Nepal’s leaders are basking in the glory of the state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping on 12-13 October. This hangover is going to last till at least after Tihar.
But sooner or later they (and we) will have to face the gritty reality that neither China or India are going to make Nepal. We have to do it ourselves. The most important message of the Xi visit, as Sinologist Bhaskar Koirala argues, is that Nepal should follow China’s example of self-reliance.
Self-reliance in Nepal’s peace corridor, Bhaskar Koirala
What is Xi Jinping’s ‘Big Surprise’?, Saindra Rai and Irtika Bajracharya
Political geography of India-Nepal-China ties, Passang Dorji in Thimphu
The Chinese leadership has always been strong on symbolism, keeping a long-term time horizon, building a strategy to attain those goals, and implementing them. This time, too, President Xi timed his state visit to Nepal after an informal summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in southern India. His message was that India is too important a trading partner, and China did not wish to jeopardise those ties over Nepal.
The visit to Kathmandu may have been brief, but it underscored China’s national interest to see a stable and independent Himalayan buffer state. Chinese leaders ever since Mao Zedong have advised Nepal’s leaders to learn to live with India, and be smart about dealing with the rulers in New Delhi – advice that kings, prime ministers and party leaders in Nepal have not always heeded.
Read also: What China really wants, Editorial
Prime Minister K P Oli pulled out all stops to make this visit happen, and to make it a memorable one for Xi. He micro-managed the arrangements, even getting Sur Sudha to rehearse the music the band would play at the state banquet. The frantic and temporary facelift of Kathmandu streets (only those that the Chinese entourage would drive past) carried its own symbolism: a shameless attempt by Nepali officialdom to hide governance failure, corruption, and neglect that made the capital so squalid.
For the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) the visit was a useful way to distract a disillusioned domestic public from its non-performance over the past two-and-half years. The ruling party is being ridiculed for squandering its two-thirds mandate, its inability to rein in wayward officials, for impunity, and failure to provide basic services. Dangling future trains, tunnels and tollroads in front of people is not going to reduce their woes. There has been much scorn in social media telling the government not to sell dreams of railways when it cannot even maintain roads inside Singha Darbar.
President Xi came across as a benevolent uncle, and used his state banquet speech to heap admiration on the Nepali people. We probably deserve that praise because Nepalis have been so patient with our feckless leaders for so long.
But Xi also went on to chide Nepal quite pointedly on not completing infrastructure projects. Chinese contractors have firsthand experience of this: the on-again-off-again Budi Gandaki and West Seti, being given the run around by corrupt officials, extortion and local opposition in airport, hydropower, irrigation and other schemes. Xi had another bit of advice to the NCP: that Communists should not be greedy. To that, he could have added: they should also not have a lust for power (or other carnal desires).
Our leaders at the Megha Malahar Hall of Soaltee Crowne Plaza listened to what Xi said, but we are not sure if they heard him. Or they just heard the parts they liked: about Nepal now being “land-linked and not land-locked”. The emphasis on connectivity made sense, and although there was agreement on a detailed engineering study of the trans-Himalayan railway and two highway tunnels to Kerung, the financial modalities were not discussed possibly because the Nepali side is by now aware of the ‘debt trap’.
Nepal did not even raise the possibility of developing an alternative source of petroleum imports via China to reduce the country’s reliance on India, and there has been no progress on the Trade and Transit Treaty. China’s emphasis on developing the Gandaki, Karnali and Kosi Corridors signifies support for stitching Nepal economically along a north-south axis, after past attempts to split it east-west politically.
Of the other exchange of letters the most sensitive is the bilateral agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance, which could be a euphemism for (and a precursor to) an Extradition Treaty. Although crime by Chinese nationals in Nepal has increased, the agreement is obviously targeted at the 15,000 Tibetan residents and refugees in Nepal. It is not lost on anyone that the protests in Hong Kong this year were sparked off by a similar attempt at extradition.
Nepal can only buttress its bargaining position with its giant neighbours if it builds greater self-esteem stemming from self-reliance. The strategy must be to take advantage of better connectivity for trade, jobs and economic growth.