Colored Glasses Distort Vision
“Nepal should find a modus vivendi with India.”
Although this quotation seems to have come from an Indian leader, bureaucrat or opinion maker who wants to impose Indian hegemony over Nepal or from a pro-Indian Nepali politician, intellectual or administrator who is eager to curry New Delhi’s favor for a post or a scholarship for his child, it is not. This is a quote from one of the most unexpected sources – Qian Lichen, a senior Chinese leader.
Let me set the context here. Qian was no ordinary leader. A vice premier from 1993 to 2003, he worked in the Chinese foreign ministry from 1977 to 1998, including 10 years as foreign minister. I met Vice Premier Qian during my bilateral visit to Beijing in 1999. It was fully a decade after the Berlin Wall had fallen, China had logged double-digit growth, and Nepal had reintroduced multi-party democracy and three years after the Maoist insurgency had begun.
To meet Qian, I was taken by train to Beidaihe, a beach resort, where Qian and other Chinese leaders were on a ritual summer retreat for the meeting. For the meeting, I had to persuade our Chinese hosts to grant me the same treatment as was given to my counterparts from India and Pakistan who had visited China just before me. Protocol people warned me that I had only 20 minutes with him.
I was ushered into a sizeable, deliciously decorated hall. Shortly, a portly short man with a gentle smile elegantly walked in with two assistants tagging him along and warmly shook hands with me. After the pleasantries, I briefed Qian on the progress of our bilateral talks since my arrival in Beijing in which we had agreed to liberalize Nepal-Tibet trade; extend grazing rights for Nepali farmers in Tibet; and implement several projects, including the civil service hospital and second road to Tibet through Rasuwa.
Next issue was bilateral relations in general. Qian walked me back to the days of impasse in 1989/90 when India had refused to renew the transit treaty with Nepal creating huge difficulties for the Nepali people and Nepali leaders had gone to Beijing asking for help.
For starters, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was outraged with King Birendra after he imported Chinese weapons without India’s approval, in breach of the 1950 treaty and subsequent diplomatic notes. Their relations further frayed when the king refused to join the group tea with the prime minister, a departure from the usual face-to-face meeting, on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Male. Gandhi showed who held the chips when the Nepal-India transit treaty came for renewal.
After the treaty expired, India reduced the number of border points for the flow of goods and services from more than ten under the treaty to two under the international law. This created huge shortage of basic necessities and petroleum products in Nepal, and people, trade and industries suffered. Banned political parties that mounted a pro-democracy movement found support among the angry denizens. During that time, some of the Nepali leaders who went to Beijing also met Foreign Minister Qian and requested for help.
According to Qian, China helped Nepal in whatever limited it could and he advised the Nepali leaders to find a way work with India, because China could not substitute India economically and socially due to the huge geographical barriers. He had said this at a time when Kathmandu was furious with New Delhi for its arrogance. If any Nepali leader or bureaucrat had said something like this, he could have been lynched in the middle of Kathmandu, figuratively if not literally.
Qian told me that, as China was trying to catch up with the United States, not to contain India, Nepal should find a modus vivendi with India. It was quite surprising to hear such a statement from a senior Chinese leader, but it made sense. He was not asking us to subordinate our national interest to India’s but was advising us to avoid unwarranted troubles and find a way to live in harmony with a much bigger neighbor for our own benefit.
Let me add here, our relations with China should predicate on the same tenets. With China spreading its strategic wings wider now and with two roads from Nepal linking to the railway being constructed in Tibet, relations between the two are bound to change. This will increase contacts and commerce and transform the erstwhile calm, sparse and largely trouble-free ties into more dense and vibrant relationship, punctuated by irritants, which will have to be carefully managed.
As a country, we must defend our vital interests and speak up when our neighbors and friends step on our toes. So living in harmony with neighbors does not mean accepting injustice with equanimity or compromising our political independence. What it means is we must promote economic interests with neighbors and stop looking for troubles based on political prejudice, which is often aggravated by dragging them into internal affairs when it suits someone’s personal interest and by vilifying them when it does not.
Was Qian looking at Nepal through Indian prism? Whether he was or not, most world leaders do. Even multinational firms place their Nepal operations under Indian remit, because India is the proverbial elephant in the South Asian room. Frank G. Wisner, the former US ambassador to India, told me at a lunch in New York that the American International Group, where he was vice president, had the same arrangement. This rubs us the wrong way, but world attitude about Nepal persists.
There are only two ways to change that attitude: We have to become either a strategic hotspot or a prosperous country. During the Sino-Indian war and its aftermath, we became such a hotspot, and King Mahendra used China card to wiggle Nepal out of Indian control to some extent. But the Maoists have learned the hard way recently that the Mahendra Path will not help advance the Prachand Path’s goals.
Growth and prosperity is the other way to change world perception about us. Key to our prosperity lies in tourism and water resources. Tourism can be promoted on our own or in cooperation with any interested party, but we cannot produce and sell hydropower without collaborating with our neighbors and markets, particularly India which is the monopsonic buyer at this stage. However, our narrow nationalism and fear with neighbors have prevented the extent of collaboration that is necessary.
Jingoism has made us brave in rhetoric and timid in promoting national interest. People cannot eat and wear jingoism. They need food and clothes. Big countries extract concessions from the small. While we cannot change our neighbors, we can change ourselves, by replacing jingoism with pragmatic nationalism, by fostering transparent negotiations with neighbors and by bringing those to justice who betray the nation. This is the best way to deal with the fear psychosis.
You do not have to go far to see pragmatic nationalism at work. China and India, once bitter rivals and now economic competitors, have been trading to the tune of $60 billion annually and working jointly on information technology. The communist China and capitalist United States have become the largest trading partners. Former rivals have been working under one tent of the European Union.
Is Nepal ready for such a change of heart? I am not too sure. My recent article on the need to work with India to harness our water resources based on pragmatic nationalism drew several comments. While some appreciated my suggestion, others were quite hostile to me as if I had said something utterly sinful. One even surmised that I was angling for ambassadorship in or currying favor from India. No, I am not seeking either. Any suggestion for working with China would invite similar cynicism from some quarters.
It seems that we have become a nation of cynics. However, that does not change the ground reality. That is, Nepal must work with its neighbors and other countries for shared benefits to become prosperous and peaceful. Deng Xiaoping has said, “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white. So long as it catches the mouse, it is a good cat.” In other words, we should not let our glasses colored with personal and ideological predilections hold us back. Colored glasses do not change the scene; they only distort our vision.
Be practical to promote national interest. That is the wisdom of Qian Qichen’s advice. By the way, my meeting with him lasted over an hour, rather than 20 minutes.
(Published in Republica of 22 January 2011)