WEIGHING IN ON WEN JIABAO’S VISIT: HALF AND HALF

Half and half

MURARI SHARMA

Politicians and political pundits widely differ in their assessments of the whistle-stop tour of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on January 14, 2012. Some have celebrated the visit as a success. Others have rued it as a diplomatic failure. In reality, the visit was neither a great success nor a dismal failure.

High-level visits are an important part of international relations and diplomacy. They provide leaders the opportunity to know each other and develop bonds of friendship and trust, which help strengthen relations between the countries they represent. In modern times, such visits are used to resolve knotty disputes and conflicts, create conducive climate for increased aid and investment, and enhance people-to-people interaction.

Between Nepal and China, high-level visits are of fairly recent provenance. If you do not count Vrikuti’s trip to China after marrying King Sang Chan-gumbo, the first dignitary to visit Beijing was Prime Minister Tanka Prasad Acharya in 1957. Since, Kings Mahendra, Birendra and Gyanendra as well as most prime ministers have travelled to China. From the Chinese side, Chou En-lai was the first prime minister to come to Nepal. Most other Chinese prime ministers and President Jiang Zemin have made a trip to Nepal before Wen Jiabao.

Any visit from a large and important country at the head of state or government level is bound to be pregnant with enormous value and expectation. In case of Nepal too, such visits from China and India carry tremendous importance, because both are not only large neighbors but also emerging strategic and economic powers. Particularly, China carries a lot of clout as the second largest economy and third largest military power in the world, eager to strategically contain India and catch up with the US.

There is a prevailing fallacy that Chinese leaders visit Nepal due to Tibet. Yes, an issue could prompt frequent visits between friendly countries. However, occasional high-level friendly visits can take place even without an overarching issue.

Those who celebrate Wen’s visit as a success have reasons to be happy. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai sounded euphoric. Any incumbent government in Nepal would naturally take a Chinese premier’s visit as a distinctive prize—as an honor to welcome the leader of a rising power and neighbor, as its endorsement by Beijing, and as leverage to sustain itself in power a little longer in the volatile world of Nepali politics. For Bhattarai, this was a sigh of relief, albeit temporary, at a time when opposition parties are asking for his resignation.

Several agreements were signed during the short visit that made the government happy. Particularly notable was the pact on increasing Chinese assistance by Rs 750 million for a country that relies heavily on foreign aid for its development and remittances for its poverty reduction. Small wonder, we have become a country of beggars and muscle sellers, and many political pundits measure the success of high-level visits in terms of the largesse we get in aid and muscles we get to sell.
But Bhattarai’s dream about Nepal becoming a “dynamic bridge” between India and China is misplaced.

For one thing, a bridge is a static structure, unless he was referring to a temporary pontoon or Bailey bridge that can be moved as necessary. For another, India and China do not need Nepal as a “bridge” because they share a long common border themselves. What Nepal should realistically aim at is to present itself as an efficient transit country by developing good transportation links to its neighbors, attract Indian and Chinese investment to produce goods for each other’s markets, and be included in the supply chains of Indian and Chinese businesses.

Wen’s visit was of course not all roses for the Maoist-led government. The most unnerving was his counsel, given almost publicly, to strengthen relations with India. Left parties in Nepal rely on New Delhi to come to, and remain in, power but pretend to maintain special relations with Beijing as their ideological benefactor and counterweight to New Delhi. This sleepwalking continues despite the Chinese leaders telling them that China cannot substitute India in Nepal politically, economically and socially. When I visited China at the end of 1990s, former Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen told me this very clearly.

Those who look at Wen’s visit unfavorably also have several good reasons for their grim assessment. First, Nepal should have preferably waited for a proper visit from the Chinese prime minister, rather than accepting a slap-dash one. A flying visit by the head of government of a close neighbor sets a bad precedent, which others might follow. Tomorrow, Wen’s successor— leadership change is taking place in China shortly—or Indian prime minister might insist on similar visits. This undermines Nepal on a permanent basis, and the measure of damage is not small.

Second, the flip-flop before the visit and the failure to conclude the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (BIPPA) exposed serious weaknesses on the Nepali side. Chinese officials are meticulous about every step of preparation and strict about protocol in high-level visits. They were irritated by the premature announcement of Wen’s visit by the Nepali side, and it contributed to the visit’s cancelation. A short transit stop replaced it after much groveling and entreaty.
Though not abnormal, the failure to sign the BIPPA, as planned, also points to a lack of adequate preparation. If there were doubts about it, expectations should have been kept low.

Third, even though it is a side issue, comic dresses of Nepali leaders must have profoundly bemused the meticulous Chinese delegates. It is a pity that Foreign Ministry officials, fearful of Nepali leaders’ contempt for grace and common sense, did not dare telling them what to wear (and how) on such important occasions. In my own experience, Nepali leaders seldom defy the Foreign Ministry’s advice when they have to meet dignitaries from an important nation.
The differing assessments aside, Wen’s visit has reinforced the subtle pattern of Chinese behavior that has often been overlooked in Nepal. While Beijing has always been an ally of the establishment of the day—be it a king or a prime minister—it has shown its soft corner for left-oriented governments. Let me cite some examples.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Adhikari of the CPN-UML visited China, Beijing suddenly increased its aid to Nepal by nearly Rs 500 million. It invited Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal to the concluding ceremony of 2008 Olympics even though he was yet to settle in the prime minister’s chair. And China increased its assistance to Nepal by Rs 750 million during Wen’s visit when a Maoist leader is at the head of government. These gestures are unmistakably significant to ignore.
Anyway, Wen Jiabao’s visit to Nepal has been good. It could have been great had it been better organized and longer.

The writer is former ambassador to the United Nations and the United Kingdom

murarisharma@gmail.com

Published on 2012-01-24 01:10:51
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