Railroads and the China cardTactics such as playing one neighbour off against the other are not a viable strategy
Connectivity is currently the global flavour. The declaration of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Summit held in August duly followed the trend and emphasised connectivity. It emphasised establishing a seamless multi-modal transport system among BIMSTEC members, and recognised the special needs of landlocked countries which, in this case, are Nepal and Bhutan.
On the sidelines of BIMSTEC, Nepal and India signed an agreement to study the feasibility of a rail line linking Raxaul, Bihar with Kathmandu. This carried forward the joint statement issued by the two governments in April 2013 on expanding rail linkages. The pact comes hot on the heels of an agreement with China. On June 22, Nepal and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Cooperation for Railway Connectivity. It paves the way to extend the Chinese railways network that is expected to reach Kerung soon to Kathmandu via Rasuwagadhi.
While both these rail projects have been in discussion for a long time, this reflects the urgency shown by the Nepal government. This also indicates that Prime Minister KP Oli has delivered on some aspects of the landmark agreement he signed in Beijing in 2016. In 2016, the agreement was interpreted by many as being symbolic and PM Oli playing the ‘China card’ in the face of the Indian blockade against Nepal. The development proves that it was a strategic and much needed move.
The signing of railroad agreements with both China and India within a short span of time has reignited the China card debate. There can be no denying that India started to show urgency after an agreement with China looked more likely. Some see it as a successful implementation of the China card whereby India acquiesced to build the railway line to limit the influence of the Chinese railroad. However, analysing whether it is a successful case of playing the China card is the wrong debate.
One, the concept of the China card denies that Nepal has any legitimate interests in China or vice-versa. This implies a passive Nepal that looks to China only when India pushes it against the wall. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nepal has geopolitical, geo-economic and security interests vis-à-vis China. So, most of Nepal’s interaction and agreements with China should be viewed, first and foremost, with a Nepali lens. The appropriate question to ask ourselves is whether our agreements with China help further our security, economy, stability, development and so forth, and not whether India will be pleased.
Two, the engagement with China is not a card. Engaging China and being engaged in China is intrinsically in Nepal’s national interest. The increasing presence and influence of China in Nepal is a fact, but China has consistently urged Nepal to maintain friendly and stable relations with India. China will compete with India on some matters in Nepal, but it cannot be a replacement for India. It would be foolish to think that China will back Nepal against India.
Three, even if China was a card, it requires finesse and careful diplomacy to take advantage of such a scenario. Playing one emerging superpower off against the other requires a certain clarity of national interests, strict adherence to some guiding principles and a steadfast resolve to stand by national interests. Often, Nepal’s foreign policy is guided by individual interests of senior leaders and powerful lobbyists with vested interests. There is an utter lack of discussion, let alone common vision, among political parties in Nepal regarding what constitutes national interest and basic foreign policy. Concepts such as balance or equidistance have been commonly used by various political leaders, but they are misguided policies. Under such a scenario, the China card is a dangerous tool.
Four, playing the China card is neither a healthy nor sustainable policy. It degrades the most important currency in international relations—trust. If one neighbour is anxious about the possibility of Nepal using another neighbour against it, it could lead to greater intervention by India in order to pre-empt and nullify such behaviour. Equally important, the supposed use of the China card in previous instances has not improved Nepal’s position vis-à-vis India in any sustainable way.
Five, such a policy is neither endearing nor effective for China itself. A Nepal that only looks to China when in trouble is trouble for China too. That degrades trust between Nepal and China and ignores China’s geo-strategic significance. China would look like a third country intervener in an issue between two neighbours. That could be toxic to Sino-Indian relations as well, upon which the stability and security of South Asia rests. Let’s not forget, when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. Therefore, we have to treat China based on our national interests, and on its own merit. If we need to sign an agreement on fuel, it should be because we want to diversify our sources and minimise risks, not just for another Indian blockade. If we want to build a rail link, it should be because we want to trade with the second largest economy in the world and open alternative routes, not to poke India in the eye.
Note of caution
A note of caution is important for Nepal in either case. Nepal has to invite these two great powers to be involved in our development through the multilateral framework wherever feasible. The China-Nepal railroad could be part of the Belt and Road Initiative, in which Nepal is a participant. Nepal could lobby for partial funding for the railroad via the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, of which Nepal is a founding member. That gives Nepal some control, though minimal, and oversight over the funding process and conditions. Similarly, the Indo-Nepal railway link could be carried out under the BIMSTEC master plan on connectivity. The BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS) recommended railway connectivity between India and two landlocked members (Nepal and Bhutan). That could help mitigate the limited leverage Nepal has vis-à-vis the neighbouring giants.
It is important for Nepal to shape its agenda and the characterisation of such an agenda by itself, for itself. Confrontational tactics, such as playing one neighbour off against the other, are not a viable strategy. A long-term strategy should focus on taking both the neighbours into confidence when dealing with strategic issues that might inadvertently affect the other. That would not be playing the China card, it would be playing to our national interests.
- Poudel is a lecturer at Tribhuvan University.