New aspects in Sino-Nepal ties

AUG 13 2008, The Kathmandu Post

The ambassador of the People's Republic of China to Nepal delivered a presentation to the Nepal Council of World Affairs on August 5, 2008. It included information on the preparations being made for the Beijing Olympics, which were to start a few days later, and the rescue efforts taken after the Sichuan earthquakes earlier this year. The most interesting part of the exercise was a historical account of Sino-Nepal relations and prospects for the future. What is significant is not only what he said, but also what he didn't say.

The Chinese ambassador appreciated the support given by Nepal on the issue of Tibet and Taiwan. In addition to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, he said China would support Nepal in its effort to uphold sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. China also hoped that Nepal would continue its peace process and realize political stability, economic development and national unity. Such emphasis on support for the peace process, non-interference in internal affairs, sovereignty and the national unity of Nepal has special meaning in a time of transition.

What was interesting during the presentation was the emphasis on increasing connectivity between Tibet and the subcontinent, especially Nepal. The construction of a railway from eastern China to Lhasa in Tibet was completed recently, and a railway line will soon connect the Nepal border. The construction of a second road from Kathmandu to the Chinese border at Rasuwa in the northwest has already been started. The ambassador talked about planning from the Ali region of Tibet to the Nepal border in the far west. It could either be north of the Humla area or in the Darchula area. The details are not known at this time.

As the far western hill region of Nepal has remained backward compared to the eastern, central and western regions, the impact of such a road on development of this part of Nepal could be substantial. If a road were to be constructed from Tibet to the Darchula region in the northwestern most part of Nepal adjoining the Indian border, it could also have strategic importance. It may be remembered that the CPN (Maoist) won almost all the seats in the Constituent Assembly from this area in the election in April 2008.

There is an all-weather road from Rawalpindi to Khunjareb on China's Sinkiang border. The road was constructed by China and connects the subcontinent with the Sinkiang region. The road passing through Nathula in Sikkim in India is not an all-weather road. The Stillwell Road connecting Kunming in Yunan province of China with Assam and Myanmar is not in good condition, especially the Indian portion.

The construction of a third road, besides Kodari in the northeast and Rasuwa in the northwest of Kathmandu respectively, will open new opportunities for trade between the two countries. Nepal might become a transit state for trade between India and China as three all-weather roads will connect Tibet with the subcontinent via Nepal. The ambassador's presentation also talked about Nepal's favorable geographical position on a passage linking China and South Asia besides mentioning "continuous growth of China-India economic relations". It is in the context of rapid economic growth in the region that Sino-Nepal ties occupy a special place in the foreign policy of Nepal as China is one of Nepal's two next-door neighbors, especially at this crucial time when the country is going through a transformation.

The Chinese ambassador also reviewed historical relations between the two countries since the fifth century when a Buddhist monk Faxian visited Nepal. Another monk Xuanzang of the Tang dynasty visited Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. The establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1955 and the visit of different leaders from both countries is mentioned.

However, he did not mention the contribution of King Mahendra and King Birendra in this process. Perhaps there is some significance in such an omission. The Chinese had regarded the monarchy as a reliable ally which would be least likely to be influenced by India compared to the political parties in the years before the April uprising of 2006. It is possible that such an omission represents the recognition of the new reality in Nepal.

On the other hand, the emphasis on Nepal's sovereignty and unity is likely to be a warning against any attempts at foreign intervention. However, the times have changed considerably since 1961 when Foreign Minister Chen Yi issued a stern warning against interfering in Nepal. It was during the border war between India and China and immediately after the royal coup deposing Prime Minister BP Koirala by King Mahendra.

The ambassador also talked about the transformation of China into the world's fourth largest economy in 2007 and also its peaceful development in the past three decades which would never pose a threat to any country.  Although Chinese policy might change after the end of the Beijing Olympics, it is unlikely that China will intervene anywhere unless its interests in Tibet were to be affected.

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