Nepal must pursue its trade with China

birat bhaiBy Birat Anupam– 

The general political discourse in Nepal currently focuses on ways to multiple cross border trade with northern neighbor China. Weeks back, media reports disseminated pessimistic information that commercial trade with China is almost impossible given treacherous road tracks, volatile weather and other various administrative hassles. However, these talks are suddenly receiving optimistic turns these days. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is recently signed to facilitate trade between Nepal and China. This MoU accommodates importing fossil fuels also. Parliamentary teams headed by Rabindra Adhikari and other line ministers including Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel and Physical Construction Bijaya Gachhadar are touring all possible trade points with China’s autonomous region of Tibet to inspect and expedite trade routes linking Nepal and Tibet.

With China, Nepal has had two functioning overland trade points: Tatopani of Sindhupalchowk, and Rasuwagadhi of Rasuwa. Tatopani was advanced and one of Nepal’s biggest revenue collecting trade point in the northern border. The Earthquakes in April/May severed the road to Tatopani and trading was halted. Rasuwagadhi is partially functional despite its mostly one-way graveled track. This dysfunctional trade point was not of much concern for our country until India-imposed blockade and subsequent trade disruptions plagued southern plains of Nepal and its direct impacts felt on almost all parts of Nepal.

Having borne this brunt of Indian economic blockade, Nepal government has come out with a plan of trade diversifications.  Efforts are afoot to achieve this end. Seven more trade points with China are agreed upon to upscale trade. But it need improving roads and other cross-country infrastructural and administrative bottlenecks.

Besides Tatopani and Rasuwagadhi trade points, Nepal and China are all set to kickstart other seven trade points namely Chossar Village of Mustang, Larke of Gorkha, Lamabagar of Dolakha, Yari in Humla, Mugu Town in Mugu, Kimanthanka of Sankhuwasabha and Olanchunggola of Taplejung. Among these trans-Himalyan routes, Kimanthanka of Sankhuwabha is shortest to bridge China and India and Rasuwagadhi is nearest from capital Kathmandu. Commercial operation of these vital trade points of Nepal with northern neighbor China is not only ambitious but also achievable. Better budgetary allocations; smooth bureaucratic functioning and speedy infrastructural overhauls can bring in this crucial trade connectivity with China.

It is not optional, it is ancient

A section of Nepal terms this trade with Tibet, China as China Card and predicts this will deteriorate our intimate ties with our southern neighbor India. Another section describes this approach of starting more trade points with China as provocative initiatives of ultra-nationalist coalition cabinet under the stewardship of CPN-UML chairperson KP Sharma Oli. But in reality, this trading linkage with China neither has point to anger India nor is just an initiation of “ultra nationalist” cabinet. This is Nepal’s immediate move to escape hardship induced by Indian blockade and also the first step of trade diversifications reducing Nepal’s heavy dependency on India and Indian trade routes. From another angle, this is also modern installment of Nepal-Tibet ancient trade that dates back to seventh century.

Histories of Nepal-China trade and stories by offsprings of ancient Nepali merchants in Tibet speak in testimony.  18th century traveler Ippolito Desider noted, there were numerous Nepalese merchants in Tibet. Long before Nepal was united, Nepali merchants were players of Tibet, the epicenter of ancient Silk Road trade route joining south and central Asia. Historic records say Nepal had influential trading traction in Tibet. More than 32 big-scale business houses were said to be in different parts of Tibetan marketplaces. Nepal would export readymade items and would import animal products.

Khacharas, a system where offspring born to a Nepali merchant and Tibetan women, was given recognition. Khacharas enjoyed special status in Tibet. Nepal has literary and political narratives describing trade ties with Tibet. Great Nepali poet Laxmiprashad Devkota wrote Muna Madan, an anthology of rhapsodic poetry, depicting a tragic story of cross-country business between Nepal and Tibet. Nepal fought some wars with Tibet too. Kerung and Kuti were major entry points for both countries untl new passes like Jelep La and Nathu La from Sikkim came into functioning.

If our ancestors could trade and battle from across the border with Tibet and China, why can modern Nepal be isolated from trade proximities with Tibet? So there is nothing weighty justifications in making fiery opinions against Nepal’s growing overland trade connectivity with China.  Despite lack of commercial trading points from different parts of Nepal-Tibet bordering areas, all viable trading points are functional locally. Cross border commerce exists in all nine trading points from Olanchunggola of Taplejung to Chossar Village of Mustang. Now is the time to resume this cross-border commerce in business scale by the initiative of the state.

Opening trading points with China, implementation of economic federalism

Our political and press landscape is dominated by issue of inclusion and federalism. Federalism does not only mean to weaken Kathmandu. It means to strengthen other parts of the country making them equally competent and developed in all respects. Inclusion, too, does not indicate just to occupy political and governmental posts through reservations. Inclusion also includes issues of economic strength and political representation. Before Indian blockade, Birjung was the only lifeline not just for Kathmandu valley but also for many parts of Central Development Region. Similar is the case of other importing points of plain Terai. As Madhesi Morcha facilitated Indian blockade by disrupting cross-country cargo movements, entire Nepal faces this tragedy, more painful than Gorkha Earthquake.

Realizing its long-term economic implications, Nepal must open up more trading points with China. Had there been at least nine functional trading points from China, Nepal would not have to suffer negative economic growth and Nepalis would not have suffered this way. For example, if Tatopani was repaired timely, capital Kathmandu would not suffer to this extent. If there were commercial trade activities in Olanchunggola , Mechi zone would have breathed in respite. Koshi Zone would not be much in trouble if Kimanthanka was in operation.

Good aspects of potential trading points of Nepal with Tibet is that these trading hubs are located in the way that helps cross-country business activities in almost all geographical zones from Mechi to Mahakali.

This offers a very strong backdrop for all federal provinces to have its own international trading point so that southern blockade from any other province does not harm its economic future. And, this is the best practice of economic federalism. For this to happen, Nepal government must expedite opening up all possible trading points with China. Oli government is floating rosy missions to make this a reality. Still, the implementation side remains to be seen. Even if Indian blockade gets lifted, we must not lag behind in this mission.

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