Historic opportunity: Himalayan BRI must not be missed
Dr Dinesh Paudel
China and Nepal have recently made two historic decisions that would somehow weaken the Himalayan barriers created by the Cold War in the past and the Asian pivot policy of containing China at present. First, a railway line between Kerung in Tibet and Kathmandu in Nepal through the Himalayas will be built to connect Nepal with the vast network of infrastructure in China and beyond. Second, for the first time in history Nepal and China have signed a comprehensive Transit and Transport Agreement (TTA) that allows Nepal to use several ports and infrastructure in China for international trade and transportation as a legitimate right of a landlocked country.
Avoiding countless geopolitical hurdles, blockades and pressure for a number of years from geopolitical power centers, Nepal officially joined the Belt and Roan Initiative (BRI) of China in May 2017. By joining BRI Nepal has opened a new era in the Himalayas that has the potential to effectively undo the historical injustices imposed on the Himalayan region especially since the beginning of the Cold War.
Since the colonial time the historically stable, self-reliant and culturally vibrant Himalayan region had been reduced to an impermeable and ‘dangerous’ borderline as a way to contain China and minimize the outflow of the idea of communism into South Asia. This unjust project of reducing the once prosperous and vast Himalayan landscape into a ‘buffer zone’ is continued through the schemes of modernization, NGO aid politics, religio-cultural interventions and constantly created geopolitical tensions and rivalries.
The Himalayan BRI infrastructures, most importantly the railway line between Nepal and China, has the potential to erase these historical markers and provide a new beginning in the Himalayas by offering alternative imaginations and discourses of progress, prosperity, solidarity and connectivity to retune to the dignified Himalayan society.
As the popularity of BRI is growing in the Himalayas, the massive opportunity it has created in the region is encountering innumerable challenges. The geopolitical forces historically operating in the region are now active again in countering the Himalayan BRI. There are propositions for either counter infrastructure schemes for connectivity away from China or formation of new geopolitical blocs and networks by including the Himalayan governments to join oppositional forces. The most recent attempts to expand the Indo-Pacific alliance strategy in the Himalayan region to counter the BRI advances is one example of how BRI is encountering oppositional forces in Nepal and the Himalayas.
There is a danger that the Cold War politics of divide and conquer may resurface in Nepal Himalayas. There are already symptoms of active reemergence of such geopolitical tensions. Western donor-led developmentalism through state institutions, NGOs and trade blocs, which was the main geopolitical strategy in the Himalayas during the Cold War, is reemerging in Nepal under the broader framework of the new Himalayan geopolitics.
These geopolitical strategies are now actively mobilizing local cultural diversity, developmental desires of the people and internal political differences to create ruptures and disruptions in the recently developing political stability in Nepal. For these forces, creating these ruptures is necessary to destabilize the region once again and derail the possibility of developing trans-Himalayan connectivity. If these ruptures are not identified in a timely manner and appropriate strategies are not mobilized in an effective way the Nepal Himalayas will be the victim of further instability and conflict and it will become a toe-hold for global geopolitical interest groups.
This will not only be detrimental to the Nepali people’s dream of stability and prosperity but this chaos will also create further dependency and spaces for internal political meddling. If this situation emerges, the historic opportunity generated by the concept of BRI in the Himalayas, which would enhance sovereignty, connectivity and self-reliance, will not be realized for a long time.
However, there is an overwhelming excitement, enthusiasm and support from the people for the BRI. Nepali people are expecting transformative changes from the Himalayan BRI infrastructures and they have been considering BRI as a ‘national liberation project’ with the belief that it would help secure national sovereignty and wellbeing of the people. The governments of Nepal and China must take this sentiment of the people seriously. People firmly believe that BRI will not only enhance trade and international connectivity but most importantly liberate Nepal from being a land-locked, deprived country. This public sentiment and expectation can turn into frustration if it is not addressed properly and in timely manner.
Concrete steps must be taken swiftly to ensure a smooth implementation of BRI in the Himalayas. A clear plan must be developed to accelerate the momentum which is already taking place at the public level in Nepal. Clear steps and plans empower people and help to avert the possible derailment plans orchestrated against BRI at multiple levels in the region.
First, a clear path for collaborations between the governments, think tanks, businesses and people must be identified through advanced research and joint work to fully understand and communicate the massive opportunities and possible challenges of the Himalayan BRI.
Second, a clear BRI infrastructure plan in the Himalayas, with the firm commitment from the both governments and a clear time line, is necessary to avoid unnecessary geopolitical meddling against the Himalayan BRI.
Third, The Himalayan BRI must find a particular and generous financing mechanism to develop infrastructure. The Kerung-Kathmandu railway project is at the heart of the Himalayan BRI, for which China must utilize this historic opportunity to come up with a generous financing mechanism and use it as an opportunity to advance connectivity technologies in the vast Himalayan terrain.
Finally, the Himalayan BRI must not be understood and designed solely based on economic costs and benefits. It must go beyond economic numbers and respect the historical overlaps and current aspirations of the people.
The Himalayan BRI is the historic opportunity in the region and it must not be missed.
The writer’s research focuses on political-economic and environmental changes in Nepal and the Himalayas.
Published on 30 January 2019