Why Nepal should balance geopolitics and take advantage from China

Photo: OP Jindal Global

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 5 min.

Nepal, as an emerging country and neighbor of China, should really wish well to President Xi Jinping. Xi has secured a third term in power. 

There is no doubt that the stability of China and the prosperity of its own people are aligned to and instrumental to the overall wellbeing of Nepal’s.

Yet at the same time, there is a strong difference in terms of political systems in the two countries, with China being a one-party governance system and Nepal being a multi-party democracy.

Despite the former system being often criticized for the lack of its freedoms, if you look at the latter, the way democracy evolved and is currently performing in Nepal, you might sometimes wonder, in deep frustration, what’s wrong with democracy.

Yet Nepali’s people value their freedoms and liberties, no matter the chaos and often inefficiencies of the system in which they thrive.

Perhaps only the context of a fragile democracy like the one experienced here in Nepal can really have people appreciate the overall guarantees offered by Nepal’s constitution.

As Xi became the president for the third term, China’s presence in Nepal will be more and more vigorous.

All in all, it is a good thing for Nepal because the country can reap tremendous benefits from a strong partnership with the northern neighbor. Yet as the relations between the two countries evolve, it will be understandable that nuances and differences will emerge between Kathmandu and Beijing.

It is an open secret that the former has numerous doubts on the implementation of the Road and Belt Initiative and the latter is at least dissatisfied on how Nepal has been forging a stronger bilateral relationship with the United States of America.

Experts point out at the implementation on the part of Kathmandu of the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s USD 500 million grant agreement, but I believe China resents the overall warm relationship between Washington and Kathmandu.

From their perspective and from the perspective of one party system that builds its foreign relations on trust and common vision with its bilateral partners, it might sting that Kathmandu dares to find an equilibrium between rivals. And the picture is even much muddier if we include, as we must, in the equation, New Delhi.

Beijing might think of Kathmandu’s political leadership, especially the one with the Nepal Congress on the top, as cynic and opportunistic. Yet as frustrating and disappointing for China might be, Nepal is doing the right thing in balancing and embracing opportunities from wherever corners they might arise.

At the same time, the top members of the foreign affairs establishment in China are aware that, after all, Kathmandu has been a solid and reliable partner so far.

Recently, Kathmandu voted at the UN Human Rights Council against a proposal promoted by Western Countries that would have forced a debate on the human rights situation in Xinjiang where China is accused of very serious human rights abuses.

Moreover, when the President of Nepal attended an online event on ‘Global Security Initiative and Global Development Initiative’, two new ideas were promoted by Beijing. But the details are still not being formulated, and there was not a big fuss about it.

The national press did not make much noise about it even when the President disregarded a clear opinion on the part of the government that had advised her against attending.

All in all, these occurrences, coupled by a national press and intelligentsia always keen to highlight the positive side of partnering with Beijing, proves that Nepal is and will remain a reliable partner for China.

Moreover, Nepal has been a steadfast advocate of a one china policy and rightly so.

Yet in the long run, if we really want Kathmandu and the citizenry of Nepal to maximize the relationships with Beijing, we also need to make sure that a broader, sounder, more lucid debate about China takes place in the country.

As New Delhi and Washington are often scorned and despised, Nepal will also have to develop a more nuanced and perhaps critical view of Beijing.

It is not about going against the core interest of China. This would be simply silly and impractical, but Nepal needs to find a stronger and more solid stance while dealing with Beijing.

I guess this is also in the best interest of the political leadership in China. Would it be easier and preferable for them to deal with a partner with a steady set of policies, even when these are not exactly aligned with its own interests, rather than having to work with transactional politicians that just want to bargain the most from them and just take advantage from its generosity?

Also people’s perceptions towards the giant northern neighbor should evolve. How come it is possible to read critical views, some of which very harsh, of India and United States of America, but then when we focus on China, experts only tend to underscore the positive aspects of the relationship?

Is it perhaps that there is a taboo, maybe unconscious, about writing a different narrative on China and its policies? Again I am more and more convinced that a more rounded debate on China is in the best interest of both Kathmandu and Beijing.

Realistically speaking, no one was expecting Nepal to vote to support the resolution on Xinjiang that was successfully defeated by Beijing, thanks to an intensive lobbying campaign.

At least and it is important to say this, Nepal did the right thing recently to vote against the recognition of the Ukrainian’ territories that were illegally annexed by Russia.

Yet my point is that, as China is proud of its own political system and confident of its own positions on global stage, Nepal equally should honor and celebrate its own history of fights against autocracy and always sticks to its own set of values that are clearly different from Beijing’s.

This self-realization won’t compromise the relationships but can make them stronger and more frank and genuine. 

As President Xi is in power for next five years, China, already a superpower, will be more active in Nepal. From the perspective of Kathmandu, it can be a really good thing but with some safeguards.

I am talking about the same guardrails that politicians and experts here use while dealing with New Delhi and Washington.

In the last 5 years, Beijing has been incredibly successful in projecting its own narrative and image of power in Nepal and elsewhere.

While Washington, Brussels, London, Canberra, Tokyo and New Delhi will continue to forge a common front to deal with a more and more assertive and self-confident China, the priority of Nepal’s government will be to stand on its own, projecting self-confidence and also the capacity to assert its own rights and interests.

The bilateral relationships between Kathmandu and Beijing have been extremely good and positive for both and Nepal can surely benefit even more from such partnership.

As they say, it has been a good ride so far that could be even become “great”.

Yet the highest forms of partnerships between two governments and even between people to people will only realize when both sides overcome the initial “infatuation” phase and develop solid foundations mostly based on respect but also capacity to hold also different positions, foundations that will stand also during turbulent times.

While Nepal should welcome the rise of an incredible force as its norther neighbor and while more Nepali should take advantage of the opportunities north of the border, it also makes sense to truly appreciate a friendly and important country for what it is, its strengths but also its weaknesses.

That’s how true love stories starts and matures.

Views are personal.