Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Bridge the gap between Nepal and China’s Tibet

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Every Nepali feels proud as the owner of magnificent architectural heritage of Kathmandu Valley, most of which were created by the monarchs of Malla dynasty---from 12th to 18th century.

Very few Nepalis, however, seem to realize that a part of credit associated with this splendid culture should go to Tibet which was Nepal’s first foreign trade destination. In fact, Tibet remained main business partner of Nepal until early 1900s when the British colonizers cut down forests full man-eating wild animals scurrying in Terai plains in order to facilitate cross-border movement of people between Nepal and India. Construction of a narrow-gauge railroad across the border probably had both commercial and war purposes.

Though early contacts between Nepal and Tibet date back to the 7th century, Nepalis were not allowed to live and do business in Tibet until the period of King Lakshmi Narasimha Malla (1620 – 1641).

According to historians, the then prime minister Bhim Malla himself visited Tibet and fetched a lot of gold, silver and precious things.  He was very clever as can be seen from a law he enacted with this provision: if a Nepali merchant in Tibet died there and did not have an heir to inherit his property it would have to be automatically transferred to the account of Nepal government.

Commercial activities with Tibet played a vital role in providing both steady and huge income to support kings of Malla dynasty, some of whom spent substantial amount of money to develop the Valley’s unique culture through construction of innumerable monuments, temples and palaces. A part of the revenue generated through conventional trading activities in Tibetans used to be spent to fortify and defend the kingdom from potential armed attacks from enemies in neighbourhood and beyond the Valley.

Long-drawn and tedious documents have told us that Nepal, with strong polity, thriving economy and advanced culture once stood erect, proud and unafraid as a great and independent nation in south Asia.

Nepal gradually lost its glory after signing the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816 with the East India Company, which, as a turning point of Nepal’s history, both unprecedentedly humiliated the nation and dented its cherished sovereignty.

Unfortunately, Nepal gradually lost its glory after signing the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816 with the East India Company, which, as a turning point of Nepal’s history, both unprecedentedly humiliated the nation and dented its cherished sovereignty.

“Whenever we had extensive relations with the north, Nepal enjoyed prosperity economically and culturally. On the contrary, whenever we had limited exchanges with northern neighbour and more expansive relations with the power in the south, we became highly dependent on them,” said Leela Mani Paudyal, former Nepali ambassador to China.

Nearly 10 years before assuming office in Beijing, Paudyal worked as Nepal’s Consul General in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, from October 2003 to July 2007.

With eight years of experience in China and deep knowledge of trans-Himalayan region on geography, culture and history, senior diplomat Paudyal shared with this writer his clear conclusion—to keep Nepal sovereign, peaceful, economically developed, Nepal must make its relations with China stronger and wider as much as possible.

His remarks are not mere diplomatic clichés or irrelevant utterances. As I observed recently, Nepal’s national needs and interests are slowly being submerged by the national indifference towards China as well as visible ignorance of activities connected with happenings in Tibet.

The year 2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the peaceful liberation of Tibet Autonomous Region. To highlight it, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a three-day tour of Tibet in late July, stressing the importance of “stability, development, ecology and border-area consolidation” for a brighter future of this region.

Image credit: Xinhua

After less than a month, a grand gathering for celebration was held in Lhasa where China's top political advisor Wang Yang said that officials and the general public of all ethnic groups should together fight against separatist activities with a view to preserving China’s national security and stability in the border areas.

These important events, to my dismay, failed to find place in most of Nepal’s mainstream media which might have thought that these were China’s domestic affairs having nothing to do with Nepal.

Nepal’s policymakers are often heard saying that Nepal should make best use of China’s development and prosperity. It's easier said than done. Needless to emphasize, Nepal stands to make gains only if it raises its level of understanding about China as well as happenings in Tibet. This must be the first step towards that direction.

In a recent programme for China Global Television Network (CGTN), Robert Lawrence Kuhn advised foreign media that seeks to scrutinize Chinese elite politics to carefully watch where the leader Xi Jinping goes, see what he does, and hear what he says. In fact, this is what many investors in and out of China are doing in order to foresee what will happen and seek in investment opportunities in China.

Selling surplus energy to China is a challenge

In this respect, Nepal is in deep arrears by being indifferent to important events and trends. Let me give an example of power transmission and transformation project, one of great achievements during the past 70 years in Tibet.

According to official Chinese media, with a total investment of about US$ 1.13 billion, Tibet had completed a mega project in July 2020 and put it into operation after five months, enabling safe and stable electricity supply for nearly 380,000 residents along the transmission lines of 1,689 kilometres. The project can facilitate the main electric grid in Tibet to cover all 74 counties, and 97 percent of the regional population will be the real beneficiaries.

What does this news means to Nepal where load-shedding is a thing of the past and the country wants to export surplus energy?

About 4,000 MW of power projects are scheduled to be connected to the national grid in the next 3-4 years and Nepal needs to sell excess power to the external market, the Kathmandu Post quoted Shailendra Guragain, former president of Independent Power Producers’ Association of Nepal in a report dated August 10.

Since even the remotest villages in Tibet’s Burang Country bordering Nepal can consume the modern power from China’s national grid, will China have to purchase Nepal’s surplus energy?

Among nine projects selected by Nepali government for potential Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funding, one is Galchhi-Rasuwagadhi-Kerung 400kv transmission line, targeting China as a buyer.

In theory, it is quite easier for Tibetans living in long and vast border area to use electricity from nearby Nepal. But time and tide wait for no one. After realizing that the chance to get power supply from the southern neighbour in foreseeable future is bleak, China built the world's highest-altitude power structure by mobilizing its own resources.

In theory, it is quite easier for Tibetans living in long and vast border area to use electricity from nearby Nepal. But time and tide wait for no one. After realizing that the chance to get power supply from the southern neighbour in foreseeable future is bleak, China built the world's highest-altitude power structure by mobilizing its own resources.

Without Nepal as a power-seller, people in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau still can enjoy modern life, though the cost may be a bit higher. But with the support of central government, the price still remains affordable.

Without China as a buyer, the situation differs radically. Nepal has to sell its surplus hydro power to India, thus deepening its dependence on the southern giant which squeezed Nepal quite a few times through blockade in the past half century. Sadly, whether it is energy surplus or deficit, the fragility of national energy security remains vulnerable.

“Free-Tibet” movements imprison the future

If the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t last longer, the main obstacle on the way of strengthening ties between Nepal and Tibet despite geographic and language difficulties would be ‘Free Tibet’ activities inside Nepal.

It’s said that a 46-year-old Tibet refugee was repatriated by Nepal police in Pokhara this early August after failure to illegally cross the border in upper Mustang district. With clear knowledge of the impossible, he tried to make those who paid him happy for an unfavourable situation against China.

Again and again, such kind of conspiracies send a strong message that Nepal is still an unsafe place for China's security and where anti-China forces can gather and wait for the cat to jump. For its national security and stability, China has to fence off the border areas in case troubles persist.  

As a consequence, comprehensive cooperation between Nepal and Tibet is likely to suffer markedly. As mentioned above, Nepal loses more if this happens. Some sinners will smile while 30 million Nepali people may have to cry.

If some ambitious leaders here try to reproduce the good old days of Malla Kings, a famous quote from German poet and playwright Goethe may serve their dream: “The greater part of the mischief in the world arises from the fact that men do not sufficiently understand their own aims. They have undertaken to build a tower, and spend no more labour the foundation than would be necessary to erect a hut.”

Published on 26 August 2021

 

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