Strengthening China-Nepal development strategies under OBOR framework

By Dr. Shambhu Ram Simkhada–

Mr. Chairman, Prof. Wang and the distinguished delegation from China,

respected participants from Nepal, ladies and gentlemen

All great nation-states need strong political, economic and military power. But a superpower also requires an ideology, power of ideas which others admire and emulate touching the lives of many people in many countries. The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative is one such ambitious mega-project of connectivity and cooperation for a new world in a new age initiated by Chinese leaders under the core leadership of President Xi Jinping.

I am pleased to have been invited to this discussion on How to Strengthen the Development Strategies between Nepal and China within the OBOR Framework along with such a distinguished group of scholars and policy makers from both side. I want to begin by thanking the organizers and wishing the program a grand success. I would also like to extend a warm welcome to our Chinese guests and wish them a successful visit professionally and a pleasant stay in Nepal personally.

Understanding the OBOR: More than two millennia ago people of Eurasia explored and opened many routes for trade and cultural exchanges linking them with other major civilizations of Asia, Europe and Africa. Later on these routes were named the “Silk Road”. The Silk Road basically symbolized communication and cooperation among different parts of the world even at that time when transport and communication was difficult, cooperation was limited. Recognizing its historic significance and importance for modern times, when Chinese President Xi, in visits to Central Asia in September and South East Asia in October, 2013 raised the idea of jointly building the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road both together known as the Belt and Road project. This initiative has now acquired a whole new form and substance covering wide range of projects. The Chinese Government, I understand, is now preparing an important International OBOR Conference in Beijing later this year.

Nepal and OBOR: Nepal China friendship goes long back in history. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1955, Nepal has been a close witness and a strong supporter of the tremendous transformation of China. China too has been a strong supporter in Nepal’s development and a close observer and well wisher of the far reaching changes undergoing in Nepal.

While many perceive the phenomenal rise of China economically and militarily differently, as I wrote in my chapter in the book “A resurgent China South Asian Perspective” published by Routledge in 2012 “Nepalese see China as a friendly neighbor and a benign neighborhood power”. This is mainly because, Nepal-China friendship is based on mutual commitment to the principles of “Panchasheel” as close neighbors, friends and partners. This longstanding friendship has been nurtured by cooperation at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels and exchanges of high level visits.

China’s growing economic assistance and welcome of the promulgation of the Constitution in Nepal as a historic step is the reiteration of this longstanding relation of mutual respect and support for each other’s political independence, stability and development at this time of Nepal’s political transition. Nepal too has stood by China in firmly supporting its One China Policy and other matters of China’s core interests in all international forums.

In this backdrop, it is but natural that China wants Nepal to be an important part of its ambitious OBOR project. Many groups have emerged in Kathmandu, with Chinese assistance, at the non-state levels to push the project forward. I myself have been invited to many such programs organized in Kathmandu by many groups, both Nepalese and Chinese.

At the level of the two Governments I believe it was one of the main agendas during the visit of former Prime Minister K. P. Oli’s official visit to China last year. As a follow up to the visit the Chinese side has proposed a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on jointly building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of Nepal. I had an opportunity to discuss the subject during my own visit to Beijing in December last year. No doubt this issue will also come up in the meeting between our Prime Minister and President Xi Jinping later this month in Beijing.

All such initiatives at both state and non-state level need to be supported and promoted. Having played some role in the subsisting excellent relations with China and as an advocate of taking this relationship to even greater heights based on mutual, trust, cooperation and benefit and of course convinced of the importance of OBOR I have always wished this project success. Despite huge mutual benefits and desire on both sides to move the process forward in reality what has prevented Nepal from moving forward more decisively? To really understand the current state of affairs and to move the process forward I believe it is necessary to try to answer this question from the following perspectives:

  • Practical-Developmental
  • Political-Strategic
  • Conceptual Philosophical

Practical-Developmental: In the Objectives and Guiding Principles of the OBOR itself, it is clearly mentioned that the idea is to jointly promote cooperation, deepen mutual trust and cooperation and realize common development and prosperity, respecting each other’s core interests and major concerns. In terms of the actual content of Cooperation, a number of specific and practical steps such as Policy Coordination, Facilitating Connectivity, promote Unimpeded Trade, Financial Integration, People to People Bonds and many other areas of cooperation as mutually agreed. Going a step further, during the Jt. Communiqué issued at the end of the visit of Prime Minister Oli, a long list of projects were identified including the signing of the Transit agreement and the survey for the extension of the rail links. More recently the possibility of building cross border transmission lines have been discussed. All these projects will support economic growth and social prosperity and create an environment of inter-dependent development in trade, tourism, transport, technology, investment etc which will no doubt further strengthen the already excellent bilateral relations among countries participating in the OBOR mega project. So, from a practical-developmental perspective the joint development of the OBOR will have greatly positive impact on both sides. So the two countries must move forward decisively as quickly as possible.

Comprehending the Political-Strategic Context and finding the Conceptual-Philosophical Outlet: Despite its desirability and China’s several initiatives and positive gestures, one does not need an in-depth analysis to know the current state of affairs in Nepal. Why has Nepal not been able to more decisively move forward as some of the other South Asian countries have? This indicates the need for both sides, especially scholars and think tanks involved in its promotion, to comprehend the political-strategic context and try to move the process forward by identifying the right conceptual-philosophical outlet.

Marx is believed to have once said “when ideas enter the minds of men they come out as a material force in society”. For, what is politics, Economics, IR and even OBOR? In the final analysis they are all ideas aimed at enhancing power, promoting human welfare. But the nature of ideas is such that they are neither linear nor continuous. They also produce variety of outcomes depending on the strength of articulation or the ability of leaders to lead utilizing the power of ideas. And understanding of views and agreement on ideas are the starting point of all relations and cooperation at the national, regional or international levels. So, if a meeting of this kind, of thinkers and professionals, can come up with understanding of the political-strategic stumbling blocks and clear the road block through the power of ideas, thought, concept, philosophy, the practical developmental desirability will get a new boost helping to launch the OBOR in high gear. Thank you.

(Dr. Simkhada is a career diplomat and foreign affairs analyst, who served as Nepalese Ambassador/Permanent Representative to United Nations in Geneva. We are grateful to the China Study Centre for providing the text of speech delivered by Simkhada at a Belt and Road Seminar organized by the Center in Kathmandu on March 23, 2017. )

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