The concept of a ‘debt trap’ vis-à-vis the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been gaining traction in Nepal. It is hard to say whether the reports and views that have come out in the popular media reflect genuine worry over the BRI’s possible harms on Nepal, or whether they aim to deliberately portray China in a bad light.
Not that Nepal should brush aside all concerns of a debt trap. In fact, a close examination of this concept based on evidence from abroad is vital. But, at the same time, should we uncritically imbibe the western views on the BRI and a debt trap? Instead, why not examine Nepal’s own history of dealing with western institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, or with bilateral partners like India, China and the US? Who has wronged us the most? Were it the Chinese who prescribed the disastrous wholesale privatization of state institutions back in the early 1990s? Or have they imposed debilitating blockades on the landlocked country?
It is naïve to assume democratic countries also have democratic foreign policies
It is naïve to assume that democratic countries also have democratic foreign policies. The disastrous American interventions in the Middle East for oil, India’s hardball ‘blockade’ diplomacy, the refusal of the Japanese to atone for their sins in China and Korea, the recent history of western colonization—all suggest democratic countries seldom practice abroad what they preach at home. This isn’t surprising. International interactions are guided primarily by what modern nation-states define as their national interests, which may not always align with democratic values.
This is not at all to suggest Nepal will be better off swearing unwavering faith to an undemocratic China. That would be another naivety. Again, to restate a cliché, in international relations there are no permanent friends or foes. China has traditionally appeared good to Nepal because unlike India its interactions with us have been limited. Perhaps we can gain much more by closely cooperating with it, which is also essential for the success of a vital national interest of Nepal: diversification. Our new National Security Policy also rightly prioritizes preventing another blockade “at all cost”—which can only happen with greater connectivity with China. Yes, definitely, let us look to safeguard our national interests in our dealings with the northern neighbor too. But let us also learn to draw our own conclusion.