Oli’s China visit: Dashed hopes?

Murari Sharma

Nepali Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has set out on an official visit to China today, 20 March 2016, exactly a month after his official trip to India. Taking place in the wake of a terrible Indian economic blockade for several months, the visit, the public had expected, could be unprecedentedly consequential in preventing future embargoes and resultant hardships. However, the premier has poured cold water over the public expectations by pledging to shun India or China card during this visit.

From Oli’s announcement, you get the impression that using such cards is inherently and patently immoral. What is wrong with such cards? Quite frankly, such cards are levers and essential tools of diplomacy — a principal instrument of negotiation, bargaining, and diplomacy in general. They are as common and necessary as foreign ministers and ambassadors.

In Nepal, China card has received notoriety because King Mahendra had used it to procure some independence from the overarching Indian influence. The instrument is discredited and discarded simply because King Mahendra had used it for a good purpose. Sure, Mahendra had strangled democracy, and he deserves blame for it. But why should we have any issue with him for starting planned development or for seeking some freedom from India or China?

Abandoning such a critical diplomatic tool is incredibly short-sighted, childish and stupid. Every country that puts its interest front and center uses it. Actually, it is fundamental to strike a balance of power and is as old as diplomacy itself. This tool has been deployed in all ages.

For instance, a handful of British colonized a vast country of India, and much of the rest of the world, by using such levers. They would tell, often falsely, that one Maharaja was planning to attack another Maharaja and offer protection for a hefty share in revenue and trading rights.

Before the establishment of the European Union, European countries used this lever with one country or another to make sure that none of them became disproportionately powerful and dominant. During the Cold War, the non-aligned countries protected their maneuvering room sometimes using either Soviet card or US card.

Even today, the United States is using China card to cut Russia down to size and keep South East Asian countries in its fold and Russia card to put China and Europe in their place. Western European countries are using Russia card to make Washington spend billions of dollars under NATO to protect them, while they themselves are slashing their military expenses.

In South Asia, Pakistan is using China card with the United States and US card with China to extract more military and economic assistance. Sri Lanka used China card to finish off the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Even Bhutan, which coordinates its foreign policy with India, is using China card to obtain a little more wiggle room from New Delhi.

None of these countries has abjured this perfectly legitimate tool of diplomacy. Applying it to protect one’s sovereignty and independence and promote one’s economic and social development without hurting anyone else is patriotic, moral, and honorable.

Even Prime Minister Oli had directly or indirectly used China card before his visit to India last month. He had said he could visit Beijing first if India did not lift the economic embargo against Nepal. It worked, and India lifted the blockade. Why has a similar card become so dishonorable within a space of a month?

To forswear this diplomatic tool in the face of another likely, if not inevitable, Indian economic blockade to prolong one’s tenure by a few months is outright selfish and unpatriotic.

Another Indian sanction hangs like Damocles’ sword over Nepal’s head. The Madheshi parties have vowed that would not stop their agitation until they are granted one state, and certainly not more than two states, in the plains under the new constitution. The Hill majority districts of Jhapa, Sunsari and Morang in the east, Chitwan in the middle, and Kailali and Kanchanpur in the west do not want to be part of Madheshi state/s. Therefore, the demand is nearly impossible to meet, making another Indian blockade likely.

The Nepali people suffered the shortage of petroleum products, medicines and other items for 5 months after the new constitution was promulgated on 20 September 2015. Unhappy with the constitution, India imposed the third economic embargo, following the one in 1969/70 and the other in 1989/90. It was a third wake up call for Nepal to diversify the sources of supply for petroleum products and medicines.

Sadly, Nepal’s reliance on India for essential supplies after 1990 has increased. The hated kings had understood the need of trade diversification to promote Nepal’s  interest and pursued it as much as possible. Democratic leaders, looking for an easy way out to prolong their tenure in office, have been selfish, short-termist and short-sighted. Consequently, Indian imports are up from 24 percent in the 1980s to 58 percent in the 2000s, according to the Nepal Rastra Bank, the central bank.

Oli’s China visit, which started today, would have been a great opportunity to take concrete steps to reduce Nepal’s economic dependency on India. However, all indications suggest that he has caved in to India’s pressure not to change the status quo or face its all-out effort to dislodge him from Baluwatar quickly.

It is clear from Oli’s new-found meekness. During the Indian economic embargo, the prime minister was shouting publicly that he would open new channels of supply for petroleum products and threatening to visit Beijing before visiting New Delhi. India had tactically lifted the economic embargo to open the door for Oli’s visit. But now he had made his China visit virtually agenda-free and pledged not to use any country card.

When the visit is over, we would learn whether Oli has put Nepal’s interest over his own and whether he has renounced the use a diplomatic tool to hide his moral and substantive failure to do the right thing for the country, rather than prolong his stint by a few more months.

 

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