By Maila Baje
Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s six-day visit to China brought to the fore the clash between the general and the specific gripping the bilateral relationship.
During his news conference at Tribhuvan International Airport upon return, Oli was justified in asserting that the visit had served to deepen friendship, mutual trust and understanding in an effort toward expanding and consolidating Nepal’s relationship with its giant northern neighbor.
However, the prime minister’s heavy emphasis on the proposed cross-border railway line connecting Kathmandu with the Chinese border town of Kerung was misplaced.
To be sure, the railway link would represent a major development on multiple levels. It featured during Chairman Mao Zedong’s talks with King Birendra in Beijing in 1973, at a time when the Chinese and Nepalis alike could have viewed the project as nothing but a distant dream. Still, the promise alone was bound to capture a Nepali psyche struggling to overcome the landlocked kingdom’s excessive reliance on India with all its attendant costs.
The arrival of the high-speed train in Lhasa in 2006 brought Nepalis closer to their dream. By then, in economic and operational terms, China began looking more and more like a viable alternative to India for Nepal. Over the years, as Nepal turned into a republic from a monarchy, Chinese leaders and diplomats began dangling the prospect of an extension of a Lhasa-Shigatse line to Nepal with a regularity that soon became tedious.
The absence of tangible progress on the railway link became emblematic of the general direction of Sino-Nepali relations and engendered uneasy questions. Was India, the principal driver of the new Nepali polity, fighting tooth and nail behind the scenes to ward off Chinese encroachments into what it considered its exclusive sphere of influence? Or had the Chinese discovered that the real value in humoring Nepal lay in humiliating India?
Juxtapose here Oli’s visit to the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party and his forthright views on the future of the movement. And the reference to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics Supporters in the joint statement. Indeed, Oli supporters may not see a problem here. Our prime minister, who also heads the Nepal Communist Party, was merely engaging with his hosts within his ideological comfort zone.
The optics – and their broader implications – were distorted by context. The murky doggedness with which the Unified Marxist-Leninists and the Maoists chose to unite – to the point of messing up the new party’s name – often has been attributed to China’s alacrity. Not much has emerged to dispel such an impression.
On top of that, Oli’s visit was timed to approximate those of such leaders as Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Juan Evo Morales Ayma of Bolivia. Coincidence perhaps, but it is one that compels Maila Baje to recall how critics of the royal regime in 2005-2006 had warned of Nepal falling into the league of ‘China’s zombie countries’, in the memorable words of one US think-tanker.
While the fall of the Nepali monarchy deprived China of a stable ally, Beijing was pretty quick to fill the vacuum. China’s exertion in Nepal coincided with a global trend that is now being discerned with some trepidation by beneficiaries and detractors alike. According to this postulation, China does not seek alliances in the traditional sense. Instead, Beijing employs a series of coercive economic techniques to effectively gain what it wants from other countries.
There is a twist in Nepal, though. Admittedly, China has exponentially expanded its role and influence under our republican dispensation. But has Beijing really crossed any red lines New Delhi may have set as part of regular Sino-Indian strategic dialogues? In areas such as water resources where the Chinese appear to have done so, aren’t they (and we) paying the price in the form of cancellations/reviews of contracts?
With New Delhi now having ‘leveraged uncertainty’– in the recent words of an Indian analyst – vis-à-vis Beijing, might it not be more useful for us to curb our enthusiasm over the Kerung-Kathmandu railway, at least? As it is, too much uncertainty surrounds the project’s memorandum of understanding. Will the railway be built on Chinese grants, loan or assistance? What and how much will Nepal invest?
Such questions and their broader meaning must be considered not as part of some conspiracy to subvert closer Nepal-China ties but as an effort to build a mutually beneficial relationship that can endure over the long term independent of a third party.
Oli promises to base any decision on utmost judiciousness and deliberation. But haven’t those attributes been in woefully short supply amid Nepal’s momentous undertakings over the past decade and a half?