Murari Sharma: Oli’s consequential visit to China

Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has just returned from his China visit. Taken place a month after his India trip in February this year after the Indian economic blockade of sorts for nearly five months, Oli’s visit to China has, at least in principle, proved one of the most substantive and consequential  made by Nepali heads of state and government since 1950.

Often categorized as state, formal, official and informal based on the level of hospitality provided by the host country, high-level visits fit more meaningfully into the substantive and diplomatic silos in terms of their utility. Those visits that result in groundbreaking decisions between countries, such as signing a peace agreement after a war, inking a major treaty, inaugurating mega joint projects, establishing a new bilateral or multilateral organization, and so on would be substantive. Because they are groundbreaking, they are also rare.

Heads of states and government also visit each other to get to know each other, to renew the existing ties, to project one’s personality and priority, to sell their ideas, to smooth procedural roadblocks, and so on. Agreements of regular nature and of limited significance could also be signed on such occasions. More frequent, such trips are procedural, diplomatic in nature.

Although Oli’s recent China visit had the get-to-know-each-other element, it was one of the few substantive sojourns made by Nepali heads of state and government. The trade and transit agreement signed in Beijing during his trip was a landmark decision in the same way as the accord on the Kathmandu-Kodari Highway was at the time King Mahendra. The highway had opened the first road access between Nepal and China, and an infuriated India had imposed economic sanctions on Nepal.

Sure, the transit agreement is important more in symbolism and less on practical use. First, the distance to Tijuana, three times more than Kolkata, would make the transit cost prohibitive. Second, the transit facility would require infrastructures — a warehouse, containerized trucks capable of passing through high altitude or similar railway wagons, clearing and forwarding agents, etc. — to make it functional. Operating and maintaining them would be expensive, and if they are not kept up to date, they cannot be used when necessary. Third, there will be operational difficulties associated with differing political systems, controls, and sensitivities.

However, the very fact this facility could be used if absolutely necessary would dissuade India from imposing another economic embargo without a serious thought. If push comes to shove, Nepal can use this transit route to import essential supplies, such as petroleum products and medicines, rather than flying them in from Singapore, as it had done during the Indian economic blockade of 1989/90.

Several other agreements reached during the visit were also no less important for the two countries, especially for Nepal. China has agreed to work out a mechanism to supply petroleum products to Nepal. When this is done, Nepal will free itself from the Indian monopoly on fuel supply. China has also agreed to provide 3-billion RMB assistance for the next three years, and to strengthen connectivity between the two countries by maintaining the existing roads and considering building a new road, a railway link, and two transmission lines.

If all these proposals translate into tangible products, Oli’s China visit would be by far the most consequential by any Nepali head of state or government. However, will India allow the implementation of the agreements and understandings with China anytime soon? Will Nepali leaders defy the Indian pressure?

Probably not. History may help us understand why.  New Delhi had prevented Chinese contractors from executing the Kohalpur-Banabasa portion of the East-West Highway in Nepal under the World Bank finance years ago and committed to doing the project with its grant assistance. India took decades to complete that portion of the highway.

It will not be just Chinese contractors this time; it will be the Chinese government itself. Though India-China trade has momentously increased over the past decades, they have become more sensitive about their interests. Beijing, New Delhi feels, is seeking to encircle India. It supported the former President Rajapakshya of Sri Lanka to suppress the long-drawn Tamil armed insurgency there, disregarding the Indian opposition. It has already sidelined India in Myanmar. And it has been reaching out more than before to Bangladesh, Bhutan and Pakistan. India endeavors to protect its interest in the region.

In this context, both India and China want to secure their vital interests in Nepal. They had viewed the monarchy as a pillar of stability and moderation. After Nepal abolished its monarchy and became a federal republic, both neighbors, worried about the political fluidity in Nepal, want to shore up their interests in the new ambiance.

Before Nepal’s constitution was promulgated on 20 September 2015, both China and India wanted it suit their needs. China was opposed to ethnic states along the Nepal-China border area where Western organizations have been massively funding proselytization of the minorities, fearing that they could provide a staging pad for anti-China activities.  Even though the constitution has been issued without single ethnic states, the threat has not vanished, for the minority groups have not abandoned their demand for ethnic states.

India pressed Nepal for liberal citizenship provisions and only one state, not more than two states, in the southern plains of Nepal, hoping that this arrangement would give the pro-Indian Nepali population living along the Nepal-India border a decisive voice in Kathmandu. Since the constitution divided the plains into several states, India imposed an economic blockade of sorts and restricted the flow of petroleum products, construction materials and medicines for nearly five months. Though the sanctions were lifted to facilitate Oli’s India visit, New Delhi has not abandoned its demand.

Nepal amended the constitution to accommodate most of India’s demands, but it has not satisfied India because its demand for the state/s has not been fulfilled.  India has strategic and economic interests. It wants to keep Nepal, which is under its security umbrella, to remain firmly there. It believes a powerful state in the plains would prevent Kathmandu from inching towards Beijing. It also wants to tap Nepal’s Karnali, Gandaki and Koshi rivers to develop hydropower and to irrigate its parched northwestern states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, which it is seeking to by diverting these rivers.

Although the Bharatiya Janata Party government would prefer to see Nepal remain a Hindu country as it was before 2006, the strategic and economic interests are paramount for India.

Evidently, the Indian blockade was definitely a factor in the agreements on trade and transit, on fuel supply, and on increased road and rail connectivity between Nepal and China.  The imposition of the economic blockade has only alienated the Nepalis with India and forced them towards greater economic integration with China.

However, Oli’s consequential visit could turn out to be a damp squib if India uses its power to topple his government. Keep your finger crossed and hope for the best.

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