Murari Sharma: Mr. Oli’s China Visit in National and Wider Perspective

At a time when American President Donald Trump is upending the post-war global order, the rest of the world is forced to consider political and economic realignment. In this context, the Nepali Prime Minister KP Oli’s recent visit to China is remarkable not only nationally but also globally and regionally.

The global context first. Mr. Trump has pushed South East Asian countries to China’s embrace by pulling America out of the proposed 12-country Transpacific Partnership Agreement. He pushed European countries and China into the same side by abandoning the Paris climate agreement and slapping tariffs on steel, aluminum and other imports. Such economic necessity is bound to generate a new political alliance among countries that was deemed impossible before Mr. Trump’s rise to power.

Regionally, China has been pushing hard to expand its sphere of influence through, among other things, trade and the One Belt One Road infrastructure initiative. India has been desperately trying to limit Chinese influence in South Asia.

Nepal sits on these colliding fault lines. Mr. Oli’s China visit has taken place in such a delicate time of change. His visit and the various agreements signed in his presence in Beijing suggest that Nepal has inched away from the US-Indian regional orbit and into the Chinese orbit.  It has significant impact for Nepal nationally as well. 

Two weeks ago, a formerly highly placed official had given me a discouraging prognosis about the Oli government’s direction of travel, and in my previous article, I reflected his sentiments. However, after Mr. Oli’s China visit, it appears that things are not so pessimistic after all if action follows the symbol and word.

During the visit, Mr. Oli met with the Chinese President Xi Jinping and his counterpart Li Keqiang in a spirit of warm friendship. The two sides also signed 22 agreements and understandings, 14 between two governments and eight between the two private sectors.

Among them, the most remarkable was Mr. Oli’s pet project: Nepal-China railway link, connecting Kerung and Kathmandu. It is expected that the project will be completed within seven years. This particular project invited serious discussion and difference in Kathmandu.

For instance, the former finance minister, Ram Sharan Mahat, questioned the wisdom of this project in view of its cost and utility vis-a-vis road and other projects. Certainly, from a purely economic standpoint, the geographical difficulties will make the railway costly to make and the distance from the economic hubs of China will make transportation uncompetitive compared to India. 

I don’t have concrete data or a crystal ball to say whether this project makes economic sense. I agree with the points Mr. Mahat has made about the cost and competitiveness. However, I also know that many a time, supply creates its own demand, as the economist John-Baptiste Say has said. If the trade overland between China and Nepal increases, the volume could bring down the cost. 

But the rail project is important in a political sense. It will somewhat reduce Nepal’s total reliance on India as the main supplier of many goods and sole transit country to and from third countries. This will mitigate the impact of the kind of economic blockades we have faced in the past if they are ever repeated.

Other agreements are important in their own right. It is good news that the Miteri Bridge, destroyed by the 2015 earthquake, would be rebuilt and another bridge will be built in Rasuwagadhi. They will restore the lost and create a new connectivity between the two abutting countries. Besides, the press release also promises early conclusion of the Protocol to the Agreement on Transit and Transport, which 

But the reconstruction of the destroyed schools and the Nuwakot Palace, though important, might be viewed as Chinese aid being sprinkled for maximum political but minimum economic advantage for Beijing and the ruling communist party in Nepal.

The agreements between the private sectors of the two countries heavily focused on constructing hydro-power projects, which is welcome. Even though Nepal has the second highest theoretical hydro-power production potential in the world, after Brazil, we still rely on India and thermal power to meet our shortages and still cannot avoid brownouts and blackouts in the lean season when water flow and power production dip.

These agreements are important not only they help Nepal build its capacity, they are important in another significant context as well: They will motivate India to abandon its policy of making commitments and holding projects for years without implementing them. This tendency had started with the Kohalpur-Banbasa part of the East-West Highway and has continued with the Hulaki Roads, hydropower projects, and the like.

I might be wrong to think so, but I always thought the commitment made by India during Mr. Oli’s visit to New Delhi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Kathmandu visit to link Kathmandu to the Indian railway network would not come to fruition without the Kerung-Kathmandu link promised by Beijing.

On a broader level, the presence of China and India in some of the same sectors will set off a virtuous cycle for Nepal’s progress. If China keeps its promise this time, India will keep its. Similarly, if India keeps its promise, it will prompt China to follow suit as well, into a virtuous cycle.

Unfortunately, though, the implementation aspect has not always been encouraging. Though bilateral mechanisms have been established now with China and previously with India to monitor progress, there must first be progress to monitor. Besides, the virtuous cycle, if it comes into being, could make Nepal complacent and more reliant on its neighbors than on its own creativity and resources for respectable development.

On the whole, Prime Minister Oli’s China has been positive and encouraging at the agreement and symbolic level. Let us hope the implementation aspect would also move forward smoothly. While I don’t doubt the strong relations between Nepal and China for the good visit, the US President Trump’s upending of the post-war global order did contribute to make China Beijing more generous than before.

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Murari Sharma: Who should we fear most?

Last night, I woke up from a nightmare, frightened. Bombs were blasted in my area, and the fire was burning at several places. When a missile headed my way, I woke up in a fright. I was soaking with sweat, and my mouth was dry. Now I have been wondering whether such a scenario is possible for real.

Let me start with the causes of nightmares. According to the National Health Service of Britain, stress, trauma, mental health conditions, and some types of medicines, like antidepressants, cause adult nightmares. Since I do not have mental health issues and do not take antidepressants, the sources of my nightmare are stress and trauma, as most other adults.

Evidently, we live in stressful conditions and complex societies, often visited by traumatic experiences. We worry about our close ones’ and our health, finances, reputation, job, and progress; sometimes, disasters, accidents, wars, and so on also visit us. As human beings, we also worry about communities and nations at large. My personal and family issues are not serious enough to cause me nightmares.

I have been worried about volatile Nepal, Nepal’s neighbors, the burning Middle East, and the simmering war of words between North Korea and the United States.

Though they may not be imminent, my worries are not impossible. As we know, the world has not always washed in hope and enlightenment, in positive progress of science and technology, and in the optimistic and teachings of great saints like Rama, Buddha, Christ, and Mohammad. It has also witnessed the annihilation of peoples and civilizations, creation and use of devastating weapons of mass destruction, and rise of rascals like Hitler, Mussolini, and others like them.

Similarly, both at national and individual levels, we have witnessed the acts of kindness as well as of brutality and predation. For instance, many wealthy countries have been generously contributing to the growth and development of their less fortunate counterparts. To help the poor and dispossessed amongst themselves and halfway across the world, many in those countries have been contributing whatever they can. At the same time, we cannot forget the horrible exploitation by slave-owning nations, colonizers, aggressors, raiders, robbers, looters, and thieves.

Who should we worry most about?

In a rough and ready manner, I put people into four groups: Saint saints, Saint satans, Satan saints, and Satan satans.  Saint saints are those who mostly live for others and to help others, like Buddha, Jesus, and Gandhi. Satan satans live for themselves, such as murders, robbers, and hardcore criminals. Evidently, both Saint saints and Satan satans are a few. Therefore, the vast majority belong to the other two groups: Saint satans and Satan saints.

The Saint satans are those who start out as honest, pious, and charitable but give in to the baser instincts — enriching and empowering themselves by hook or crook while hurting others — as they proceed. Satan saints are those who start with baser instincts but wear the patina of higher value to win trust, fame, and office. Often difficult to distinguish, the majority of politicians, bureaucrats, priests, non-governmentwallahs, journalists, businessmen, and so on, belong to one of these two groups.

How much positive and negative contributions they make depends on how capable they are and what role and how much remit they acquire. Those with limited role and remit do limited good or damage and those who have wide role and remit do the opposite. The source of my nightmare has been these two groups of people at the national and broader levels. We should watch politicians most since they take the driving seat of society.

Before an election, most politicians go to their voters as their humble servants and promise to them the sun and moon. Once they are elected, they treat their voters like trash, pick their pockets, and plunder the country with two hands to enrich themselves, stay in power, and reward their relatives and bribers until the next election. If it serves their interest, these leaders take the country to war.

At the regional level, I have been worried about the politicians in India and China. They have been our frenemies. More out of self-interest than of charity, they have been helping us as a neighbor and friend. At the same time, Nepal has suffered two wars each with these countries and three crippling economic blockades from India since 1969 and sermons to find a modus vivendi with India from China. If Nepal were to work seriously against their self-interest, these neighbors would not hesitate to punish it and its people.

At the broader level, I have been worried about those Western countries and their priests that have been sowing the seeds for the clash between civilizations by supporting or carrying out the aggressive proselytization of the vulnerable Nepali people. Though it looks innocuous now, the seeds will germinate and trigger a war of attrition until Western religions dominate our country or fracture it.

I have also been worried about the Middle East, the source of energy for much of the world, going on between Isreal and Palestine and between the Shias and Sunnies in Yemen, Syria, and other places, where Sunnis are killing Shias and vice versa.

Above all, I have been worried about the war of words between the United States and North Korea, which may escalate into a nuclear exchange. Presidents Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un both have threatened to start a nuclear war and claimed that their fingers are on the nuclear button. Since I have never met any of them, I have no personal opinion about them, but what I have read about them makes me jitter.

The casual remarks made by several knowledgeable people apart, the assessment of 27 psychologists and Michael Wolff in his Fire and Fury, have presented a frightening picture of Trump. Kim’s killing his own relatives in a fury and starving his people while he pursues nuclear ambition have told his chilling story as well.  In other words, both Trump and Kim are whimsical, impatient bullies, if not maniacs. What if they turn out to be Saint satans or Satan saints and do push their nuclear buttons?

The half of humanity might get killed, making World War II’s 60 million casualties like a drop in the ocean of mass killing. World War II killed mostly those people whose countries were involved in it directly or indirectly, but a nuclear exchange between the United States and North Korea could end up killing, maiming, or causing deadly diseases in the entire world. Unless you live on Antarctica, you could not feel safe. We have not seen too many Saint saints trying to diffuse this growing crisis.

This time, unlike in the past, the killings would not be distant. The casualties may include you and me, our relatives, or both.  Therefore, I have my nightmare. I hope my nightmare is a mundane incident that happens occasionally with all. Otherwise, all of us need to worry about the gathering threats, seriously.

 

Murari Sharma: An inward-looking America is bad for America and the world

More than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar, to Bangladesh, in recent months. This number is steadily rising towards a million. If President Donald Trump had not withdrawn the United States from the world, the generals in Naypyidaw probably would not have ordered the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Rakhine State.

Some American leaders and celebrities have declared President Trump unfit for his office. Some psychologist and mental health experts have doubted his fitness as well. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stieglitz says Trump “has fascist tendencies.” These things are for the American people to decide. 

I respect the American people’s decision. So I am interested only in how Trump’s policy and personality have been affecting the United States and the rest of the world, including Nepal.   

Donald Trump ran on the nationalist, anti-trade, and anti-regional arrangement agenda and won the election. Naturally, nationalists in general and far-right nationalists, in particular, have felt that his election has mainstreamed their own beliefs. Trump is not one of the mainstream internationalist Republicans, who believe in free trade. And he sees regional groupings and their collective strength to bargain antithetical to US interest.

His personality is volatile, impulsive, and unpredictable. His threat to North Korea or his urge to investigate Hillary Clinton’s already investigated emails, his tweets at 3 am, his Access Hollywood tape, his call on Russia to hack Clinton’s emails, his trashing of minority judges because they decided against him in court cases, etc. do not speak for his trust and dependability. 

Already, Trump’s policies and personality have produced some negative impacts for him, the United States, and the rest of the world. For instance, his military general has said he would not follow Trump’s ‘illegal order.’ His attorney-general has said cannot abide by his urge to investigate his opponent. Such cases put Trump’s command and control in doubt.  

The United States has already suffered some significant setbacks on the world stage. For instance, he withdrew the United from the Paris climate change agreement, and China and Europe stepped in.  Washington has lost the opportunity to lead and shape the climate change agenda, and it might miss the climate-friendly technology gravy train.  

Likewise, President Trump withdrew from the Transpacific (trade) Partnership negotiations, but the other countries in the region have decided to move forward with the negotiation without the United States. Washington has effectively ceded the leadership of and influence in the region to China. 

Citing that the agency was anti-Israel, Trump withdrew the United States from UNESCO even though it had rejoined the agency after staying out for several years. The agency will continue criticizing Tel Aviv, now without any moderation from the United States. 

Trump has threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement if other members do not agree to amend it to America’s advantage. He has issued similar threats to several other countries. These countries will move on without the United States because they can do it now.

The United States is a major economic player, but it is not as indispensable now as it was 30 years ago. For example, according to WTO, the European Union was collectively the largest trading bloc in 2016 with the trade volume (export+import) of 3,821 billion dollars, followed by the United States 3,706 billion, and China 3,685 billion. China and Japan together posted 4,937 billion dollars. 

Similarly, while the US remains the foremost technological and financial powerhouse, other countries have been catching up and reducing US leverage. China is charging ahead in green technology. America is near the bottom in the industry’s share of GDP. London has superseded New York as the largest financial center.

During President Trump’s recent visit to Asia, the relatively reduced stature of the United States was visible. For instance, Japan and South Korea — where Trump’s trust rating is 17 and 24 percent, almost one-third of his predecessor — did not provide many trade concessions to oblige him. It is yet to be seen whether they buy American weapons in the volume Trump wants. 

China treated Trump nicely for not raising human rights issues and keeping at bay the dumping and currency manipulation issues, which he had raised repeatedly during his presidential campaign. It signed a few relatively minor trade deals. Beyond that, there was nothing to write home about. 

In Vietnam, the APEC countries rebuffed Trump’s single-minded emphasis on bilateral trade and decided to move ahead with the TPP without the United States. In the group photo, Trump was made to stand in the second row, slightly to one side.

In the Philippines, Trump endorsed his equally volatile counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, who has been killing anyone suspected of being involved in drugs, blatantly violating human rights and the due process of law. And yet, Duterte made his soft corner for China clear as soon as Trump left Manila.

While there is nothing wrong for a leader to promote his country’s national interest, the problem is with the identification of such interest.  The Trump brand fails to recognize the fundamental logic that Winston Churchill had recognized long ago: With power comes resources and responsibility. If you do not have one, you will not have the other either. Paul Kennedy has asserted that the empires of yore rose and fell with their command over resources.

For instance, the industrial revolution gave Britain resources and power to bring much of the world under its control. When Britain was stretched thin, the resource-rich United States powered ahead. The colossal loss it suffered in World War I and II and in the independence of its colonies relegated Britain to the second, even third-rate power. 

If the Trump brand of Make America Great Again succeeds, the United States is likely to follow the British trajectory. To prevent such a course, the United States needs to continue building alliances to share the cost and maximize benefits for its friends and allies around the world.

That brings me to Myanmar. The Myanmar military systematically persecuted the Rohingyas, the Bengali Muslim minority, and the Nobel Prize-winning foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi did not stop them. She even sought to brush the issue under the carpet, including in her speech at the UN General Assembly in September this year.  

If the Myanmar generals had not witnessed the United States abdicating its global leadership, they would have thought twice before ordering the ethnic cleansing, thanks to the UN provision for humanitarian intervention in cases of extreme human rights violation. To be sure, the provision has been inconsistently implemented. But the mere possibility of it could have restrained the generals.  

As for Nepal, the outcome has been mixed in the past under Republican and Democratic presidents. For example, President Johnson, a Democrat, and President Reagan, a Republican, welcomed King Mahendra and Birendra in America, respectively. Often Republican presidents have been more liberal in providing aid and trade concessions.

But President Trump is different. He wants to cut aid, reduce trade concessions, terminate the Temporary Protection Status for thousands of Nepalis living in the United States, and end the diversity visa program. So, the prospects under Trump are not bright for Nepal. I will be happy if proven wrong.

 

Murari Sharma: An uncharted territory

At his inauguration as 45th president of the United States on 20 January 2017, Donald J. Trump said, “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first — America first. . . Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. . . We will follow two simple rules — buy American and hire American.”

Though it sounds enticing to many Americans, it is a chilling stuff. From now on, America will be self-centered, protectionist, and less generous to the rest of the world. Clearly, the United States and the world have entered an uncharted territory.

Nobody knows whether Trump is going to follow through his priorities or to grow into his job and become a mainstream president. But so far, he has essentially refused to behave like the president of a multicultural country and the most powerful country on earth. This should worry the American people more than the rest of the world.

Here is why. Trump’s racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, and misogynist language that has given wings to the white supremacists and alt-rights will further widen the fissure that already exist in American society. The spike in hate crimes, as reported by The New Yorker, will make American minorities and American street less safe for all Americans. The reversal of women’s rights under Trump will affect American women more directly and deeply than women elsewhere.

America’s protectionist policy will harm America more than other countries in the long run. Other countries will retaliate with countermeasures, triggering trade wars in which America will be fighting against the rest of the world. Though trade contributes to only 11 percent of American GDP, millions of Americans will lose their jobs that depend on the trade. Trade wars will increase tariffs on American imports and raise the cost of living for American consumers, and will put at risk the American investment in other countries, as capital controls are imposed, making most Americans worse off.

If the USA undermines and weakens NATO, as Trump has threatened, European countries will find a new modus vivendi with the resurgent Russia. China will try to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of America from the Tranpacific Trade Partnership in Asia and the Pacific, and the countries in the region will warm up to Beijing.

In fact, Beijing has already made such an overture with the Investment Bank, Silk Road, and free trade initiatives. The Philippines has already been looking to Beijing as the replacement for Washington.

Germany, China, and India will take the lead to contain climate change and keep the Paris Agreement alive. If Mexico is offended too much by Trump’s wall on the border and his harsh conditions for the NAFTA to survive, it will look to other countries for economic alliance and allow its citizens to cross into the US illegally.

Trump’s America First policy will reduce foreign aid and trade concessions the US gives to the developing countries and temporarily cripple those nations, until they find new sources of support or they develop their own capacity. It will also have several serious consequences for the United States.

For instance, the US will lose its global influence when other countries fill the void left by America. It will not be able to protect its military, civilian and commercial assets spread around the world and to prevent the flow of refugees headed to its shores from the conflict-ridden countries if it does not help resolve their political and economic woes at the source.

In other words, the impact of Trump’s policies will be relatively short-term for the rest of the world. But America will sustain long-term damages. It will be a mistake for the US to forget that, though the end of the British Empire unsettled the world for some time, it harmed Britain permanently and helped the United States and other countries. The end of the American Empire will not be any different in its impact.

The rest of the world is  worried about the transient impact of Trump’s posture, not permanent damage. The Guardian editorial dubbed the Trump’s inaugural speech as “a declaration of political war.” German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel predicted a “rough ride.” Concerns have been expressed in China, Mexico and several other countries.

Only two countries seem pleased with Trump: Russia and Taiwan. If the US pulls back from the world, Russia will have more room to project its power in the world. Taiwan expects Trump to water down America’s “One China” policy. But that is too few countries to sustain the American Empire.

But who knows. Trump might not do what he has said or will say and do the right things as president. Or his cabinet colleague might convince him to take the middle road. If that happens, the uncharted territory Trump is pulling the US and the world into could prove to be a good one. I wish Donald J. Trump moderation and success.

Trump’s disruptive new world order and Nepal

Donald Trump will start shattering the existing world order in less than two weeks, if he governs as he promised during his election campaign. Such disruption may benefit the US in the short run, but it will harm America in the long run. The rest of the world, including Nepal, will suffer from Trump’s policies.

Of course, leaders campaign in poetry and govern in prose. That might eventually turn out to be the case with the US president-elect Trump. But his toxic post-election Twitter messages and statements and his selection of ministers does not presage such transformation.

If Trump does not change himself, he will change the United States and the rest of the world strategically, politically, economically, environmentally and socially in the next four years. I am assuming that Trump will not be impeached during that period.

Incidentally, Professor Allan Lichtman, who forecast his victory, has predicted his impeachment as well. But that is a separate issue for the future.

In the strategic domain, Trump has threatened to pull the US out of the NATO, questioned the ‘One China policy’ adopted since 1971, supported the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, and praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Basher Assad of Syria. He has appointed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.

A weakened NATO will embolden aspiring super powers and destabilize the world. China may take an aggressive stance towards Taiwan if Trump deviates from one China policy, destabilizing North and South East Asia.

Trump’s praise and his appointment of Tillerson, whose heels are dug deeply in Russian oil, have given heart to Putin to press on in Ukraine and Syria. His praise for dictators has strengthened the hand of existing and aspiring dictators.

Trump has undermined the two-state solution for the Middle East, a mantra of the successive American administrations. He has supported the Netanyahu government’s policy of setting up and expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. He has also appointed a pro-settlement man as his ambassador to Israel.

In the political realm, Trump has failed to win the confidence of leaders at the helm of US allies across the world. He continues to root for his campaign’s “big and beautiful wall”at the US-Mexico border, which the former Mexican President Vincent Fox has called a racist monument.

In addition, Trump has promised to stop regime change and nation building outside the United States. This has encouraged the existing and aspiring tin-pot dictators, who were exercising restraints in the face of American emphasis on democracy and human rights in the past.

In the economic sphere, Trump is likely to trigger a trade war. He has vowed to crush the Trans-Pacific Trade deal, poked China in the eye by criticizing Chinese trade and threatening to impose tariff on Chinese imports and by appointing an anti-Chinese hawk as commerce secretary, and undermined the NAFTA. If America adopts protectionist policies, other countries will retaliate.

Trump might gut the environmental protection gains. He has vowed to pull the US out of the Paris agreement on climate change and appointed a climate change denier as head of the Environment Protection Agency. These measures will lead to decline in US aid to sustainable development in the developing world.

Under President Trump, US aid for developing countries may suffer a major decline in other ways as well. Trump will reduce the nation building aid, which is a significant part of the aid package. His protectionist measures will derail the capacity building efforts of developing countries, which require access to rich markets for their goods and services.

Trump may reorder social values and institutions in the US and across the globe. He has already given a new lease of life to racists and misogynists in the United States and the rest of the world. He himself has mainstreamed anti-minority tirades and misogynistic behavior. He has anointed the white supremacist outfits like the KKK and Brietbert News as mainstream organizations. The racists and misogynists in other countries will follow the American example, without the fear of sanctions.

One of the biggest contributions of Trump presidency could be the elevation of corruption into a legitimate goal of public office. America has been at the forefront of the campaign for transparency and clean government in the past. But Trump is already changing it by refusing to disengage him and his family from his global business, by using his position to make a profit for his businesses, and by appointing many ministers with similar conflicts of interest. As a leader, you lead by example in the corruption field.

All these factors will have direct and significant impact on Nepal. The renewed tension and trade will undermine Nepal’s security and affect its exports and imports. The reduction in US assistance will affect Nepal’s development and environmental protection activities. The US lack of interest in democracy, human rights, gender and racial equality, and in clean and corruption-free government will encourage Nepali leaders to disregard these fundamental values and institutions as well.

But several caveats are in order here. First, the Russian cyber war and the FBI director James Comey’s intervention to get him elected have undermined Trump’s legitimacy and position even before he has moved to the White House.

Second, Trump will be able to do only as much in many of these areas as the Republican controlled Congress will concur. While he may not have much problem with the House of Representative, where decisions are made by a simple majority, he might face major hurdles in the Senate due to its personal and institutional complexity.

Personally, every Senator sees in himself a future president. So Senators often do what is in their own best interest, rather than blindly supporting the president. They, elected for six years, afford to defy the president without the fear of public outrage. For instance, the hearing on Russian influence on the US presidential elections went forward despite Trump’s serious objections.

Institutionally, the filibuster could prove a major hurdle to Trump’s agenda. The Republicans need 8 votes from the Democrats and Independents for the filibuster-proof majority to pass major legislations or ratify major appointments. Further, the situation may worsen in two years when all members of the House and one-third members of the Senate would be due for election.

Therefore, while Trump agenda is definitely scary, how much of it is actually implemented will depend on how much he grows up in the office and how much Congress will support. Let us hope he would abandon the poetry and govern with prose as soon as he moves to the White House on 20 January.