serving as the foreign affairs expert to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. The views expressed here are personal. This article was first appeared in the Kathmandu Post on Feb 2, 2016.)

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