| April 21, 2019

China always told us to have good relations with India

China always told us to have good relations with India
CPN-UML Central Committee member Tanka Karki is a former Nepali ambassador to China (2007-2011). In light of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli's five-day China visit starting March 20th, Karki shared his experience of serving in Beijing with Nepal Republic Media's Biswas Baral and Mani Dahal on Wednesday afternoon.
How hopeful are you regarding the upcoming China visit of the Nepali prime minister? What can we expect?

I believe the China visit of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is taking place under special circumstances, so it's not a normal visit. The institutionalization of the federal democratic republic of Nepal in the new constitution has altered the country's long-term priorities. Our priority has shifted from undertaking a political revolution for the rights of the people to now starting a socio-economic revolution to improve their lives. The prime minister's China visit is a wonderful opportunity for Nepal to appraise the Chinese leadership about this change in our priorities.

Now the focus of Nepali foreign policy should be to benefit from the rapid socio-economic progress of our two giant neighbors. Both India and China were able to decide on a particular political course 60-70 years ago, which in turn made their subsequent socio-economic progress possible. Now Nepal too has settled on a fixed political course, thereby opening the door for our socio-economic development as well.

Today's China is not the China of the 1950s and 60s, when the Chinese economy was nearly half as big as India's. Today, the Chinese economy is five times that of India and the second largest in the world. In this context, we should tell the Chinese leadership that Nepal is determined to extract maximum benefit from the rapid growth of China.

In your five years as the Nepali ambassador in Beijing what in your view was their major interests or concerns vis-à-vis Nepal?

First we have to understand that for a country like China with a settled political course, their foreign policy is guided not by ideologies but by their defined core national interests. The Tibet Autonomous Region, with which Nepal shares a nearly 1,500km-long border, is in many ways the Chinese soft belly: where it is at its weakest. So naturally it does not want Nepali soil to be used in any way to stoke unrest in Tibet. Nepal has also always looked to assure China that it won't allow its territories to be used for anti-China activities. But perhaps the Chinese felt that Nepal, which had until recently been in a state of protracted political transition, was not in a state to guarantee as much. This is why they wanted to buttress our security apparatus so that anti-China activities in Nepal could be checked.

Another thing that we have to understand about modern China is that the Chinese leadership believes that the only way to guarantee the perpetuity of the Chinese growth model is to ensure that other countries in the region also develop alongside China. This, in their view, is also the best way to ensure peace and stability in the neighborhood. Of the 14 countries that border China, Nepal is among the most unstable. This is why it is also in the strategic interest of China to ensure peace, stability and development in Nepal.

There is a perception that given the massive trade relations between India and China, now worth nearly US $100 billion a year, China does not want to needlessly provoke India in Nepal, which India has traditionally seen as falling under its 'sphere of influence'.

The way I see it, Nepal holds great strategic value for China. Also, Nepal-China relation was not established yesterday; we have been dealing with each other since the seventh century. Our bilateral relations have always been amicable. So I don't think that China will desist from helping Nepal just because it fears it will alienate India. In my dealings with Chinese officials, they always told me that they are acutely aware of Nepal's sovereignty, territorial integrity and its independent status and it is on that basis they want to conduct bilateral relations. So I don't think India is a big factor in China's Nepal policy.

I also think that the predominant feature of India-China relations today is that of cooperation, even though they are also competing in different fields. We have seen them cooperate recently in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and on forums like BRICS. So there is no reason they can't cooperate over Nepal as well. Moreover, today we have a multi-polar world where no one power can say that it completely controls a region or a country. If you look at China, given its new power, most countries in the world these days give the country a big place in their foreign policy. This is also the case with Nepal. We should not lose sight of this big picture.

So you believe the broader India-China relations have no implication on Nepal-China relations?

Recently, during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's China visit, he had come up with a joint proposal with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This proposal explored possible avenues of trilateral cooperation between Nepal, India and China. Nepal should wholeheartedly welcome such a proposal. If we can somehow bring together Nepal's vast bounty of natural resources, China's capital and technology and Indian market, it will be a win-win for all three countries. So yes, I don't think India and China are fighting a zero-sum game in Nepal.

During the recent Indian blockade some defense hawks in New Delhi were heard arguing that since the Himalayas between Nepal and China cannot be shifted, it is useless of Nepal to talk of greater trade and transit via Tibet. Is that really the case?

I think that within the Indian establishment there are still forces with the old colonial mindset. These forces still believe in acting like colonial masters when it comes to dealing with smaller countries in the region. But India is not a monolith. Even during the blockade, there was a vigorous opposition to India's recent Nepal policy in the Indian parliament. There are also influential people in New Delhi who strongly believe in treating Nepal on the basis of equality that exists between any two sovereign countries.

But if the Indians have legitimate concerns over their core interests in Nepal, we must also listen to them and try to address their concerns. It will thus be of tremendous help if rather than being pushed or pulled by this or that force, we can define our core national interests and relentlessly pursue them on the international stage. In the end, Nepal has no option but to have amicable relations with both India and China.

But is it true that geological constraints make all-season trade with China impossible?

In four years, the Chinese rail will come right up to the Nepali border at Kerung. It may only be a matter of time before it is connected with major cities in Nepal. Moreover, all the major passes with China are now being upgraded. It's not an easy task, but today's technology makes it feasible. Also, it's not right to say that it will cost Nepal more to import from China as compared to India. Perhaps that might be true in case of some areas near the Tarai plains. But what about the areas in the upper reaches of Nepal? Won't it cost us less to import vital goods into these regions from China instead of India?

During your time in China what did the Chinese tell you about Nepal's relations with India?

They understand Nepal's constraints, surrounded as it is on three sides by India, with which it also shares an open border. So the Chinese always tell Nepali leaders to maintain good ties with India. They have never asked Nepal to improve relations with China at the cost of India. They say we should maintain good relations with both India and China.

It is said that political leaders in Nepal try to be close to China only when they find themselves alienated by India. But no sooner that relations with India start to improve, they quickly ditch the idea of greater engagement with China. Is that the case?

Yes, that is the case, but there is no reason we can't change it. As I said, we should always be mindful that we do nothing to jeopardize the core interests of our two neighbors and we should make a firm commitment on the same. If we make this commitment and follow through on it to the best of our ability, no one will be able to deny us our right as a sovereign and independent country. For even our two big neighbors are answerable to the international community. If we stand firm on our interests without tilting towards either India or China, the international community will also support us.

The prime minister is set to go to China but rumors are already swirling in Kathmandu about his replacement. The next prime minister might not be as keen on better relations with China. How does our internal political dynamic affect Nepal's foreign policy?

I believe domestic politics should not impact a country's foreign policy. For this Nepal's foreign policy should not be based on political ideologies, but on clearly defined national interests. If we can do this, many of our foreign policy-related problems would take care of themselves.

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