As a ceremonial head of state, President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s weeklong visit to China that began on Wednesday is largely symbolic. In the rarified atmosphere in which Himalayan geopolitics is conducted, however, symbols do matter.
President Bhandari is attending the Second Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum in Beijing on 27 April, and by sending a ceremonial Head of State instead of the chief executive, Nepal has tried to soothe Indian sensitivities, given that Delhi takes a dim view of the initiative.
At the same time, Beijing has accorded the trip’s importance by elevating it to a state visit, and one in which President Bhandari and President Xi Jinping will officially sign the Transit and Transportation Protocol allowing Nepal access to ports on China’s eastern seaboard.
Ever since the transit agreement was first mooted, and after China’s symbolic supply of 1,000 tons of petroleum during the 2015 Indian Blockade, Nepal has been chomping at the bit to find alternative routes to the sea.
Although President Bhandari will be among 40 other world leaders and representatives from 150 countries, bilateral talks will focus on the proposal for multi-modal China-Nepal telecommunication, road, railway and air connectivity.
For most of its history, Nepal was protected from the south by thick malarial jungles, and from the north by the great barrier of the Himalaya. The jungles were cleared and malaria eradicated in the 1960s. Meanwhile, the first trans-Himalayan highway was built in the 1960s through Kodari, and the Tibet Railroad will arrive in Kerung 70km north of Kathmandu by next year. There are now motorable roads to the Chinese border from the south at Hilsa, Korala, Rasuwa, Kodari, and soon many more will be added. There are more trans-Himalayan flights per week from Kathmandu to Chinese cities now, than there are to Indian airports.
This will help Nepal capitalise on its location between two of the world’s economic powers. Nepal will benefit from trade, will have more transit options, and smoother transport will boost tourism. However, this closer connectivity coincides with a sharper geopolitical polarisation between the United States and China on the one hand, and between China and India on the other. To paraphrase our founding king, Nepal is now a yam between three boulders.
Some of the shadow boxing has been playing out in Kathmandu with the American Ambassador publicly urging Nepal to avoid the ‘debt trap’ (without naming China). The Chinese ambassador countered this week with op-eds in English and Nepali newspapers in which she categorically denied that the BRI was a geo-strategic tool for China to push its interest.
Three recent books about geopolitics in the region, while dealing only tangentially with Nepal, throw some lessons for Kathmandu’s foreign policy establishment about how to conduct this triangular balancing act between India, China and the United States.
Former State Department India experts Teresita and Howard Schaffer’s book India at the Global High Table is a must-read for anyone trying to understand and cope with Indian diplomats whose characteristic haughtiness and ultra-sensitivity about sovereignty come out of the need to be taken seriously despite the country’s persistent and pervasive poverty.
Nepal has to understand India’s quest for regional primacy in South Asia and its ambition to be at the global high table. China is India’s largest trading partner in goods, and we have seen that while Beijing will use Nepal’s mistrust about India to its advantage, it will not jeopardise its economic ties with India over Nepal. As long as India does not side with Western backers of free Tibet in Nepal, Beijing is willing to let Kathmandu be in New Delhi’s orbit.
Nepal’s policy-makers may also want to read B M Jain’s China’s Soft Power Diplomacy in South Asia: Myth Or Reality? which looks at how Beijing has turned the overwhelming dependence on India of South Asia’s smaller countries to its advantage by using economic clout, and socio-cultural linkages. The conclusion is that as far as Beijing is concerned, soft and hard power are one and the same thing.
For an introduction to how BRI dovetails into China’s longterm global strategy, Portuguese academic Bruno Maçães’ book Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order is essential reading. The fact that India does not figure much in the book shows just how little importance Beijing attaches to whether India joins or refuses to join the BRI. But it also makes clear that BRI is just a branding exercise for President Xi for pipelines that were already in the pipeline, as it were.
Since everyone is essentially looking out for themselves, Nepal also needs to put its own national interest first and not be swayed by outside pressure to join this or that club. Will we really benefit from the Tibet Railroad being extended to Kathmandu, or through Nepal to India? How can we use connectivity to increase trade (read: exports) so that it reduces our trade imbalance and strengthens our sovereignty?
‘Prosperity’ sounds great as a slogan, but how can we get the Indian and Chinese locomotives to pull us in the same direction?
Distance from Kathmandu to Kerung has been corrected. 28-04-2019