On January 19, the writer had an opportunity to participate in ‘One Belt, One Road (OBOR)-Nepal Conference 2017’ organized by BP Koirala School of Public Policy where the chief guest was honorable Foreign Minister Dr. Prakash Sharan Mahat. The program had three technical sessions where three prominent Chinese professors- Li Tao, Di Fangyao and Zhang Shubin representing three different universities were scheduled to present their papers on OBOR (also called Belt and Road or B&R initiative).
Citing busy schedule, just after the program started Dr. Mahat grabbed the microphone, spoke some 15 minutes, but sadly not even pronounced a word on Belt & Road. His entire speech spun around on different aspects of Nepal-China friendship and ended up with wishes for success of the program and comfortable stay of Chinese scholars. He then left the hall.
The message was clear to Chinese scholars – either Dr. Mahat appeared in conference with no preparation at all or his incumbent government is in no mood to show strong affirmation on China’s B&R initiative.
Interestingly, Dr. Mahat Foreign Ministry previously had not responded for long a time to Beijing’s letter seeking Nepal’s clear stance on B&R initiative. After mounting pressure from Beijing and bitter criticism within nation, the government in a face saving attempt has recently sent a letter showing interest to join the initiative. But sources say Chinese side after getting letter have informally started to gossip the strength of this commitment, which is no more less than a mere formality.
In spite of this weak commitment and knowing the truth that present government is not China friendly, recently China has pledged to invest totaling $8.3 billion in Nepal Investment Summit-2017 held here in Kathmandu in the first week of March. In the same Summit India pledged to invest $ 317 million which is just 3.82% of what China has committed. This amount of India is even lower than what Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have pledged.
This clearly signals if Nepal wants to have immense investment for nation’s economic transformation, no country could be the best option than China. Now, here arises a big question - despite knowing the fact that who can quench investment thirst, why the present government is so reluctant to join China’s B&R initiative? After all, Nepal has nothing to lose simply by expressing strong commitment.
Certainly, there are some reasons which both Nepali intelligentsia and common Nepalis are fully aware of. China too knows this.
After Prachanda’s vow to work as per the instruction of southern neighbor, overnight KP Oli’s government was toppled and the key of present government was handed over to Prachanda. In return, now Delhi wants chief of this government to amend newly promulgated constitution as per its interest and dilute the increasing Chinese influence in Nepal.
To keep Nepal PM Prachanda on track, during his official visit to India in September last year, putting aside Nepal’s objections, India issued a 25-point joint statement in which point eleven reads ‘both the countries hold similar views on major international issues.’ It means the Prachanda led government has no right to support any international matters which is not in the interest of Delhi.
Delhi started to feel unsecure since the conception of this Belt and Road idea and is continuously attempting to halt China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is one of major B&R initiative project in the region, putting a logic that the project is designed to run via disputed territory of Kashmir or Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). Since, the territory claimed by India is within Pakistan, China has flatly denied to India’s objection.
Unhappy with both China and Pakistan, for a long time Delhi had not made public its stance of B&R initiative. And, now just this last week Thursday External Affairs Ministry Spokesman Gopal Baglay hinted Delhi is unwilling to join this China’s initiative reiterating same old logic but this time a bit louder.
With this clear position, China has started to doubt India’s presence at high-level conference on B&R initiative in May in Beijing aiming to further strengthen the cooperation among the supporting countries and organizations.
To support this Delhi’s move, PM Prachanda too has decided to escape this conference under the pretext of most awaited local election which is scheduled to take place on May 14. Foreign minister or junior officer may lead the small delegation on behalf of Nepal.
Belt and Road is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visionary mega project proposed by him in 2013 with core objective of building a “Community of Common Destiny” by creating a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia, Europe and Africa along ancient trade routes.
Till date China has invested more than $50 billion dollar in countries along Belt and Road and has won support from over 100 countries and international organizations. And, nearly 50 cooperation agreements have been signed to give this initiative momentum.
This pace of B&R initiative has put not only India but USA, UK, European Union (EU) and all major global power on red alert. As USA, UK and EU are standstill with clear no vision on how to continue the global leadership, this project of China is strongly believed to be a major bold step toward Chinese projection of power outside its borders. Showing agreement, Dutch economic historian Professor Richard Griffiths too believes B&R as a one good way to respond to the threat of international protectionism.
Frustrated by calculation of how this initiative will plummet the traditional hegemony of South Asian giant India in region, foreign affairs experts in India seem continuously misguiding PM Modi government by encouraging to give more try on ‘tit-for-tat’ game. As a result, Modi government is now seeing this as an good opportunity to punch back China in face for stopping inclusion of India in Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and using veto power at UN refusing to designate Pak armed group which attacked on India as terrorists. The other reason for moving away from B&R project is CPEC which does have potential to make Pakistan an ‘Asian Economic Tiger’. If it happens so, surely Pakistan will have more space in regional and global politics.
As B&R initiative is characterized by harmony, equality and win-win cooperation, now it is solely up to India whether to join the group of over 100 supporting countries and benefit from billions of dollar investment or let petulance and delusion drive nation’s foreign policies as usual.
Similarly, the high has come for Nepal too to rethink its heavily Delhi inclined foreign policy. As India is third largest and fastest growing economy of the world, it won’t suffer much even if denies to join this Chinese project. Ultimately, it is Nepal who will be the worst sufferer for blindly following India’s footprint and making similar opinion while dealing with China.
Thus, it would be better if incumbent Nepal government put itself in the bigger picture and timely heed the message of African proverb which goes, ‘when two elephants fight, it is the grass which suffer’, and ‘when two elephants make love, it is again the grass which suffer’ and endeavor best to practice balanced bilateral relations with both next door neighboring giants- India and China.
(The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own)
(Mr. Sharma holds M.A in Conflict, Peace & Dev. Studies, T.U and is an Executive Member of NCMCS and General Member of AIDIA)