Will Xi or won’t Xi?Do we even have a sense of security and logistical requirement for facilitating the visit of the second most powerful leader in the world?
As Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Goa on October 15 for the BRICS Summit, the focus of Nepal’s thinking and political class will be on whether Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal will be able to secure a Nepal visit by Xi.
Dahal’s premiership will be judged¬ as much on his ability to get the supreme leader from the North to visit us, as his ability to implement the constitution by expanding its acceptability. After all, he has been accused of toppling the previous Oli-led government to derail the process of the burgeoning interactions with China and thereby hampering efforts to reduce Nepal’s dependence on India. His predecessor KP Sharma Oli had built a reputation for talking tough with India, while increasing engagement with China—leading to the signing of the trade and transit accord. Even CPN (Maoist Centre) leaders have admitted that Beijing had urged them to allow the continuation of the Oli government at least until November—by when Xi was expected to visit the country.
The change of guard at Singha Durbar on August 5 and subsequent thawing of relations with India did much to cast a shadow over relations with China. Dahal did not help matters by being overzealous in his effort to improve ties with India, rushing to visit New Delhi. In the process, despite his rhetoric of having a balanced foreign policy, he, wittingly or unwittingly, prioritised India over China. Dahal is said to have complained with his aides recently about the lack of concrete suggestion from foreign ministry officials to maintain the engagement with China. This comes in the wake of repeated indications from the Chinese side about the lack of adequate preparation on the Nepali side for Xi’s visit.
Do our officials even understand the implications of the Chinese suggestions? Do we even have a sense of security and logistical requirement for facilitating the visit of the second most powerful leader in the world?
Take Cambodia, for example, where Xi visited this week, where authorities deployed 7,000 military personnel to provide security cover—more than what was given to President Barack Obama. Clearly Xi wouldn’t have needed 7000 forces to protect him, but it was a gesture from Cambodia that it was serious about hosting him.
But, more importantly, the presidential visit would not be just a courtesy call. Nor should it be way to merely signal endorsement of the government of the day. When the Chinese President, the treasurer of the world, comes calling, the agreement and announcements have to be fitting for his stature. Xi announced a US$ 24 billion line of credit in Bangladesh and total agreements for investment was valued at US$ 40 billion. Even Indian media were quick to point out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US$ 2 billion in line of credit for Bangladesh paled in comparison. As some of my colleague joked, by that standard, Xi’s visit to Nepal would have been worth at least US$ 12 billion (Modi had offered US$ 1 billion of line of credit).
Perhaps it is natural to have a bit of hysteria over the prospect of world’s second most powerful leader visiting us. General public and writers like us can be forgiven for being carried away, but it is no excuse for ministers and officials to not do the due diligence and offer credible assurances of our ability to host him. It particularly doesn’t help when the Information Minister and the government’s spokesperson says that implementing agreement reached with China would be environmentally harmful.
If the Chinese side finds our commitment to host their leader lacking, then very well it is. How much of this is down to failing at the political level and how much at the bureaucratic level, it isn’t clear. Two crucial meetings at the level of finance and foreign secretaries of the two countries have been pending for sometime now. This is critical to lay the groundwork for the agenda for Xi’s visit.
Whether Xi visits Nepal or not appears to largely rest on Nepal’s ability to make preparations that would satisfy the Chinese side. Let’s hope that Prime Minister Dahal is able charm Xi on visiting Nepal this year—before he gets bogged down in domestic politics of anointing his successor before the beginning of his second term.