President Bidya Devi Bhandari is retiring today after wrapping up her term. Her seven-year term (first term two years and second one five years) is being reviewed. President Bhandari conducted her first state visit to China from April 24 to May 1, 2019. This visit was followed the same year by Chinese President Xi Jinping who came to Nepal on a two-day official at the invitation of President Bhandari. Mrigendra Bahadur Karki, Executive Director, Center for Nepal and Asian Studies, talked to President Bhandari, at the Office of the President, Kathmandu, on Nepal-China friendship and the issues of Nepal’s international relations. The interview was conducted on February 20, 2021, and a follow-up session took place on March 12, 2021. Excerpts:
Right Honorable President, your visit to China as the head of the state was historic and significant since it was the first one. How do you see it?
I regard it as a demonstration of respect toward Nepal’s republic and Nepali people. The two countries have enjoyed a friendly relationship since ancient times. While geography and nature bring us close, the cultural partnership at the level of our people is robust one. Nepal and China also share Buddhist Civilization and both countries attach great importance to mutual amity and partnership in development. The response and aspirations manifested in the course of the visit made me more confident and hopeful about our relations.
During this visit, Nepal participated in the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation and in the inaugural ceremony of the International Horticulture Exhibition that hosted a Nepal pavilion. Agreements on development and trade were signed where progress is underway. It gives me immense satisfaction to say that the visit was highly successful and productive.
Nepal joined the Belt and Road Initiative through Trans- Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network (THMCN) during your visit to China and Nepal and China signed the Protocol to the Agreement on Trade and Transit Transportation. How can Nepal take advantage of these partnerships?
(Nods) The Network is of historic significance since it will transform our landlocked country into a land-linked one and can materialize our access to sea via the land routes of China. The use of the phrase 'land-linked state' implies optimal use of technology to turn our location into an opportunity.
The mountainous terrain between Nepal and China formerly posed a challenge to our contacts. Not so anymore. Modern science and technology can turn it into an opportunity through the construction of cross-border roads, railways, transmission lines, and information technologies incorporated in the THMCN framework. The first ever meeting of this Network's Consultation Mechanism took place recently when connectivity was discussed in detail. Additional initiatives will ensure its successful implementation.
How do you assess the attitude of the Chinese government and people toward us?
I have always experienced that the Chinese Government and people attach great importance to the ties between us that have outlived the ups and downs of history. They are respected at the level of both the government and the people, much in the way Nepal does. The people- to-people relations, in fact, extend beyond what they usually mean. The difficult terrain between our two countries did not stop forerunners in the past in their quest for knowledge and progress.
History and archaeological evidences in China testify that Buddhabhadra, a monk, related to the Shakyas of Kapilvastu, travelled to China via Kashmir in the 5th century when Faxian arrived in Nepal. Xuanzang is another Chinese scholar whose travelogues tell us about the history and society of ancient Nepal. The Buddhist civilization spread in China after the Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal got wedded to Tibet's Songtsen Gampo, and a Nepali artist Araniko and his team travelled all the way to build the White Stupa in Beijing as well as to set up Wu Ze Tian Pagoda in Shaanxi province, and spread Buddhist art across China. There are instances when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai himself took personal initiatives for the preservation of the White Stupa. These facts speak of the interactions between our two societies through the different phases of history.
In modern times, after the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, our cultural and people-to-people ties have been further strengthened. China has generously supported Nepal to enhance the economy and infrastructure development, and has come to our support during difficult times, such as the 2015 earthquake and recent COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, Nepal has supported China’s membership in the United Nations, adheres to the One-China policy, and has been appreciative of China’s growing role in global affairs from tackling climate change to promoting infrastructure development.
On your invitation, H. E. President of China Xi Jinping was here in Nepal, which happens to be a visit by a Chinese President after 23 years. How do you look at it?
On our invitation, His Excellency President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Nepal on 12-13 October 2019. (Smiling) The visit carried historic importance as it was the first visit by a Chinese President in over two decades, as you have pointed out. Without doubt, this visit has taken our bilateral ties to a new height, and the agreements and understandings reached during the visit are strengthening the foundations of our bilateral cooperation. There are concrete examples to prove the point. Let me start with the Araniko Highway, where the sections damaged by the 2015 earthquake have been restored and upgraded following the visit. Reconstruction and upgradation of the Durbar High School, the historical first secondary school of Nepal, damaged in the same earthquake, has been completed. Similarly, the historic heritage sites of Basantapur Durbar Square and Nuwakot Durbar are being rebuilt. A preliminary study on the feasibility of cross-border railways has been completed while China has provided support for the development of road-tunnel in a section connecting Kathmandu Valley and Kerung to the northwest. In our efforts to develop Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha as the center of world peace, China has extended moral as well as material support.
During the visit of His Excellency President Xi Jinping, we exchanged views on the entire gamut of our friendly ties, mutual interest, and concerns. The state visit was not only historic, it was fruitful as well, and it gives me great satisfaction to say that there is no problem in the bilateral relationship of China and Nepal. Only friendship exists between our two countries.
President Xi said Nepal has now become a land-linked country from a landlocked one indicating Nepal could reap the benefits of the Belt and the Road Initiative (BRI) and the THMCN. But project implementation is said to be facing problems. How do you see this?
It is both our right and aspiration to become a land-linked country. Countries differ in their geography, population, and economic might, but their sovereignty is equal. The right of a landlocked country to have unrestricted access to the sea is unconditional and Nepal has long been at the forefront of this advocacy in several international forums including the United Nations. The commitment of Chinese President over Nepal’s right to access the sea via several land routes in China is a concrete acknowledgment of our stand.
Both the BRI and the THMCN are linked to our pursuit of prosperity. They cover not just roads and railway networks, but also transmission lines, modern communication, and construction of economic corridors in the Himalayan region with emphasis on researching the effects of climate change in the Himalayan region, lifting the livelihood of the people, and developing integrated settlements in the thinly populated mountainous areas. As our strategic partnership grow, we could promote investment in optical fiber, tourism, and possibly petroleum pipelines. Nepal has already identified some large and middle-sized projects under the BRI. Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi Road is being upgraded to operate in all seasons and construction of Kaligandaki Corridor connecting Korala between Nepal and China has been expedited. Certain problems may appear in the course of these development works, but they can be taken care of.
Nepal also needs to carry forward infrastructure development and social justice together. Your take?
(Nods) The pace of physical development tends to be faster than that of social justice. Development ensuring social justice, creating jobs and lifting people out of poverty is our objective under the guidance of our constitution. This certainly requires a long view and persistent effort. In the course of Nepal's political evolution of seventy years, people's happiness and prosperity found expression as the ultimate national aspiration in our present constitution which intends the two to advance together. The fundamental rights of our people enshrined in our constitution are the most effective mediums to ensure to social justice. It is a challenge we have to meet.
How much possible is a strategic partnership between Nepal and China for Nepal’s economic development in the context of the rise of China and India and the changing regional and global orders?
The partnership between our two countries has now been upgraded to a strategic one, on which I spoke about earlier. We need to be clear that this is simply a terminology to articulate the status of bilateral diplomacy. Other countries in our neighborhood have done likewise. Some of our neighboring countries, too, have termed their relations with China as having advanced to the level of strategic partnership. In Nepal’s context, such partnership should be understood in terms of our economic and social development. Goodwill and moral support for Nepal’s prosperity from neighbors as well as other friendly countries are equally important. While generally speaking economic assistance would involve relationship of giver and taker, a strategic partnership implies active, if not equal, participation by both parties. What we are seeing in the rapid rise of both our neighbors will naturally open the door for Nepal’s own economic and social progress. But, we should not forget that our prosperity depends mainly on our own efforts.
Under its “Neighborhood First Policy” India has proposed to expand a robust connectivity network and both of our neighbors seem to have included us in their development visions. However, questions remain over whether we could take advantage of their competing development visions. How should Nepal move ahead in this respect?
Their common vision of an Asian century is possible only through rapid economic progress. Leaving aside when the quake struck, in 2015, Nepal’s annual growth for three successive years was a positive one reaching eight percent of GDP in 2019. But as elsewhere, last year COVID-19 pandemic made economic progress disappointingly slow. With available vaccines and the pandemic likely to be checked by scientific efforts, the economy is expected to rebound. Nepal will continue its pace of development, but support and goodwill from friendly countries will be important.
We are a peace-loving country and maintain that there should be peaceful relations among nations. The main objective of our foreign policy is amity with all and enmity with none, based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence, the UN charter, non-alignment as also resolution of differences among nations through peaceful means. We, therefore, will not join any military alliance and we will maintain neutrality in any competition among countries. We are concerned with our development and prosperity, not with the rivalries that emerge from time to time. And we also have a clear position that the competition among nations, if any, should be peaceful and for the good. We oppose all kinds of wars as well as the contagion of terrorism. In line with our policy of neutrality, we hope to deepen our relationship with friendly countries. Let me add that foreign relations are not to be guided by the hope of immediate benefits, and that amity and goodwill are among the highest values of humanity. When it comes to economic advancement, the main basis of our development is our own hard work. We should build our country ourselves. Support from friends is helpful and anticipated, but our own efforts are far more important.
President, you actively pursued 'vaccine diplomacy' when Nepal was staring at the worst second wave of COVID-19 crisis. China on the other hand has calibrated its vaccine support to many countries around the globe. How far can we be assured that we get timely COVID- 19 vaccines?
Let me take you a bit earlier. Last year, when we were facing the first surge of COVID-19, I and President Xi had a friendly telephone conversation, following which China availed to us emergency medical supplies and later eight hundred thousand doses of covid vaccines in grant. This year, the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the entire world really hard, and we were left no exception. We sadly lost many precious lives. This called upon every one of us for immediate action in all our possible ways. Saving lives of our people had to be our singular foremost priority. It was in this context my contacts to the various world leaders as well with President XI Jinping of the People's Republic of China were coordinated. During the telephone conversation with President Xi, China's announcement of the grant support of additional one million dose Covid vaccine was made. We have received vaccines in grants from our friendly neighbor India, as well as from the USA. Government of Nepal has procured additional four million doses of vaccines from China. Support from other countries are also coming. I express our sincere gratitude and thanks to all our neighbors and friendly countries on behalf of the people and government of Nepal.
The share of foreign investment from China was the biggest even during the pandemic, but same time, our trade deficit with China is rising. Concerns, moreover, are rising over the enhanced Chinese interest in the domestic affairs of Nepal. How do you see all this?
You are right on the first part of your question, that the largest share of the foreign investment this fiscal year has been from China. Nepal has seen growing inflow of Chinese investment, which is actually the continuation of the trend over the past five years. Yet, the foreign investment commitment overall has decreased, which is quite very normal given the global public health crisis. As the economies have shrunk globally, it is natural to have adverse effects of the pandemic on our economy as well. But the situation, I must say, is now improving. The second subject you have raised is the matter of the growing trade deficit with China, which is a matter of concern. For Nepal, agriculture, hydropower, and herbs are the areas of comparative benefits. We should focus on the policy aimed at increasing the production and export in these realms, which is the only way to surmount the trade deficit.
The third aspect of your question relates to the context of Nepal’s internal politics, and I do not believe it reflects the reality. It goes without saying that Nepal is an independent and sovereign country and we are competent enough to resolve our internal issues. Non-interference is a pillar of our foreign policy. We appreciate the goodwill expressed from time to time by our friends, and we address bilateral concerns as and when they are raised.
In conclusion, what are the other possibilities of taking forward the bilateral relations between Nepal and China?
Nepal and China enjoy a relation nearly free of problems, but full of opportunities that are waiting to be translated into reality. Developing Lumbini as the center of world peace, is one such opportunity. The Belt and Road is another. People can reap benefits from them early if they are implemented soon enough. Regular exchange of visits, interactions, academic and applied research on the historic and cultural aspects await initiatives from both. Distance and nature’s barriers are vanquished by technology and human mind. We have to walk extra miles to deepen our relations and we can.
(This interview has been taken from a biannual journal tiltled Strategic Studies Series published by the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies, No. 11, July 2021)