In the joint statement signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Nepal, the two countries agreed to elevate their relationship to a ‘strategic partnership of cooperation’. A number of questions have been raised in Nepal about the real meaning of the Chinese strategic partnership approach and how it will affect bilateral ties.
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli said in a newspaper interview that strategic partnership is not a military or a political alliance, and that its purpose is socio-economic development. Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali also remarked that ‘strategic partnership’ is just a new terminology for bilateral diplomacy.
Yet some political actors and scholars have argued that ‘strategic partnership’ can have far-reaching impact on Nepal and its foreign relations. So it is necessary to clarify things and be aware of the various dimensions of Chinese strategy and diplomacy. Since the establishment of formal diplomatic ties in 1955, Nepal-China relations have been characterized by equality, harmonious coexistence, everlasting friendship and overall cooperation.
In line with this historical spirit of mutual respect and equality, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Nepal on October 12-13, during which the heads of the two states agreed to announce that they had elevated the ‘China-Nepal Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation’ to ‘Strategic Partnership of Cooperation’. It was reported that President Xi even said to his Nepali counterpart that Nepal would be transformed from a land-locked to a land-linked country because of the trans-Himalayan connectivity network. This is not only a promise from a large neighbor, but an expression of responsibility from the world’s rising power that aims to create an international community with a shared future.
However, in light of several concerns and even suspicions, it is necessary to review the concept of ‘strategic partnership of cooperation’ in China’s foreign policy. First, neither ‘strategy’ nor ‘partnership’ is a new term; both have been widely used in international affairs for a long time. Robert Gilpin has defined ‘strategic cooperation’ as a shared attempt or response to find more efficient and less costly approaches to realize common interests. China initially used the phrase ‘strategic partnership’ in the 1990s, and has done so more frequently since 2003.
Words and meanings
According to the Chinese official line, there are three major categories of strategic partnership: 1) The ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation’ currently covers Russia, Pakistan and many African states alongside Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; 2) The ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ embraces more than 30 countries across the world; 3) And the ‘strategic partnership of cooperation’ includes South Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Brunei. Nepal’s involvement in the last group was inevitable, for it is not only a South Asian state but also a close neighbor of China. As China aspires to be a modernized country by 2050, the ‘strategic partnership of cooperation’ emphasizes Beijing’s overriding concerns with Nepal’s sustainable and balanced economic growth. President Xi has said that China’s development cannot take place in isolation from the rest of the world.
Now the inquiry is directed at the political dimensions of ‘strategic partnership of cooperation’ in the Chinese discourse. Officially, it has three aspects: stressing cooperation over rivalry; promoting long-term cooperation rather than an expedient one; and building constructive relations. To these ends, both parties are required to work together in multiple fields, be they political, cultural or technological. China seeks dialogue with all partners, which is a key feature of classical diplomacy.
As the goal is a win-win outcome, China and Nepal have agreed to take the BRI as an opportunity to deepen mutually-beneficial cooperation in all fields, including their attempt to advance the construction of a trans-Himalayan connectivity network. As a country nestled in the Himalayas, Nepal indeed needs to expand its infrastructures by integrating itself into the BRI so as to explore and harness its huge potential in hydropower.
Financially, the two countries are committed to a multilateral trading regime and China will take measures to import more Nepali goods and to encourage Chinese banks to provide financial services in Nepal. Politically, the Chinese side has reiterated firm support to Nepal to uphold the country’s independence and respect its governance system. The Nepali side, in turn, has reasserted its long-standing commitment to a ‘one-China policy’, acknowledging that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory and Tibetan affairs are China’s internal ones.
Focus on NEWS
Strategically, China and Nepal need to maintain peace and stability in their border areas. In line with its ‘NEWS strategy’, China urgently needs to consolidate its entente with Russia in the ‘North’ and pacify its ‘East’ coast, while sustaining the BRI projects in the ‘West’ and the maritime silk route in the ‘South’. This is the core of the NEWS strategy initiated by the Chinese elite since President Xi assumed office in 2013. Considering Nepal’s strategic location and political stability, China was sure to promote bilateral ties to the level of ‘strategic partnership of cooperation’. And as a strategic partner, Nepal will get substantial help from its northern neighbor.
For sure, as states are first and foremost committed to their own interests, a close relationship between China and Nepal will never be purely bilateral. There will always be local, regional and international concerns, suspicions and even hostility toward either China or Nepal or both. India is naturally the first to feel uncomfortable. This is why President Xi made a trip to India before visiting Nepal. China has reiterated that it would not use its economic or financial leverage to dictate the internal affairs of its partner countries. In addition, Chinese firms need to move in prudently and observe the local political norms before setting up their businesses.
As Xi has said on several occasions, China is the largest developing country and also one that is learning all the time. Mutual respect and equality are the preconditions for promoting China’s strategy and foster long-term cooperation. Xi’s state visit to Nepal is expected to unlock new strategic opportunities for bilateral relations, as well as promote ties with India and explore the prospects for trilateral cooperation.
Nepal-China economic integration through the BRI is unstoppable, so it is sensible for India to take the opportunity to extend the proposed high-speed railway all the way down to the port in Kolkata in order to more closely tie the three countries in a complex web of economic interdependence. It might be just the right time to enhance trilateral understanding among Nepal and its two giant neighbors.
In brief, Nepal, though a much smaller state than China and India, could play a positive role as a bridge for building more trust-based relationships across this region. Geopolitical factors should never be an obstacle to elevating bilateral ties to ‘strategic partnership of cooperation’ between Nepal and China.
Wang is a Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at Jilin University, China; Neupane is a China expert based in Kathmandu