By Bikram Timilsina, Brisbane
30 March 2016
Monday’s discussions between Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” and Chinese President Xi Jinping produced no substantial results for the Himalayan nation. PM Dahal has instead returned home with Xi’s advice that he should further enrich Nepal’s ties with India.
It is worthwhile to examine why Xi asked Prachanda to strengthen his nation’s relations with India whereas Prachanda’s mission was to repair his ties with China. Whereas formal talks between top leaders of two states can create an environment for better ties, talks alone cannot establish a solid foundation of trust and cooperation. Prachanda’s China trip is a fitting example of this fact.
Before assessing “success” of Prachanda’s China trip, it is important that we take stock of some key issues affecting Sino-Nepal relations – for now and possibly well into the future.
OBOR Initiative and China
China’s GDP growth has suffered a constant decline over the past ten years, with some minor exceptions. Similarly, China is feeling strategically insecure due to America’s increased presence in Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced One Road, One Belt (OBOR) initiative in 2013 as a means of tackling these two setbacks. Though much highlighted as a strategy of trade and connectivity, China is pushing OBOR project as the basis of its foreign and economic policies. China simply aims to enhance its economic and security interests through the medium of OBOR.
Nepal, OBOR project and India’s highhandedness
Nepal is in the process of political transition. Implementation of the new constitution for institutionalising federal democracy is its main roadmap towards economic development. In terms of Nepal’s international relations, India has been its major obstacle in its exercise of sovereignty. Nepal no doubt has its problems but India is not the remedy, a fact India is never willing to realise. In the name of its own security concerns or what not, India for decades has been involved in the internal affairs of Nepal. The country has faced border blockades three times because Nepal did not do what India wanted. This was driving force why KP Oli government signed a transit treaty with China last year.
Being landlocked works against Nepal so far as its international relations is concerned. Its priority should therefore be opening all trade routes to China. Nepal cannot afford to tilt towards China by ignoring the legitimate interests of India. By that, however, it must not mean that Nepal should not enhance its connectivity with China. Both India and China should be the Himalayan nation’s priorities of equal importance. Some consider Nepal’s equal treatment of and attention to China wrong. That is faulty.
It is understandable that Nepal, as a tiny nation without much of an economic prowess, cannot afford to build trade routes through the majestic Himalayan ranges.
As such, it is hard to understand Nepal’s unnecessary delay in signing the agreement given the fact that China itself is ready to help it achieve that through the OBOR initiative. Pointing towards India with the vague logic of geopolitics is merely an exercise of political lilliputism that does not suit a sovereign nation like Nepal. India is free not to join OBOR if it does not approve of the project. But it has no right of stopping any of its neighboring countries from doing so for the sake of its bargain with China.
While Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have already been a part of the project, Nepal’s delay in signing the cooperation agreement with China should be understood as its incompetence in the exercise of its sovereignty for the sake of its national interests.
Prachanda’s futile China trip
Prachanda’s China trip could not contribute anything to secure Nepal’s current national interests and priorities. China’s announcement of USD 1 million aid for Nepal’s upcoming local polls is a pittance in terms of the level of a prime ministerial visit. The meeting actually ended up like a sideline talk between the leaders with no concrete decisions. In fact, China was not willing to welcome Prachanda to Beijing this time. Beijing’s priority was to arrange a sideline talk between Prachanda and Xi at the Boao Conference. It was only Prachanda’s willingness to go to Beijing to spread the impression that he was formally welcomed in Beijing. As a consequence, neither any agreements were inked, nor was there any deal for the implementation of past pacts. Following the meeting, Prachanda said that the discussion was ‘open and substantial’. However, it meant nothing progressive in terms of pressing issues between Sino-Nepal relations. Though it is reported that they have talked about connectivity between the two nations, it did not seem they focused much on the OBOR initiative itself.
Xi’s reported preaching to Prachanda for enhancing Nepal’s ties with India is noteworthy in this context. His Foreign Affairs Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat had previously made it clear in public that Nepal’s delay in signing the agreement on OBOR was related to Nepal’s geopolitical complexity (that obviously refers to India as the obstacle). To make India confident that Nepal was not going to sign any document with China, including the OBOR one, both Prachanda and Mahat had repeatedly said that they were not going to ink any pact this time. It seems Prachanda made Xi aware of the same so-called geopolitical complexity before getting Xi’s recommendation for Nepal’s better ties with India. If you depend on someone else for your decision, the only way for you to reach a conclusion about anything is to please them. Xi thus told Prachanda to do the same.
Prachanda welcomed this insignificant and rather comical suggestion and highlighted it as a mantra he got from Xi. This is unfortunate. There is no doubt that Nepal must maintain good ties with India but that does not mean Prachanda needs a third country’s advice on the matter. It seems the Maoist leader wanted to make his tilt towards India valid by endorsing it with Xi’s advice. This is an immature tact.
Some have argued that there was no possibility of any agreements this time because Prachanda’s counterpart was not in China during his visit. This is another infantile argument. If Prachanda wanted to see his Chinese counterpart, he could have gone to China a little before the Chinese premier left for Australia. There was also possibility of delaying his stay in Beijing for the sake of some important outcomes. In addition, China is always open and eager to welcome Nepal’s Prime Minister to Beijing if Nepal has some projects of mutual benefits in mind. But only China’s eagerness is not enough. This as a whole shows that the outcome of this trip was entirely intentional but not coincidental in any sense.
Not successful at all?
This trip came out to be a huge success in terms of Prachanda’s selfish and partisan interests.
He badly needed to clear his pro-Indian image as the country was heading towards elections. He had been severely criticized for not visiting the communist nation at all (since he took office) although he had since been to New Delhi twice already. He has thus been able to undercut such denunciation for the time being.
Similarly, since his visit has brought about no significant change in Nepal-China relations, particularly in the direction that India did not want, his trip has not annoyed India. Delhi seemed so confident about Prachanda that his trip got no significant attention in the media and on political fronts in the Indian capital, while the Chinese Defense Minister’s trip to Kathamandu was much more seriously covered. As a result, while he has been able to enhance some level of China’s trust on him, India’s confidence on him has also not crumbled. This is all the success Prachanda had envisaged via this visit and he has been successful to secure it.
Xi was widely expected to travel to Nepal during his visit to BRICS summit in India last year. His Nepal trip was cancelled in the last hour reportedly because Nepal did not have enough preparations for some important deals of mutual interest that China wanted to ink during that high level visit. Though Xi did not come to Kathmandu, he flew to Dhaka and inked OBOR cooperation pact. It is evident that he wanted to cancel Nepal trip because his visit was not going to give any new dimension to Sino-Nepal relations. It is because, unlike Prachanda, the chief executive of the communist superpower does not believe in mere talks. However, on the contrary, Nepal’s Prime Minister forced himself into a neighboring country of high importance even when there was no possibility of any deals. Such behavior of Nepali leaders might secure their personal and partisan interests but is extremely unfortunate for the nation.
Prachanda should have learnt from Xi’s withdrawal of Nepal visit. He plainly wanted to teach Nepal that China believes in actions but not in talks. Prachanda did not learn that. Instead, he did what Xi was implicitly trying to teach him not to do.
Prachanda’s trip had to be for Nepal’s better connections with China. He had to be able to convince the Chinese leadership with concrete plans and preparations that Nepal is willing to win over great walls of geography between the two countries (for mutual benefits). He has rather won over The Great Wall of China and returned home after some social chitchats with the Chinese president. Those chats, not dialogues, are of no consequence to the people and nation of Nepal as well as to the relations between the two nations.
Based in Brisbane, Bikram Timalsina holds a Master of International Studies from University of Queensland.