Murari Sharma: Dahal’s visit — a damp squid in Beijing

Although bilateral visits at the top are always significant at some level, not all high-level visits justify the time and resources invested in them. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s long-awaited visit to Beijing in March 2017 was one of such visits.

Dahal took a detour to Beijing from his address to the Boao conference in Hainan. His Hainan visit is a separate issue in its own merit for another time. So I will focus only on his Beijing visit here.

High-level visits are meant mainly to introduce leaders to each other, to help resolve the existing problems between countries, to announce or ink major breakthroughs, or a combination of all three. Dahal’s China trip turned out to be a damp squid because it achieved none of those objectives.

The introductory visits often happen when a new leader takes office. In that sense, Dahal’s trip was not exactly introductory. First, the visit took place eight months into his office. Second, though he met with President Xi Jinping, Dahal did not meet his counterpart, Prime Minister Li Keqiang. Third, this was not the first time Dahal visited Beijing to meet Xi.

Dahal did not resolve any outstanding issue with China. China’s proposal to replace the 1956 treaty is hanging fire in Singh Durbar for years. So is China’s One belt, One road (OROB) initiative with which Beijing wants to enhance its connectivity with other countries in the region and beyond. Nepali mandarins are sleeping over these proposals, fearing that signing on to them could rub India the wrong way.

On the Nepali side, there are commercial and grazing issues, none of which has been resolved during Dahal’s visit.  Dumping of Chinese good has been a problem across world markets. Nepal is not immune to it. Movement of goods and people between the two countries through their shared land border remains a perennial issue. At many places, Nepali farmers face obstruction and bullying by their counterparts and local Tibetan officials when they take their herds for grazing to the other side under the agreement between the two nations.

No new breakthrough was inked or announced during Dahal’s Beijing visit, either. No major new MOU on OROB could be signed despite Beijing’s repeated efforts for the last couple of years; no high-level visit from China was assured; no new aid, trade or investment pact was signed worth the ink or agreed to other than 1 million dollar Chinese assistance for the local elections in Nepal, a pittance.

All this proves that Dahal’s China visit was a damp squib for the country. But Dahal projected the visits as a great success, which it was personally for him. He used his visit partly to wash off the public image that he was New Delhi’s stooge.

However, for the keen observers of Sino-Nepal relations, the Nepali prime minister’s visit this time only reinforced his irreparable leaning towards New Delhi. Take Xi’s advice to Dahal that he and Nepal should enrich their relations with India further, for instance.

This was the advice Xi’s predecessor had given to Nepali leaders during the 1989-90 economic blockade of Nepal by India. It was right in the context of the day. But not today. It only reflects Beijing’s growing frustration with Kathmandu. It should be noted that Xi cancelled his Nepal visit in 2016 for the same reason.

Faced with America’s China containment policy, now China is seeking to expand its role in the world and in the region as well. The OROB initiative, Asian Infrastructure Bank, and increasing security cooperation, above and beyond aid and trade in the past, are some of the examples of this desire. But the Nepali leaders have refused to take big strides in these areas, causing deep frustration in Beijing.

What is more, Nepal has taken steps back from the time when Prime Minister KP Oli had reached out to China to mitigate India’s chokehold on Nepal’s politics and economics, in the wake of the five-month long blockade after Nepal promulgated its new constitution in 2015 ignoring India’s efforts to delay it. Oli had signed several agreements and understandings, including the trade and transit treaty, which would have given some wiggle room for Nepal without substituting Indian supplies. Beijing has taken Nepal’s such bait-and-switch as opportunistic and against Chinese interest.

While Nepal should not back any scheme designed against its neighbors, friends and allies, seeking new sources of supplies for itself serves our vital national interest. All our neighbors and friends want peace and progress in Nepal in their own terms. Therefore, Nepal must do what is best for itself.

But it seems that Nepali leaders put their outside backers first, and above Nepal. Otherwise, they would have pursued a balanced foreign policy, in which Nepal’s interest would come front and center, while respecting its neighbors’ interest whenever possible.

In this context, Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Beijing visit has nothing to write home about as far as the country’s vital economic and political interests are concerned.

 

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