Climate cocktailCould China be thinking of dovetailing OBOR with the UN’s SDGs in Nepal?
Navin Singh Khadka
In his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this week, Prime Minister Prachanda perhaps never expected to hear about “climate change and sustainable development”. These “high sounding” issues are rarely touched by leaders in our region, particularly when they are holding bilateral talks.
In this bilateral meet, however, Xi not only mentioned the two areas but also said China was willing to cooperate with Nepal on those issues within the UN and other multilateral agencies. In other words, multilateralism was proposed as a vehicle for bilateralism.
Here are the exact words of Xi made public by China’s ministry of foreign affairs: The Chinese side is willing, together with Nepal, to enhance cooperation within the UN and other multilateral agencies to coordinate the stance on issues relating climate change and sustainable development, so as to safeguard common interests.
All eyes on China
On the face of it, it is no big deal. Both signatories of the Paris climate agreement that was secured through the UN-coordinated negotiations, China and Nepal can always cooperate on climatic issues under the global body. The same can be said about “sustainable development”. After its Millennium Development Goals agenda came to an end in 2015, the UN has now embarked on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and it is quite normal for its member countries to “cooperate” on it.
But is that really it? Some context would be helpful. With US President Donald Trump having started undoing his predecessor Barack Obama’s climate policy, all eyes are now on China, the biggest carbon emitter, as it has been billed as the potential global leader in the fight against climatic changes. Top Chinese negotiators did try to reassure the UN climate meet in Morocco last November that they would not backtrack from climate actions even if Trump did.
Working together with poor and vulnerable countries like Nepal within the UN or other multilateral agencies, as Xi suggested, would indeed help Beijing show that it is playing a “positive” role. Particularly when the US’s moves are being seen as detrimental to the Paris deal that aims at limiting global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Earlier this week, Trump directed the Environmental Protection Agency to start the process of withdrawing and rewriting the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that aimed at closing hundreds of coal-fired power plants, freeze construction of new plants and replace them with vast numbers of new wind and solar farms.
“With his order to move forward with the rollback, climate diplomats around the world manoeuvred to fill the vacuum left by the exit of the globe’s second-biggest climate polluter,” the New York Times said.
“There are countless countries ready to step up and deliver on their climate promises and take advantages of Mr. Trump’s short-termism to reap the benefits of the transition to the low-carbon economy,” the newspaper quoted Laurence Tubiana, the chief French negotiator of the Paris agreement.
China has reassured that it would be in the forefront of such countries. Whether it actually does what it has said or retracts its carbon-cut commitments following in the US’s footsteps remains to be seen.
Paris climate agreement
But for now, China is closely watching developments in the climate world and shaping its policies and strategies accordingly. Here is one example: the UN has been consistently trying to tie up the Paris climate agreement with the SDGs. It managed to get the latter in the declaration after the Morocco meet that was focused on putting some teeth into the Paris deal signed a year earlier. And now we see China talking about climate change and sustainable development together. As can be noticed in his quote above, the Chinese president did that even during the meeting with Prime Minister Prachanda this week. But there is something more to it: Six months before that, Beijing was able to link its now much-talked about “One Belt One Road” initiative with the UN’s SDGs.
A deal signed with an agency of the world body worked towards that end. “The MoU, signed by Ms. Helen Clark, Administrator of UNDP, and Mr. Xu Shaoshi, Chairman of the China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), is a strategic cooperation framework that aims to enhance collaboration between UNDP and the Chinese government for the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” the UNDP said in a statement.
Could that collaboration mean that China might try to bring its OBOR in Nepal through the UNDP’s SDG or the UN’s climate programmes? It’s an unanswered question. Moreover, Nepal is yet to sign up to the Chinese initiative despite the increasing “push” by the northern neighbour.
“There is no plan to sign an MoU this time” the BBC Nepali Service quoted Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat as saying during Prachanda’s visit to China. “Preparations for it are complete and both sides are well aware of it. We’ll sign it as soon as possible.”
Nepal’s geopolitical complexities
But the Chinese president, just before mentioning the cooperation within the UN and other multilateral agencies during the talk with Prime Minister Prachanda, spoke about OBOR.
“Both countries should firmly boost mutually beneficial cooperation, and take the joint construction of the “Belt and Road” as an opportunity to steadily promote cooperation in various fields including connectivity, free trade arrangement, agriculture, production capacity, energy and post-disaster reconstruction, expand two-way investment and trade, and push bilateral trade for balanced and sustainable development,” he said. Note the use of the term sustainable development even here.
Even if Beijing sees a scope of collaboration between its OBOR and the UN’s SDG in Nepal, another crucial question is whether the world body would be interested, given that New Delhi is already “jittery” about the Chinese Belt and Road initiative.
During a conference on OBOR in Kathmandu last month, Mahat had said that China needed to understand Nepal’s geopolitical complexities. The UN must have copied that message then. But Beijing does not seem to have given up—whether it really plans on using the UN vehicles or not.
Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London