By Narad Bharadwaj (KATHMANDU) – President of Nepal Bidya Devi Bhandari’s just concluded state visit to China has significantly widened the collaborative space between Nepal and China and has highlighted its geo-strategic positioning in relation to outstanding political, economic and environmental imperatives of the region.
Nepal-China friendship and collaborative relation date back to antiquity and are sustained by multi-layered exchanges of visits of leaders from both the countries. However, President Bhandari’s state visit in question constitutes a distinct milestone in redefining trans-Himalayan cooperation between the two countries in the context of Nepal’ signature in May 2017 on the Memorandum of Understanding on the framework agreement with China on Belt and Road Initiative(BRI).
Over the past centuries, Nepal-China relation has been on an upward trajectory and has remained unaffected by the highs and lows in international politics. The kingpin holding the bilateral friendship between the two countries is each other’s respect for sovereignty, independence, national integrity and non-interference on the choice of political system and the model of development best suited to each other’s social context.
At present Nepal-China relationship is in the process of taking a leap towards more fulfilling and mutually enforcing collaboration through the regional dream project of BRI which China is promoting as a key to unclog the stagnation that has held back development of South Asian region and various other parts of the world deepening poverty and misery of the people.
Sandwiched between two great Asian economic superpowers, Nepal has a great potential for evolving as a great economic corridor facilitating commercial transactions between Central and South Asia at the same time benefiting itself from being a hub of trans-Himalayan connectivity. The Nepali people feel that if the two economic superpowers agree to see Nepal emerge as an economic corridor for facilitating their commercial transactions, Nepal’s economic transformation will not remain a distant dream.
As a global project envisaged by China’s President Xi Jinping, BRI has scored considerable success in catching the attention of the world as a viable project for building a new world order based on equal sharing of resources and opportunities. By now the Chinese government has sighed 173 cooperation agreements with 125 countries. The trade volume between China and BRI countries has surpassed $6 trillion. This shows that the BRI project has been expanding like an untamable wave of time. It is only natural for a country like Nepal to place its hopes and expectations on BRI for coming out from the vicious cycle of perpetual poverty and backwardness.
In this context, the signature on the Protocol to the Transit and Transportation is to be taken as the most outstanding achievement of the state visit of President Bidya Devi Bhandari to China. This agreement allows Nepal access to China’s sea and dry ports for its trade with the third countries of the world.
At present, Nepal’s discourse on achieving economic transformation focuses of exploring ways for widening and strengthening trans-Himalayan connectivity. China has realised Nepal’s geo-political imperatives as reflected in its insistence to achieve fast development of infrastructures necessary for boosting trans-Himalayan transport and trade connectivity with due attention to geo-political constraints standing in the way of achieving rapid progress in this direction.
Similarly, Nepal’s poor capacity in contributing to creating necessary prerequisites for trans-Himalayan connectivity and the nature of the projects requiring exorbitant cost indicates towards the need to develop an appropriate modality of funding in mega-trans Himalayan projects. The growing tendency of explaining BRI as a debt trap for the BRI fund receiving countries and a conduit for expanding China’s political and economic domination has naturally made China edgy in dealing with the funding issues of mega projects under BRI.
So far China has made massive investment in building Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, Kyaukpyu deep sea port in Myanmar, Gwadar Port in Pakistan and Chittagong Port in Bangladesh. Similarly, Kataragama Railway Extension Project in Sri Lanka, Mombasa–Nirobi Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya, Ethiopian-Djibouti Railway and China– Laos Railway are some of the flagship projects accomplished under BRI.
These projects have brought both appreciation and criticism for China especially from western media outlets. If implemented, the proposed Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network the major highlight of which is likely to be the trans-Himalayan railway connecting Keorong and Kathmandu will definitely be a multi-billion dollars project like the once mentioned above. In order for Nepal to make these projects to be feasible, it needs to come out with a practical funding modality.
Till now, Nepali government appears to be expecting a massive grant aid from China. However, the slow progress towards agreement on building trans- Himalayan railway shows that China is not convinced of Nepal’s preparedness and commitment for generating Nepal’s share of resources required to implement the project.
Nepal is constantly lobbying with China to open some major border passes as free economic zones. Rasuwagadi, Tatopani in central Nepal Kimathanka and Olanchungola in eastern Nepal and Korala and Hilsa in western Nepal are of great strategic significance for achieving international trade diversity. Regrettably, the progress in infrastructure building on the Nepali side of the border is not only sluggish but embarrassingly inadequate.
Even after four years of the blockade of Indian border, Rasuwagadi-Galchhi double lane highway supposed to be operational in two years has not been completed. China has declared Keorong as its international transit point to connect itself with South Asia with necessary infrastructures in ship-shape but Nepali side of the border still wears dismal and derelict look. Such situations highlight the contradictions between verbal zeal and practical commitment in addition to sweeping oversight of Nepali planners in assessing geo-political constraints of the proposed projects.
Nepal –China cooperation is built around the commitment for working together to build a shared future. In order to be able lead the people of Nepal to the goal of prosperity and happiness in line with the principles of BRI project, the Nepali government needs to focus on its own capacity building, generating resources and come out with convincing and pragmatic scheme for promoting collaboration.
Nepali policy makers need to chart out strategic goals to achieve and workout strategies to fulfill them with proper calculation of challenges and potentialities. Only then shall we be able to impress neighbours and convince them that our proposals for collaboration are based on practical assessment of geo-political realities and properly incorporate emerging challenges.
(Dr. Bharadwaj is a freelance writer and holds PhD degree in ethno-history. He writes on history, foreign relations, and contemporary national and international politics)