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Nepal from the perspective of Beijing

Nepal from the perspective of Beijing


A research recently published by Christopher K Colley for the Stimson Center, an American think tank, nudged me to contemplate doing something I have never done before: Write a piece on foreign policy centered on Nepal from the perspective of Beijing. 

The paper, The Emerging Great Game Chinese, Indian and American Engagement in South Asia, is interesting, though not much in terms of its quite narrow and limited recommendations on how the USA can better counter the existing regional dynamics over the region. 

Instead, it is of great value for its fairly balanced analysis of what China, India and the USA have been doing (or not doing) in order to assert their positions in Kathmandu and Dhaka. 

Colley, an assistant professor of International Security Studies at the United States Air War College, highlights how ably China has been capable of outpowering its two big rivals in Nepal.

At the same time, the author, quite correctly, underscores that it has not been entirely all smooth sailing for Beijing. 

China has been overtly perceived to favor the leftist parties, which recently formed a new coalition, a tactic that can often backfire.

Indeed, the political instability in Kathmandu and the overall volatility of national politics is at least partially induced by the same game that Beijing learned so ably from other foreign powers jockeying for influence in Nepal. 

And it is a sort of chain reaction: As China steps up its game, more push backs and initiatives are put in place by its rivals to offset its increasingly more vocal foreign policy in Nepal. 

But connectivity and infrastructure are the elements that have been so central to Beijing’s approach to both Nepal and Bangladesh (and by extension to the entire world) and that have been distinguishing it from other big players. 

We need to give credit to Beijing that the Belt and Road Initiative is certainly very ambitious, perhaps even too much. 

Symbolically speaking, the BRI has been extremely important because it offered a clear vision of a future based on connectivity and with it comes a very clear and eye-catching narrative. 

No matter the confusion attached to the BRI, what really counts is that the Chinese were able to portray it as a game-changer initiative that is still unmatched by other geopolitical rivals. 

At the same time, though, concrete results and benefits on this front, as Colley explains, are mostly still to be seen on the ground in both nations. 

In this regard, it is still remarkable that Kathmandu and Beijing have not signed the implementation framework of the BRI as yet.  

India has been trying with its Look East Policy but, beyond the fact that it has never been focused on Nepal, the initiative is more like a strategy rather than a concrete, tangible initiative like the BRI.

The EU Global Gateway Initiative not only was designed very lately and it is still in its infancy, it’s still very far from being relevant and certainly did not make a mark in Nepal 

The USA does not have any infrastructure programs in the region. Unless we consider the highly complex and possibly impractical India-Middle East-Europe-Economic Corridor (IMEC) signed last year during the India G20, it is a joint venture with the European Union and seven other countries. 

Considering the unrivaled level of connectivity projects China aims to build in Nepal, Beijing should do a much better job in terms of outreach. 

Students, civil society and think tanks in Nepal should be engaged to better explain not only the BRI but also the more recently launched Global Civilization Initiative that still remains a mystery for many observers. 

This public outreach will probably be met with similar attempts by the USA and India while I am not entirely confident that the EU can be up to playing this game. 

China could also get out of its comfort zone and explain its human rights approach.

It knows, in advance, that the primacy of economic rights, a cornerstone of China’s official policies, can be relatively well received here but with some caveats. 

On the one hand, the Chinese model of top-down governance centered on effectiveness of policies and quick delivery of results can easily find admirers in Nepal, a country plagued by ineffective governance. 

On the other hand, in a nation that fought tooth and tooth for its freedoms in its decades-long quest for democracy, not once but multiple times, the same argument of the primacy of economic rights over political and civil liberties won’t go very far nor persuade the majority. 

Even a much more proactive PR and public engagement with the citizenry of the country won’t be enough. 

Such activities should also be matched by what really matters: A change in substance in China’s overall approach to Nepal and by extension, in the way it traditionally deals with developing nations around the world. 

It is now crystal clear that the Nepali side has been quite skillful at pushing back in terms of terms and conditions that Beijing has been offering for the BRI projects.

A country like Nepal, often portrayed as a weak nation, has been doing a masterful job at asserting its own strategic interest in its relationships with China.

So, if China really wants a breakthrough with Kathmandu, it has to show a much higher level of flexibility on how the BRI can be rolled out. 

It needs to accept the key terms, quite reasonable if you think about it, that Nepal is demanding: Grants and very nominal interest rates on the loans that it needs to take. 

Beijing should be much more effective and persuasive at explaining how it can really be transformative for Nepal to have a direct railways connection with its southern borders.  

Considering the staggering sums involved and the sheer complexity of the undertaking, it is obvious that Kathmandu does not want to incur huge debts.

Could Nepal offer China a new template on how to deal with the world, a much less rigid one and more attuned to the needs of the recipient nations? 

The Dragon Boat race on the occasion of the Chinese New Year was a big boost for the image of China in the country.

Yet it is not nearly enough to dispel some of the concerns that many harbor toward Beijing. 

It would not be surprising if an increasing number of people in Nepal start showing some annoyance toward China using the same heavy-handed approach that New Delhi has been, for so long, accused of. 

For sure, Nepal does not need neither big brothers nor big sisters. 

It needs reliable partners that, while overtly and covertly pursuing their strategic interests, also allow Nepal to play the same game by maximizing its own national priorities.

This means to be okay with the fact that Kathmandu might also and, very respectfully, say “no” to them as they do not align with its core interests . 

Accepting this new reality means that Nepal is growing and moving steadfastly toward becoming a developed nation, a country that is not afraid of exerting its own sovereign interests. 

It will also imply that its core partners have been effective at fulfilling what should be their primary mission in Nepal: Helping the nation to stand more confidently and more ambitiously on its own feet. 

The author writes about politics, human rights and development in Nepal and the Asia-Pacific