After India, there is China


India-Nepal relations are defined with a lot of cliches, but where do we stand right now?

India-Nepal relations cannot be measured within the parameters of diplomacy and politics. They encompass a shared culture, economics and a common way of life.

As a developing country which is just becoming a functional democracy, what are the aspirations of Nepal?

We aspire to first establish and stabilise the federal democratic republic. Secondly, Nepal is a country of diversity in geography, religion, ethnicity and language. We have to recognise these identities and address the problems of the various groups, to unify all.

Nepal is economically one of the least developed nations and we have economic aspirations. We have resources—hydro, tourism, agriculture—but they need to be developed.

What are your expectations from India?

India is our nearest neighbour and very closely related to us. Our life and future is together, so we have to move forward together for economic development. We have to be better developmental partners. We have hydro resources, India needs power. India has large lands, we have water for irrigation. Our cooperation needs to pick up pace. We need to pick up pace. We need to discuss the technical issues or financial issues that are slowing us down.

How do you define your relationship with China?

After India, there is China.

We have very good diplomatic relations with China. However, the dynamics we have with India are not there with China. We have an open border with India, there is a visa policy with China. Relations between India and China have improved vastly since the 1960s, and that is good for Nepal. If we all work together, our entire region will thrive.

There is a perception that Nepal is leaning closer to China.

When I go to India, I hear that Nepal is getting close to China. What I hear in China is exactly the opposite. In China, they even confuse us sometimes with Indians.

Why did Nepal pull back from the BIMSTEC military exercise?

That was a very small incident, it was not a definer of relations between two close countries. We sent observers, like Thailand did. Our internal preparations to participate in the exercise were not in place. We were not against the exercise, we simply weren’t ready. This is what the prime minister told me.

What are Nepal’s expectations from China?

Nepal is landlocked, it has only two options, India and China. Between China and Nepal, right now there is only one road, the Kathmandu- Lhasa highway, which is in bad shape after the 2015 earthquake. We would like China’s help in connectivity and infrastructure development.

Mr Modi has assured us that the rail link from India will come to Kathmandu very soon. China has also proposed a 78km rail link to Kathmandu. The day we have one train arriving from India and another from China, Nepal will be a connectivity hub. But this will not be easy. I do not see it happening in our generation.

China has offered its ports to us, but the closest Chinese port is 3,000 km away, Kolkata [less than 1,000 km away] remains the best option.

China cancelled some hydro electric projects with Nepal recently.

Yes, the Chinese cancelled the Seti and Budhi-Gandaki projects [the latter has been reissued to another Chinese firm]. They could not complete the works in time, so the companies decided to withdraw. They say the Nepal government did not co operate, Nepal says they failed to complete their task.

Does Nepal feel threatened by India?

Those who are closer to each other expect more from each other. These expectations may sometimes cause confusion. India has played a very vital role in establishing democracy in Nepal.

Your party, Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum, was against the constitution initially. Now you are part of the government. Have the issues been resolved?

Not yet. The constitution and the new constituencies are not adequately representative of the Madhesis, or the indigineous communities like Limbus, Gurungs, Sherpas and Tamangs. We decided to participate in the government on the assurance that these issues will be resolved once the constitution is amended.

The government is enacting laws to implement the constitution. Then, we will begin work on the laws for amending the constitution.

India was accused of interefering in the constitution-making process two years ago.

When there is a problem in the Terai, it affects India, as it is an open border. It is natural that India will show interest then. To suggest something for the betterment is not interference, to my mind.

But Mr Oli thought so.

That was a political move to work upon a vote bank. First, to create an anti-Indian sentiment, then to cash in on that. This happens even in India and Pakistan politics.

But after elections, those who raised these slogans are partnering with India, and even India reciprocated. These are vote bank politics and India knows that.

What is the future you see for Nepal at the end of your term.

In Nepalese politics is unpredictable. So, though we hope to complete the term, you can never tell. I hope that we achieve political stability and begin the starting of economic development.

What is Nepal’s foreign policy focus?

India and China are superpowers, we cannot compare with either. Nepal is sandwiched between these two, and for its safety, as well as development, we have to maintain neutrality. It is true that in practice, the people to people ties are are stronger with India, and we are also more reliant on India, but it is our compulsion to maintain neutrality.

But Nepal’s foreign policy is not restricted to India and China. Nepal has better relations with SAARC members than even India, we have no conflict with any country. We strongly feel that SAARC should be revived as a regional body. See how successful other regional bodies like the Arab League, European Union and African Union have been. But SAARC hasn’t succeeded beyond the ritual of summits largely because India and Pakistan bring their bilateral issues into the organisation, even though SAARC is clear that such matters should be kept out of it. Pakistan suggested that China should become a member, and there was further confusion.

Originally published on The Week on 10 November 2018

Published on Lokantar on 11 November 2018