Hu Shisheng, a Chinese expert on South Asian affairs including Nepal, has come to Nepal from Beijing after a long time. He is the director of the Institute for South Asian Studies under the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), which studies international strategy and security issues for the Chinese government.
Hu, who came to Nepal just before Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the Himalayan country in 2019, arrived in Kathmandu at a time when Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is embarking on an official visit to northern neighbor.
Nepalkhabar's political bureau held a conversation with Hu in Kathmandu about the recent geopolitical competition in Nepal and Prime Minister Dahal's visit to China. Excerpts:
You have arrived in Nepal after a long time - after the visit of President Xi. What is the difference between the geopolitical situation then and now?
Yes. I have arrived in Nepal after a gap of four years. There is definitely something different between the situation then and now. In present-day Nepal, it seems that geopolitical confrontation, which is gaining ground currently, is not constructive.
For instance, the issues related to water resources and hydropower projects can be taken. To some extent, obstacles have been created in some hydropower projects that the Chinese side wants to build and have invested in. Efforts are being made to isolate Chinese involvement in the construction of hydropower projects.
Attempting to displace someone is not cooperation, it is competition. During this visit, I realized that there is a game going on in Nepal to replace the other side - China. From a geopolitical point of view, to address such obstacles is the first challenge.
China wants other countries to cooperate peacefully in the South Asian region including Nepal. They should not adopt the policy of displacing others.
In this way, the situation before the COVID-19 pandemic and the post-pandemic has changed drastically.
In the context of geopolitical competition, you presented an example of a project related to water resources. Are there other examples, too?
Yes. The other one is Pokhara International Airport. International flights are banned at this airport. It has made it difficult to use the airport.
What we need to understand is that Nepal is a landlocked country. How can Nepal gain access to connect with the world if the airport is not allowed to operate flights smoothly?
Such policies are really posing obstacles. I realized this while interacting with the people of Pokhara, Mustang and Kathmandu, intellectuals and others. They all have the same feeling.
How can such geopolitical competition be turned into cooperation? What is China's experience regarding this?
All the projects conducted in Nepal with foreign assistance can be compatible with each other. They can be opened for each other. Even if we operate in parallel, we can collaborate. It can protect Nepal's national independence, strategic autonomy.
You mentioned regional competition, not international competition here! America has a very deep infiltration in Nepal.
As a good friend, China wants Nepal to develop with international cooperation. But now, the kind of competition that is taking place in Nepal in order to displace the other party, it will only harm Nepal. We want to say seriously, instead of cooperation, this kind of help from outside parties will only harm Nepal. Only cooperation conducive to development should come that maintains stability and unity in this region. Otherwise, conflict may erupt which is fatal for a country like Nepal.
As a researcher, I am interested in studying these kinds of dominant power contests.
On the one hand, the MCC project of America is in operation in Nepal, and on the other hand, there is China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Doesn't this show cooperation and balance?
The character of BRI is consultation, collaborative construction, physical sustainability, people-friendly project, environment-friendly project as well. Due to which people can get the ultimate benefit from it. It aims at improving the living standards of the common people. BRI has six guiding principles, so it is inclusive. We hope that MCC and other projects will also be inclusive in nature. (BBIN-Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) initiative should also be inclusive in nature. The BRI promoted by China seeks to advance this type of participatory cooperation.
We want Nepal to be able to enhance its capacity in three areas. One, capacity building in transport – this is the expansion of connectivity in physical terms. The second is to increase Nepal's production capacity. On the one hand it creates employment in Nepal and on the other hand it is also useful for Nepal's own use. The third is to develop Nepal's marketing capacity. With the development of marketing capacity, Nepal can be developed as a 'trade hub' and the world can accept it as a developed market.
In terms of modernity, it will truly make a landlocked country like Nepal a landlinked country.
However, it will be disastrous if the projects come only for geopolitical show to foil BRI.
Many agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoUs) have been signed during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Nepal. However, they have not been implemented. Is their implementation becoming more and more difficult?
After President Xi's visit to Nepal in 2019, we think Nepal-China relations have entered a new era. From that, the development of Nepal has also entered a new stage. The political situation at that time was very important. From the local level to the provincial and central levels, the left-wing parties were in the majority. However, soon after that, serious problems started to arise in the politics of Nepal.
Expanding connectivity is a long-term plan. If political stability is not achieved, problems will arise in the sustainability and continuity of the implementation of related policies. We can implement them easily only if there is political stability.
However, apart from political instability, the COVID-19 pandemic also created problems. Another reason was the tension created in China-India relations in recent times. Because Nepal lies between these two countries. When Sino-Indian relations become bad, Nepal becomes its first victim in view of the implementation of such agreements. That is the reason for the lack of progress in implementing those agreements.
However, the first reason for the non-implementation of projects under BRI is the COVID-19 pandemic. Because entire China was under lockdown due to the coronavirus and the projects under BRI outside the country were also suspended. For example, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) operated under BRI in Pakistan was also suspended during the pandemic. Therefore, not only Nepal's projects were postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic period, but it also affected relations elsewhere.
What I firmly believe now is that the situation is returning to normal. Now BRI and other projects will gain momentum. We will regain what we have lost in the last three years and return to pre-COVID-19 status. All previous agreements, and understandings will now be implemented. I see no reason why we should be concerned that their implementation will not gain momentum.
However, I agree that there has been some change in the geopolitical situation. This change will definitely cause some complications in the implementation of the projects. Nepali people can decide which projects are suitable for Nepal or not. According to that, there can be a second phase agreement between China and Nepal. An understanding can be built accordingly.
Even in terms of BRI?
Yes. China is thinking about this for the second phase of BRI. Like, hydroelectric project. Nepal's southern neighbor is creating difficulties in this regard. In this situation, how can Chinese companies invest in hydropower projects? It is difficult for them to invest. Therefore, we have to think about it in a different way.
But we are clear in our direction, we are clear in our purpose. We proceed accordingly.
Nepal's geopolitics does not favor BRI. There is no consensus among the main political parties of Nepal about BRI. In such a situation, is there a possibility that Beijing itself will replace the BRI through some other plan?
Not so. But some projects need to be developed in a new way. When it comes to the implementation phase, there are many things to consider. We have already reached the consensus stage in 2017 regarding some projects. Whatever we do in the future, we will do it through mutual discussions, as we did in the past.
Nepal's Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ is going on a visit to China, during which there will also be a discussion on how to implement the project related to BRI. Some of the projects that will actually be implemented will be refreshed after discussions, they will also be restructured.
Wait for some time for this. Then more faith and hope will grow in us. It will also create a conducive environment for BRI implementation.
BRI is not going to be implemented here because the Chinese government wants it, but it is going to be implemented because the Nepali people and the Nepali government want it. If BRI is favorable and useful for Nepal then it will be accepted. However, the Chinese government does not want to advance such initiatives in a way that would lead to conflict with others.
Our guiding principle is that there should be cooperation and not conflict between the projects, be it BRI, BBIN or MCC. BRI does not want to displace other projects. If the conditions are not favorable for any development, their cost will increase, the project will become expensive. Unnecessary projects can also become white elephants. Nepali money should not be spent on such projects, neither should Chinese money be spent. Unsuitable and unnecessary projects may also affect mutual trust and China-Nepal relations.
As you said above, does China want to build the Trans Himalayan Transmission Line to maintain Chinese involvement in the construction of Nepal's hydropower projects?
It has already been agreed to build a cross-border transmission line to be connected to the national grid. The construction of this transmission line will provide autonomy to Nepal's electricity business.
So far, no electricity has been exported from Nepal to China's Tibet region. After the construction of the Trans Himalayan Transmission Line, we will also get the opportunity to procure electricity from Nepal. It is likely. Since Nepal and Tibet share a border, the distance is also very short. The cross-border transmission line will play the role of connectivity between the two countries.
Therefore, in my opinion, these types of schemes are possible and necessary. Connectivity creates an environment of autonomy.
What will Prime Minister Prachanda's visit to China be like amid the changed internal politics and geopolitical situation of Nepal?
This tour is about to take place after a gap of a few years. So, I think this visit will be very important. Whether there is any agreement during the visit or not, this visit will be very important in the history of Nepal-China relations. This visit, which will take place after the COVID-19 pandemic, will further enhance the relationship between the two countries.
Yes, now there is a competitive situation between China and America. The relationship between China and India is not good, either. Nepal has a coalition government. This is a new situation and this situation must be taken into account.
I don't think the competition between China and America will end so soon. It is like a 'marathon race'. This kind of geopolitical competition scenario is long lasting. I don't see any possibility that China-India relations will return to pre-2020 status in the near future.
A multi-party system exists in Nepal as well. This is the reality of Nepal.
Prime Minister Prachanda is visiting China amid such circumstances. Therefore, this visit will further enhance the relationship between the two countries.
The views expressed by the Chinese ambassador to Nepal a few days ago on Nepal-India relations were highly criticized in Nepal and in the international community. Why does such an expression come from the Chinese ambassador?
I don't know details about it. I think, there is divergence in Nepali media, too. Hence, it is natural to have such varied opinions.
To put it simply, what can be done to weaken China now has been done.