The price of diplomatic folly
Nepal gets access to four distant Chinese ports for trade
Last week, Nepal signed a Transit and Transport Agreement with China which will give the land-locked country access to four Chinese seaports. These are Tianjin (3276 kms from Nepal), Liyanyugang (3379 kms), Shengzen (3064 kms) and Shenjiang (2755 kms). As against these, the Kolkata seaport which had all along served as the port for all imports by Nepal, is just 775 kms away.
The signing of the transit agreement, Nepali newspapers reported, ended China's 'sole dependence' on India by opening up alternative transit facilities. Nepal felt that it had become imperative for her to end this dependence after the two-month long blockade of Nepal during 2015-16. India's formal position was that it was the Madhesis (people of Indian origin inhabiting the Terai or southern part of Nepal contiguous to India) who had put up the blockade to protest against the alleged discrimination made against them in the newly adopted Nepali Constitution.
But the Nepali people knew that the blockade had the full support of those in the throne of power in New Delhi. Without their support, the blockade could not have been so effective and could not have lasted so long. It was New Delhi's way of letting Kathmandu know its displeasure over the way the Madhesis had been treated. The blockade brought Nepal's economy virtually on the brink of a collapse. All essential supplies dried up. Nepal felt, perhaps for the first time, that the time had come for the country to find out alternative routes for their imports. Naturally, they turned to China which was too willing to oblige. The myopic vision and big-brotherly attitude of our rulers drove Nepal more firmly into China's lap. Now that the chickens are coming home to roost, New Delhi has realised its folly.
China is pursuing, what the Sun magazine recently exposed in an article, the policy of economic colonialism. It is giving huge loans to countries of Asia and Africa for their infrastructure development. Then, gradually, the debtor countries find they are unable to repay the principal and the interest. The only alternative then is to sell a large part of the equity of the project to the Chinese company that built it.
This happened in the case of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. Pakistan has run up a debt of $42 billion to China; Sri Lanka $13 billion, the Maldives $1.2 billion, Montenegro $1.1 billion, Djibouti (where the Chinese have built a naval base) $1.4 billion, Kyrgyzstan $1.5 billion and so on and so forth. As to Nepal, the Kathmandu Times reported that the gap between Nepal's import and export of China has increased by 21.4 per cent (Rs. 124.57 billion) in the first ten months of the current fiscal (October 1 to September 30). In 2015, this stood at Rs. 91.18 billion. Now, with the signing of the Sino-Nepal Transit Agreement, Beijing will have a larger footprint in Nepal. India's rulers have only to thank themselves for this turn of events.
China is building a railway line connecting Tibet's capital Lhasa with Kathmandu. Once this is completed, transportation of goods and passengers from China will be much easier. In case of necessity, Chinese troops can also be dispatched on the Sino-Indian border through Nepal. Keeping in view that the Chinese are making new constructions in Doklam, the strategic importance of this railway line is obvious. This June, Nepal and China signed eight agreements for developing major infrastructure projects to deepen bilateral ties.
As far as economic aid is concerned, India is no match for China. The size of Chinese economy is $12.1 trillion against India's $2.8 trillion. It is here that diplomacy has to play a major role in cementing Indo-Nepal relationship. Nepal's present Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli has gone on record that he will follow a policy of keeping good relations with both Nepal's giant neighbours to the north and the south.
During his visit to Beijing in June, Oli gave an interview to the Global Times, the official organ of the Communist Party of China. In course of the interview he made the objectives of his foreign policy clear. He said: "We have made it clear that we pursue an independent foreign policy and a balanced outlook in the conduct of international relations based on the observance of such fundamental principles as equality, justice, mutual respect and benefit as well as non-interference. In foreign policy conduct, our two neighbours naturally receive top priority and with both of them, our relations are broad, comprehensive and multi-faceted."
This is a forthright and unequivocal statement. India has to reciprocate Oli's sentiments and stick to the "fundamental principles of equality, justice and mutual respect and non-interference." With the rise of a hostile and expansionist China, deepening the relationship of mutual trust and friendship with Nepal is of great import. New Delhi has to learn to treat Nepal as an equal and not as a dependent State.
(Views expressed are strictly personal)