| April 21, 2019

Nepal’s ties with India and China are complementary

Nepal’s ties with India and China are complementary
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is slated to visit India starting February 19th. He had been insisting that he would visit India only when all obstructions on Indo-Nepal border were cleared. Has this condition been fulfilled? If yes, while in India, what will PM Oli discuss with the Indian leadership? Can we expect something substantive to come out of it? Guna Raj Luitel, Biswas Baral and Surendra Poudel caught up with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kamal Thapa, to discuss the prime minister's India visit.
In the last few days we have seen resumption of vehicular movement on the Raxaul-Birgunj border. Does this owe to our diplomatic initiatives or did India decide to ease traffic on its own?

The state of mistrust between Nepal and India had more or less ended around a month and a half ago. But if you are talking about the easing of vehicular traffic on Raxaul-Birgunj border in particular, I would say it is the outcome of political developments in Nepal in the past few days.

If there was an understanding a month and a half ago why didn't our major border points open then?

I would say that from India's side, all border points were opened around one and a half months ago. This had happened after the government of Nepal presented a four-point roadmap to address the concerns of the protesting Madheshi parties. The Indian establishment had reacted favorably to our roadmap and opened border points with Nepal. Only the Raxaul-Birgunj border was not opened because there were protestors in the no-man's land between the two countries.

Unlike the past when they had given sanctuary to Madheshi protestors, even Indian police officials seemed to be chasing protestors away from the no-man's land this Friday and Saturday.

What you have to keep in mind is that public resentment against the blockade had been steadily building before this Friday. What you saw in few days was this well of resentment bursting.

The prime minister had been saying that he wouldn't visit India unless all border points were operational. So can we assume that all obstacles to his visit have been cleared?

As I said, the obstruction in vehicular traffic from India's side was cleared long ago. So I would say that the situation in Nepal is getting more and more conducive for our prime minister's India visit.

What would you attribute for the decrease in misunderstanding between the two countries?

I would say our diplomatic efforts have been successful. I personally visited India twice to clear away the misunderstanding that had been developed after the promulgation of new constitution. There have been extensive political-level engagements between the two countries in recent times. The two foreign ministries have also been very active in trying to mend fences. I would attribute all these factors for the recent thaw in relations.

Prime Minister Oli had some time ago hinted that he would go to China first, rather than to India. What has changed?

The way I see it, it makes no material difference whether our prime minister first visits India or China. We have to stop making this such a big issue. If you are talking about our preparations, we have been preparing for the prime minister's India visit for a long time. So let us say that we are better prepared for the prime minister's India visit. We had also received India's invitation prior to China's invitation.

There has been willingness in both India and Nepal to make our prime minister's visit meaningful. In this connection, our finance minister is now in India, particularly to negotiate terms of India's pledge of US $1 billion in post-quake help.

Can you enlist the agendas of prime minister Oli's India visit?

There will be discussions on a wide range of issues. One of them is economic cooperation. The Indian prime minister has a special interest in reconstruction efforts in Nepal. In this connection, some joint projects have been identified. These will be discussed.

Will the prime minister also discuss the blockade? And will Nepal ask India not to repeat such coercive tactics?

If we want no such obstructions from India in the future, we must also ensure that we tackle our own issues judiciously. We also need to be better prepared, for example through trade diversification, increasing our storage capacity, arranging for alternative means of trade and transit.

Talking about trade diversification, why have the much-discussed agreements with China not materialized?

We are working on it. What we need to do is institutionalize what has already been agreed between Nepal and China.

When will the Tatopani border point with China open?

Very soon. Earlier than many expect.

There was an agreement with China to import a third of Nepal's fuel requirements. What happened to it?

We have to understand that this is a long-term project, it cannot happen overnight. When we talk of importing oil from China, there are issues relating to pricing, logistics and transportation. We have to remember that on all these fronts we are starting from zero. So we will soon have a business-to-business deal to clear these hurdles.

Is it true that there has been pressure from India not to get too cozy with China?

In my two stints as foreign minister, I have never received pressure. I believe that Nepal-India and Nepal-China relations have their own characteristics and dynamics. We have to deal with them separately. I don't believe in the concept of playing a China card or an India card. What we should rather look to do is to make India and China understand that they are independently important to Nepal and each relation has its unique characteristics. We want to make India and China's relations with Nepal complementary rather than antagonistic. Nepal should look to benefit from rapid economic developments of India and China. This should be our priority now.

India and China recently entered into an agreement to enhance bilateral trade through Lipulekh, the tri-junction between India, China and Nepal. Will our prime minister take up this issue during his India visit?

Nepal has already expressed its concerns to both India and China through diplomatic channels. Now Nepal is doing its homework on Lipulekh. Once we are clear about our stand, we will take up Lipulekh through appropriate channels.

Can we expect something new during the prime minister's India visit?

We are hopeful about securing India's help to tide over our energy crisis. We also expect help for infrastructure development. Besides these, we will discuss renewal of the trade treaty between the two countries that expires coming October.

Recently Nepal formed an expert group to review past treaties with India. Was it done with the prime minister's India visit in mind?

The formation of expert group has nothing to do with the recent standoff with India or with our prime minister's India visit. The agreement on expert group was made during the then prime minister Baburam Bhattarai's India visit in 2011.

The new expert group will review past treaties and explore new avenues in bilateral ties. This will be a joint expert group, with four members each from Nepal and India. The groups from two countries will work separately as well as one unit, as and when needed. The group has been given two years to come up with its recommendations.

The prime minister has said that his New Delhi visit will be a milestone. In what way will it be a milestone?

We will do well not to expect too much from a single trip. But our prime minister certainly wishes that his visit will add a new dimension to Nepal-India relations. Since Nepal now has a constitution and with it the prolonged political transition has come to an end, our attention must be focused on economic prosperity of Nepal. At the same time, India has been marching on the path of economic prosperity. In this context, the prime minister wants a new agreement on enhanced economic cooperation between the two sets of political leaders.

Whenever a Nepali prime minister visits India there is a lot of speculation back home about what compromises he will make by going against Nepal's national interests.

I want to assure all Nepalis that this government will not do anything to compromise our national interests. I also request everyone not to see this visit only in terms of how much we stand to gain financially, but also judge on whether it succeeds in adding a new dimension to India-Nepal ties.

But how can we promote our national interests abroad without first outlining our foreign policy priorities?

Nepal's foreign policy has more or less been the same for the past couple of centuries. If you talk about our contemporary foreign policy, it is based on non-alignment, Panchasheel and our commitment to the UN Charter—these are the fundamentals of our foreign policy. Our challenge now is to position Nepal to benefit from the rapid economic developments of our two neighbors by stepping on these fundamentals. The challenge is to establish our unique and strong identity in the comity of nations and pursue development diplomacy.

But we have been unable to effectively pursue economic diplomacy. It's said that one of the reasons is our slow and ineffective bureaucracy.

You can't only blame the bureaucracy. It is rather our political leaders who are to be blamed. The way the whole Nepali society has been politicized, its effect has also been seen in our bureaucracy. So we now need to depoliticize the bureaucracy. Secondly, the conflict and the ensuing transition had completely occupied us. Now this state of affairs has changed with the promulgation of new constitution. I personally am trying to increase the institutional capacity of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We are also trying to clear ambiguities in our policies.

Can we say at this point that we are in the process of normalization of our relations with our two neighbors?

Not just normalization, we are looking to further strengthening of ties with both India and China.

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