Given this, the paper argues for the strategic dimensions of the formal memorandum (MOU) between Nepal and China which was signed on May 14, 2017, prior to the “Belt and Road Initiative” Forum in Beijing.
Geographically, Nepal is a landlocked central Himalayan country in South Asia and in modern history it was never colonized but served as a buffer state between Imperial China and Colonial India. After the independence of India from the British ruling and the establishment of the P. R. China in 1949, Nepal ended its isolation and forged amicable ties with both of its giant neighbors, China and India. Though much closer to India in terms of culture, ethnics and even military, Nepal never accepts external domination. Due to this consideration, Nepal established formal relations with China in 1955 and since then, Beijing has provided economic aid to Nepali infrastructure and economic aid. More than symbolically, Nepal has assisted Beijing in terms of curbing anti-China protests from the Tibetan diaspora.
According to the “5•14 MOU”, Nepal and China would work collaboratively with a view to promoting China’s investment in Nepali infrastructure, enhancing the regional stability and facilitating economic growth with all the neighbors. From the perspectives of the Nepali people, the formal MOU serves at least two points. First, it is a signal to India that Nepal is eager to maintain the strong bonds with China in light of the well-known doctrine of the balance of power. Despite India’s obvious concern, Nepal invited Chinese troops in April to hold their first ever joint military drill —Sagarmatha Friendship—2017, a move that has calcified a growing relationship between the Himalayan country and the great power in Asia. Yet, China’s media briefed that the military drill primarily focused on training Nepali soldiers in case of the hostage scenarios involving international terror groups. It is also clear that Nepal aims to send a message that this small land nestled in the Himalaya never want to depend only on India for the security reason. Due to this, Nepal has carefully cultivated its strategic partnership with other great powers, in particular with its northern neighbor China.
Second, Nepal is aware of its reality: as a developing country, it was ranked as the 144th on the Human Development Index (HDI) in 2016. Nepal not only struggles with the transition from a monarchy to a republic, but also needs to fight against its massive poverty. In view of the problems aforesaid, Nepal has made steady progress, with the government vowing its commitment to elevate the nation from least developed country status by the year of 2022 that neatly fits “the alleviation of poverty” program in China by 2020. As Chinese President Xi Jin-ping spoke at the Forum in May, “In the coming three years, China will provide assistance worth RMB 60 billion to developing countries and international organizations participating in the Belt and Road Initiative to launch more projects to improve people's well-being and included are 100 poverty alleviation projects.” With this expectation in their mind, Nepali delegation arrived in Beijing for attending the BRI forum, at which China scaled up financing support for the “BRI” by contributing an additional RMB 100 billion to the Silk Road Fund. Nepal desperately needs to expand its infrastructure in the land, and in particular local people believe that with more than 100 billion investment into the countries involving “the belt and road initiative”, they will have opportunities to develop themselves and finally, be able to harness their vast potential sources —hydropower—for export.
Yet, Nepal is by no means to alienate its traditional relations with India. Due to inter-national and domestic considerations, Nepal stated that “May 14 MOU” regarding China is a “conditional understanding” which requires more specific efforts from both sides. According to Nepal's Foreign Ministry, the cooperation between the two sides should be conducted in terms of the mode of China’s investment and the assurance of free trade under the BRI. Otherwise, it is hard for Nepal to accept the flow of investment from China. To that end, two more MOU were signed in Beijing on the occasion to set up border economic zones and its expansion, and to rebuild Chinese—Nepali transit road network agreements. It will help northern Himalayan areas get an alternative transit route and also facilitate the local economics. Since the BRI brings the investment into the wide areas, it will change the economic map of Nepal through developing local industries and improving the living standards of the low-income groups. Today China comes bearing the purse strings, and the Nepali governments welcome the Chinese with open arms. In 2016, a freight rail line was even completed linking Lanzhou, a heavy industrial city in the West of China through Xigaze in Tibet, down to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. This is truly a part of the grand “BRI” framework.
Since the international reality in which many uncertainties remain ever, the shared interests and mutual mistrust have existed simultaneously. Considering the asymmetry between Nepal and China, it is natural for small states like Nepal to join the BRI with concerns and hesitation. Caution is thereby required to both sides. Like many predecessors in history, huge FDI will facilitate the rapid economic growth that then leads to create new opportunities and challenges as well. As a result, local people wonder what the exact purposes of China’s BRI are. As it is reiterated, the BRI is the core part of the grand strategy of China’s good—neighbor policy initiated by the Beijing elite in 2013 with a view to building a community of shared destiny. This requires Nepal and China to perceive if their ends are compatible. As a rising power and a developing country at once, China does have much to learn in international affairs, and then to think smartly and to act responsibly. For instance, the BRI will follow the current rules of the world businesses, or China entertains the desire of a great power aspiring to make the new regulations to the existing global order.
Here it is necessary to identify the potential issues affecting the relationship between Nepal and China. First, geopolitically India will be the first to feel uncomfortable if not insecure. Although India is unable to contain China economically and diplomatically, it is able to curb the rise of China through its political and social influence in South Asia. Consequently, Nepal, Sri Lanka and even Bangladesh would be involved into the great powers’ game that leads to the regional instability. China does not want to see it happened for it has concentrated all efforts on its great national rejuvenation. As a small country lying between the two giants, it is unwise for Nepal to side with any giant and then loses the flexibility to serve its core interests.
Geo-economically, like any foreign companies, Chinese state-owned companies (SOEs) also work for two priorities: making profits while protecting their national interest. No country can be exempted. In terms of the strategic areas of infrastructure, transport, communications, energy and technology, they are in the hands of the companies run by the Chinese owners or Chinese state. These enterprises have interests in the land and also have the resources to “dictate” the local government. To that end, corruptions and mismanagement of the projects occur accordingly. For example, Nepali people are frustrated by a few large projects which were given to Chinese companies but were not completed effectively or efficiently. In the case of West Seti Hydropower Project, the government of Nepal and CWE Investment Corporation, a subsidiary of China Three Gorges Corporation (CTGC), signed a memorandum of understanding in 2012. But the project was delayed and mismanaged from time to time. The similar cases are also found in the Pokhara International Airport, Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa and Kathmandu’s ring road expansion projects.
Social-psychologically, Chinese business community feels the local security inefficient to protect their safety, therefore they have required employing their own security staff. The high investment in infrastructure protection is reasonable but also results in different opinions and even opposite conclusion of the issues. Furthermore, the western and Indian media often reported Chinese behavior from political and strategic perspectives. For example, more serious disputes are involved with the environmental degradation and the protestation from the local communities. They lashed at China’s model and the manner in dealing with the environmental issues. Given all the issues, Chinese companies have been prudent and responsible in the infra-structure projects related to the BRI in Nepal. At this point, China did indeed learn the hard lessons from their rapid but costly economic development over the past decades.
In closing, the central issue faced by Nepal and China actually help to advance the two sides’ working together more constructively. As Chinese President reiterated at the recent forum, China liked to work with all states no matter whether they are located along the new silk roads or not. Because of this, China does have the significant advantages: a rising power with the second largest GDP in the world and an impressive ancient civilization on the earth. Now China seeks its own glory on the world stage. Whether the Chinese approach will be any more successful than those of the West or India is still uncertain. Yet, the quid pro quo of China’s BRI in Nepal is that the leaders in Beijing need to know rightly how to win the hearts of the people rather than to hold the purse strings.