Missed opportunityWhen Pushpa Kamal Dahal became prime minister in August 2016, he was taking on a big challenge with regard to maintaining ties with China at the level of his predecessor KP Oli.
When Pushpa Kamal Dahal became prime minister in August 2016, he was taking on a big challenge with regard to maintaining ties with China at the level of his predecessor KP Oli. Dahal has recently returned from a trip to China while Oli was there exactly a year ago. Ground realities were different during the two visits. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that comparisons will be made. Oli went to China against a backdrop of the Indian border blockade and returned with a number of historic agreements under his belt. When it looked like the Oli administration was poised to take Nepal-China ties to new heights, Dahal withdrew his support leading to its collapse.
After taking over as the country’s executive head, Dahal announced that he would maintain sound relations with both neighbours, China and India. However, his actions did not match his words. Very little was done to implement the agreements with China that he had inherited from the previous administration. Even though Nepal and China share a 1,000-km-long border, connectivity is still a big problem. This has compelled Nepal to rely heavily on India even to fulfil basic necessities. Dahal’s Beijing visit was a golden opportunity to trash allegations that he was tilting towards the southern neighbour. But the government failed miserably on this front.
No proper results
High-level bilateral meetings between Nepal and China aren’t everyday affairs. For a country like Nepal that is vulnerable to external and internal shocks, a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping is a very special event. The government could have put emphasis on the agreements signed last year and worked to enact them. Some government officials were quoted as saying that there was not much that could be done because Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was away during Dahal’s visit. But if adequate preparations had been done, ministerial level agreements could have been made on numerous fronts.
Dahal left for his six-day jaunt, without even appointing someone to deputise for him—this at a time when the country is gearing up for local elections. His visit would have looked more dignified had he chosen to return from the Boao Forum for Asia held in Hainan, China, instead of extending his tour to Beijing when his counterpart was absentForeign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat too played a crucial role in ensuring Dahal’s engagement in China did not yield proper results. Mahat’s resistance towards China is not hidden; this was glaringly apparent throughout the China visit when he chose to keep the affair low-key.
Our government has a customary answer with regard to enhancing cooperation through the Belt and Road (BOR) Initiative: “We are committed to it and will endorse it at the earliest possible.” Nepal is one of the founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Its establishment is a strategic move by China to support mega infrastructure drives like BOR. Nepali politicians like to deliver long speeches about enhancing connectivity with China. But they do not realise that the BOR Initiative is the first step in this direction. Apart from connectivity and economy, BOR has a political agenda. Any kind of cooperation, be it economic, social or cultural, has direct or indirect political motives.
More politician than statesman
In an era of cooperation and connectivity, Nepal shouldn’t refrain from connecting better with any nation which can serve its interest. BOR is a focal component of Chinese foreign policy. As a small country, Nepal should always work to maintain cordial relations with both India and China. However, refraining from enhancing cooperation with a particular country just because some other country does not like it will not get us anywhere. Another reason why Dahal’s China visit accomplished little is that he is a lame duck prime minister. A new government will be formed after the local elections as per the gentleman’s agreement between the Maoist Centre and the Nepali Congress. In such a context, the northern neighbour did not expect much from the high-level visit.
As far as Dahal was concerned, he made use of the opportunity to rebuild personal rapport with the Chinese establishment. A visit to China right before the elections may be good for his party. If there were no such personal benefits for Dahal, he would have not insisted on embarking on an agendaless visit to Beijing with a condition that he gets an opportunity to meet with Xi. All in all, the recent high level visit seems to have served Dahal’s motives as a politician more than as a statesman. It did little to advance Nepal’s national interest.
Giri, a reporter with the Kathmandu Post’s business desk, is pursuing a Master’s in International Relations from Tribhuvan University