Gopal Khanal (KATHMANDU, 25 March 2022) – The arrival of Chinese high-ranking political leader Wang Yi in Kathmandu on Friday (25 March) comes amid widespread concern that the existing Deuba-led administration is reorienting Nepal’s foreign policy towards the west. It can be easily anticipated that the visit would be political in nature, focusing on removing the misunderstandings lately seen following the formation of this government. In fact, the visit of China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang to Nepal, itself, would communicate an affirmative message to the people of both countries.
The government should have done its homework to make the visit a highly successful one, involving all the stakeholders, including the opposition party and the private sector, in setting up the agenda. This was not a point to be reminded of since it’s a part of diplomacy to ascertain the national consensus while dealing with the foreign leadership. But, it didn’t. I believe Prime Minister Deuba will hold a meeting with Minister Wang with an explicit wish list and try to maximize it in the favor of Nepal and the Nepali people.
Here, in this article, I have raised a few points that will help to clarify the bilateral situation and restore trust to where it was before Deuba assumed power.
Nepal and China have a long history of mutual trust, mutual benefit, and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs. In terms of power and access, Nepal and China are not comparable, yet their sovereignty is equal because it does not distinguish between small and large powers, poor and wealthy nations, or developed and underdeveloped countries. If that is the case, Nepal should ensure China that it will handle the latter’s legitimate interests, as it has done since diplomatic ties were established in 1955. Naturally, in exchange, China should respect Nepal’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and refrain from interfering in Nepal’s domestic affairs or Nepal’s relations with other sovereign countries.
Three things Nepal and China should immediately do to keep their cordial friendship intact or restore it if Beijing has internalized the present situation as its lowest ebb.
Connectivity & Borders
One of the primary issues between the two countries is the constraint of transportation and trade connectivity. Nepal and China signed a transport transit agreement in 2016 and had to open new trading routes, although the existing two custom points, Tatopani and Rasuwagadi, have not been completely operational. Due to the COVID outbreak, China has tightened shipping movements over the previous two years. Nepal should request a full reopening of these major commercial trading points. In rhetoric, Chinese officials promise to fully operate these cargo border crossings, but these assurances have yet to be put into action.
The second issue is one of borders. Leaving aside other key issues of foreign policy and relations, the Deuba government purposefully drew attention to the border issues, claiming that China has encroached on Nepali territory in the Humla District. The government set up a panel, and the findings was sent to the home and foreign ministries, although the report did not clearly state that China was infringing. If the Nepali government has evidence of Chinese invasion and control of area in Nepal, not just in Humla district, but all along the 1414-kilometer border, it should provide it and ask China to return these lands to Nepal. If Nepal has no evidence and China has proof that it is not infringing on Nepali territory, the issue should be resolved amicably through diplomatic negotiations right away.
The land dispute has exacerbated bilateral tensions unnecessarily. The Deuba government has claimed the violation, but the Chinese embassy has denied Nepal’s claim. It has caused a rift in bilateral relations.
Nepal and China should evaluate previous economic cooperation agreements and understandings and pledge steadfast promises to carry them out according to a set schedule. Although Nepal joined the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in 2017, none of the projects under this framework have yet to be identified. If you ask any Nepali or Chinese official which projects have been listed under the BRI framework, they will not respond.
Thanks to the Oli government, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal in 2019 was historic. During the visit, President Xi announced that China will assist Nepal in transitioning from a landlocked to a land-linked nation, and the two nations signed a number of additional agreements, although none of them has yet been implemented.
Nepal should seriously raise this agenda this time. Nepal should discuss expediting past agreements signed during the visit of President Xi. BRI is a dream project of President Xi and it is basically aimed at supporting the development processes of developing nations. However, the Sri Lankan model of BRI has prompted some Nepali sections to consider the projects’ flawless implementation. While receiving loans from China to carry out projects, China should assure Nepal that the “debt trap” issue does not exist. Nepal, on the other hand, has been requesting that the Chinese government provide a grant rather than a loan or soft loan for BRI projects.
Therefore, Beijing should equally be responsible for sluggish action on such economic cooperation. “COVID” cannot be an excuse again for implementing BRI. Similarly, Nepal and China have an agreement to open up major three corridors: Koshi, Gandaki, and Karnali, as a part of Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network (THMCN). This THMCN is an economic corridor between Nepal and China and part of China’s BRI.
The visit of Wang is an opportunity for Nepal to get the historic agenda moving in the right direction. Moreover, the most important thing is to assure China that Nepal still not abandoned the principle of non-alignment and Panchsheel (Five principles of peaceful coexistence) in conducting foreign and neighborhood relations. The Deuba government seems to have lost the balance with its neighbors. The most unfortunate is the ambassador’s post in China, which has been vacant for months. When Minister Wang is visiting Nepal, it is the Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu, Hou Yanqi who is doing all the homework. This government appointed ambassadors in other three major countries India, the US and UK, but it could not appoint ambassador in China.
It is apparent that the Deuba government does not place a high priority on China, which is a diplomatic blooper. China is the world’s second-largest power and will become a superpower in a decade or so as some reports have suggested. However, the Deuba government failed to show maturity in dealing with neighbours and friendly nations in a relatively balanced way. Nepal cannot, under any circumstances, jeopardize India’s and China’s economic backing and support.
China must accept that its non-interfering diplomacy in Nepal has lost its effectiveness. Whether it’s internal wrangling inside the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) or the US’s Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) project, Chinese diplomacy has been exposed as being unlike its previous nature. Whether it’s the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu or the foreign ministry headquarters in Beijing, China’s diplomacy is changing these days.