Dissecting the Mandarin mindset: A shift in China’s approach vis-a-vis Nepal
Vice-minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPCID), Sun Haiyan, visited Nepal in the last week of Jan 2024. During her four-day visit, she engaged in meaningful discussions with the leaders of major political parties, raising various aspects of bilateral relations.
In contrast to previous visits by Chinese delegations, Sun’s visit garnered significant attention from the Nepali government and political parties. It served as a platform to address long-standing issues that had remained unattended. By bringing these matters into open discussion, she actively sought suggestions and recommendations from prominent Nepali parties to chart the future course of Nepal-China relations. Her expressed desire was to elevate the bilateral ties to a new level, fostering mutual trust and respect.
Undoubtedly, Nepal seeks to maintain positive and neighborly relations with both China and India, with all major political parties prioritizing these two nations in their foreign relations. The adherence to the ‘one-China’ policy remains a longstanding and principled position for Nepal, dating back to the 1950s. Furthermore, Nepal is unequivocal in its commitment to preventing the use of its territory against China by any third country or non-state actors.
Against this backdrop, the Nepal-China relationship appears generally normal and warm, with occasional minor irritants arising from misunderstandings and miscalculations. However, Madam Sun’s statements go beyond addressing these issues and are directed at external narratives that she believes some sections of Nepali society are adopting and endorsing. It is evident that Sun’s remarks aim to dismiss misconceptions and reinforce the importance of a robust and positive relationship between Nepal and China, urging a deeper understanding of shared values and mutual benefits that underpin their diplomatic ties.
Certainly, it’s essential to consider the broader geopolitical landscape when analyzing her statement and the concerns voiced by other Chinese leaders during their recent visits to Nepal. A significant factor in this context is the global positioning of China and the US policy of ‘containment’, particularly evident in the Indo-Pacific region encompassing the heartland and rimland.
Let’s delve into Vice-minister Sun’s statement and the concerns she expressed during her visit to Nepal. In her statement, she pointed out that some countries are actively working to destabilize the robust relations between Nepal and China, while also highlighting attempts to tarnish the reputation of the Belt and Road Initiative, often labeled as a ‘debt trap’. The underlying context of her statement revolves around the global power struggle, where China leads one axis, and the US leads another. The ideological differences between a socialist China and a capitalist US have contributed to conflicting relations that have, to a significant extent, divided the world’s nations and populations.
Chinese leaders, as articulated in their statements, have made it clear that they will not tolerate any attempts by the US and its Western bloc allies to set the stage against China. This geopolitical backdrop forms the nucleus of Vice-minister Sun Haiyan’s concerns, highlighting the complexities and tensions arising from the broader global power dynamics between the two major players, China and the US. The fact that Nepal has initiated steps to implement the MCC project, involving a substantial grant from the US, while progress on BRI projects remains in the consultation phase, is a matter of concern from the Chinese perspective. And, it is quite natural.
The delay and apparent reluctance in executing Chinese investments, especially in comparison to the timely implementation of projects backed by the US, may indeed be viewed as a genuine concern by Beijing. The reference to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, labeled as a ‘debt trap’, serves as a cautionary example, emphasizing China’s stance that such narratives are false and designed to undermine its growing global influence. Delay in the completion of Chinese-funded projects in Nepal has been a recurring concern, and Vice-minister Sun, along with Chinese Ambassador Chen Song, also raised this concern. The intention was to identify the reasons behind these delays and work collaboratively to address the issues, ensuring that Chinese aid is not perceived as a burden to Nepal.
Along with these concerns, Sun emphasized three key areas: The status and future of Nepal-China ties, the desired nature of these relations in changing circumstances, and the role Nepali political parties can play in strengthening bilateral ties.
While the general secretary of the CPN-UML, Shankar Pokherel, responded to the concerns raised by Vice Minister Sun, there was a notable absence of responses from leaders of other political parties during the consultation. Despite the silence on these specific issues, all political leaders affirmed their commitment to enhancing relations with China, expressing Nepal’s eagerness to benefit from China's economic growth. They also reiterated their commitment to the ‘one-China’ policy and support for the Belt and Road Initiative.
Ambassador Chen clarified that the BRI involves more than just concessional loans; it also encompasses grant elements. This statement comes in response to Nepal’s long-standing request for Chinese grants, particularly for major projects under the BRI. However, the ambassador also raised a crucial, unanswered question concerning the delays in projects involving Chinese companies. He pointed out that these companies, which successfully complete projects within set deadlines in other countries, face challenges in doing so in Nepal. Ambassador Chen emphasized that both sides should assess the situation and work toward resolving the issues.
The Nepal government should immediately hold consultation with the Chinese side and move toward implementing the projects keeping the grant element in priority as informed by the ambassador. But, the question left unanswered so far must be mutually addressed. That is the question of Chinese investment and its security. In this regard, the question of Ambassador Chen is serious. He queried the Nepali leaders as to why the same Chinese companies, which were completing projects in other countries within set deadlines, have been unable to do so in Nepal. And he quipped, “Is it only due to us? No. You have to assess it.” Now it is our part to find fairness. Nepal should seriously do homework to benefit from the two rising economies of the world, which happen to be our neighbors. Until and unless we receive financial support from China and India, we cannot transform Nepal’s national aspiration of ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepal’ into reality.
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