Authors: Himal Neupane & Wang Li
[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]nternational relations seldom affords small states a worthy mention, as these entities predominantly lack the capabilities to pursue their interests and preoccupied with their survival than are the great powers. However, history also tells that there have been a number of small states which have taken advantage of their milieu to garner security and interests previously considered unattainable given their size or means.
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.
The dynamic of Chinese Premier’s visit to EU headquarters
In the wake of Chinese Premier Li’s attendance at the meeting of the Council of Heads of Government of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Dushanbe, he and his entourage started the third stop of their Eurasian trip in which Premier Li also attended the opening ceremony of the 12th Asia-Europe Meeting summit in Brussels, the Capital of the European Union. In view of the strained relations between China and the United States over the past months, it is clear that China aims to intensify the partnership with the EU.
This year’s summit on the theme of “Europe and Asia: global partners for global challenges”, was attended by the leaders from over 50 Asian and European countries and representatives from international organizations. As Nicolas Chapuis, EU’s envoy to Beijing, remarked that it was a meeting of minds, all looking for ways to better safeguard a rules-based international order, at a time when globalization is under attack. Given that the general context where globalization is in question, China has equally faced new challenges globally. For sure, it is necessary to further work between China and the EU to bring stability, and to bring prosperity to both sides and beyond.
As the EU has aimed to play a civilian power rather than a conventional great power, China and the EU have vowed to address climate change and international developments which are two areas where China and the EU have a great deal of potential to work together and actually have cooperated substantially in addressing climate change, poverty alleviation, access to water, small and medium businesses and surely education for young women. Both the Netherlands and Belgium are the advanced member states of the EU and the original founding states of the European Common Market. In addition, they have argued for high importance on developing their relations with in all areas of agriculture, energy, infrastructure and connectivity which must be carried on under the United Nations framework. It meant that China and the EU have concluded the consensus on upholding multilateralism and common development. It is held that the treaty signed on October 18will help China and the EU further open to one each other and eventually contribute to forging free trade and fair cooperation on investment between the two sides.
EU, as the largest economy of the world, believes that the future of peace, security, stability, and prosperity lies in the multilateral framework. Due to this, it is imperative for the EU and China to continue their persistent efforts in upholding the spirit of the 2015 UN’s Climate Change Conference, and finding creative solutions to the challenges facing the world right now. As what the summit meeting between Li and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker demonstrated that our global village is the place only where we can live, the time of closed borders is the past. The future is open borders.
Besides climate change and international development, what China would like to achieve from its Premier’s visit to the EU is self-evident: China, as a rising power and also the defender of the current trade rules and the global system, has reiterated its sincerity of peaceful rise. By approaching to the EU, China aims to demonstrate its willingness to protect intellectual property rights for products from the EU alongside other countries. Equally, the two sides have reached the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which would further open market access for companies as well as set rules to protect investors from both sides.
For sure, trade is still a pivot in China-EU relations and has to be held through negotiations and cooperation. As the birthplace of modern diplomacy which highlights the core concepts of negotiation, persuasion and mutual compromise if necessary, EU and China would be comfortable to work together through more dialogue and joint actions in addressing challenges and pressing issues facing the world today, such as trade frictions and reform of the World Trade Organization.
Moreover, spurred by the protectionist voices in Washington, the July EU-China summit in Beijing was significant in that both sides were able to agree a lengthy statement, something that they could not achieve in the two previous EU-China summits. To that end, when both sides sought to emphasize areas of cooperation rather than divergence, they also expressed support for the rules-based multilateral trading system and agreed to set up a working group on reform of the WTO. Both sides also agreed an exchange of market access offers that should give an impetus to the ongoing negotiations for a bilateral investment agreement. Moving these talks towards a conclusion would be of critical importance in preserving free trade. China confirmed its commitment to acceding to the WTO Government Procurement Agreement (GPA). In brief, both sides have discussed connectivity — taking stock of progress in the EU-China connectivity platform — and exchanged views on the digital economy, including how to avoid introducing market access barriers through their respective cybersecurity regulations.
In addition to business and investment, China, as both a rising power and a developing country as well, has been early keen in the advanced technology and innovative learning as well. For example, Premier Li frankly said that China is willing to further enhance cooperation with Belgium in innovation and high-technology under the principle of paying full respect to law and commitment from both sides. Therefore, the cooperation in technology and innovation as well as safe use of nuclear energy were among the topics of the meetings of Chinese Premier with his host countries. Remembering that advanced technologies from the EU will have great market potential in China, and China will give strict protections to intellectual property according to the essential rules and a rules-based international order and free trade.
The EU has now come out with its own connectivity strategy for linking Europe and Asia with an emphasis on sustainability and transparency. Some have viewed it as a response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But given the demand for new infrastructure development, there is a clear need to help countries between Europe and Asia improve their economies.
Even though we have different perceptions of some of the world issues, Chinese are optimistic about their relationship with the EU. Not long ago, however, there are complaints that the EU has reneged on a promise to grant China market economy status and its growing protectionism. China considers the proposed screening of Chinese investments in the EU as an unfriendly act. Although the EU and China have signed impressive documents outlining their mutual desire to deepen their strategic partnership, relations have rather stagnated over the above trade disputes. Yet, majority of Chinese young people and intellectual elites have looked to the EU for the originality, innovation and creativity.
Geographically far off from each other, the EU and China can understand each other from their experiences in history. Particularly, China holds fast that since it is a key part of the family of civilized states, Chinese thought or culture, the principles at the basis of Chinese history and life, must be understood through regular communications and dialogues at all the levels. This is the nature of Chinese Premier Li’s visit to the headquarters of the European Union.
Twists and Turns in US -China Trade War
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s stopover at Beijing on 08 October may not have been a pleasant experience, more so in the backdrop of accusation of US Vice President Pence about China attempting to interfere in U.S. elections. The agenda of North Korean denuclearisation, where US and China were broadly agreeing earlier, seems to have taken a back seat, and improvement of relations doesn’t seem to be realistic in near future. The ongoing trade war continues as both sides dig their heels despite being the biggest trading partners of each other, because it is also linked with global dominance, strategic and military posturing, diplomatic and information offensive.
China Braving Threat to its Vulnerabilities
China is putting a brave front despite being badly hit at some of its most vulnerable spots in the tit-for-tat trade war with both sides spiralling the slapping of tariffs on a wide range of each others’ trade items. Taiwan, which is another sensitivity of Beijing is witnessing visit of US officials after Taiwan Travel Act was signed by President Trump, with a promise to arm it further with latest weaponry. US continued military posturing in South China Sea, along with the appearance of UK warship ignoring Chinese repeated warning is another concern. A recent injection of over $110 billion by China into its banks and hardly any financial benefits coming out of BRI partners incapable to repay anything is tightening its financial freedom for global dominance. Some of its BRI partners want to get out of the ‘Debt Trap’ by refusing/reducing Chinese investments is adversely affecting Chinese dream project (BRI), after five years of its announcement like Philippines.
Not a Smooth Sail for US
US on the other hand cannot be celebrating either, with China digging it heals and refusing to give up either in trade war or South China Sea. On North Korean front, the policy of good optics continues with Kim managing to get a lot of goodies from South Korea (presumably at their cost), during the last summit of North and South Korea. Kim in fact has been an outright winner, managing to get another Summit with President Trump, which helps him in convincing his countrymen of his sound leadership, as well as boosting his status internationally. US sanctions on paper continue, but after the chest thumping at Singapore Summit, his friends like China automatically relaxed the sanctions on North Korea, without any worthwhile denuclearisation/reduction in his nuclear/missile arsenal. US realises that knocking out China financially is the key to its global dominance; hence is unlikely to soften up to China. US also faces another challenge of keeping its allies like Japan and South Korea satisfied while negotiating with North Korea and asking ASEAN to make choices of partners, besides continuing with CAATSA hurting some of its strategic partners who could be helpful in balancing China.
It will take some time to see that whoever has greater resilience to withstand the economic stand-off and appetite to take setbacks will have an upper edge, which seems to be US at this point of time. As per IMF assessment, China’s GDP size will be 1.6 per cent lower in 2019 than it otherwise would be, if the US slaps tariffs on all Chinese imports.
How is India affected?
The Indian economy has survived some global slowdowns earlier and should be able to sail through the present one. The bigger problem is the sanction under CAATSA in dealing with Russia for urgently needed military hardware like S-400 and Iran for cheaper crude oil being paid in rupee terms, for which India has adequate refineries. The US option of buying shale oil does not suit India as it does not have adequate refineries and will have to purchase finished product in dollar terms. The port of Chabahar is also crucial for India for connectivity to Afghanistan and CAR. The silver lining is that US being our strategic partner will like to have well equipped Indian Forces to balance China and Indian connectivity to Afghanistan, in case Pakistan does not serve their strategic interest. On both counts I am hopeful that US will find a way out not to hurt its strategic partner.
The talks held in September 2018 between Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In
In less than one year three meetings have been held between the North Korean Leader and the South Korean President, Moon Jae-In.
In the initial meeting the two leaders had decided to put an end to the state of war between their two countries. They had also reaffirmed the goal of denuclearization of the entire peninsula, with the consequent destruction of the nuclear potential of South Korea and of the United States, in particular. They also decided to create an inter-Korean Liason Office between the two sides of the Demilitarized Zone and to bring together the families dispersed between the two Koreas. Finally, the idea was to create new communication infrastructure – railway lines, in particular – a project by which Russia has always set great store.
Indeed, Russia is betting many of its cards on a reunification between the two Koreas, capable of enabling it to keep its excellent relations with South Korea – which are essential for the economy – and to also support North Korea, which is Russia’s unavoidable strategic goal.
Now the two Koreas are dealing on their own, without the US brokerage and intermediation with respect to South Korea, although President Donald J. Trump has recently stated that President Moon Jae-In is his official “delegate” for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
The United States is scarcely interested in the internationalization of the North Korean economy. It only wants denuclearization, while Kim Jong-Un wants denuclearization to develop his country’s economy and maintain its geopolitical and national autonomy.
A serious problem – both in talks and in the final or working documents – is also to define an effective mechanism to check denuclearization.
Indeed, between September 17 and 19, 2018, the signing of the Joint Declaration of Pyongyang has not fully clarified the mechanism of checks on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Kim Jong-Un’s idea is to organise these checks with a series of “experts” appointed by the friendly powers, while the South Korean idea is to accept the maximum possible denuclearization to start the long process of reunification.
The two respective Defence Ministers, however -namely Song Young Moo for South Korea and Rho Kwang Chul for North Korea – have just signed a separate document from the rest of agreements.
In that text confidence-building measures between the parties are put first, with North Korea’s acceptance of dismantling a launch pad and a site for checking jet engines, with the presence of yet unspecified, but friendly international experts. From IAEA? We have some doubts, in this case.
Subsequently North Korea could also dismantle the Nongbyon site, if the United States does the same in South Korea.
It should also be recalled that most North Korean missiles are built to be launched by mobile vehicles, not from fixed bases.
In short, North Korea wants the United States to remove the nuclear umbrella protecting South Korea and Japan while, in the recent talks with North Korea, the United States thinks of a bilateral treaty regarding only the Korean peninsula and, at most, some classes of North Korean missiles.
In the US mind, the planned reduction of North Korean long-range missiles could be even equivalent to a nuclear and conventional decrease of its troops stationed in Guam.
On the basis of a new future agreement, both Koreas (and God only knows how and to what extent the North Korean conventional military potential would be useful for a South Korea unified with North Korea) would also define maritime and land buffer zones, as well as a no-fly zone over the old border, with a view to avoiding clashes or accidental air battles.
This is already partially clear, but much work shall be done to define all the details.
There would also be plans to cover or reduce artillery batteries along the coast.
Obviously, should these talks run aground, the only concrete political result would be the progressive divergence between South Korea and the United States, precisely on the problem of the peninsula’s denuclearization.
Furthermore, over and above the aforementioned sites, North Korea will dismantle the site of Dongchang-ri, in addition to the site of Yongbyon, while Kim Jong-Un is also very interested in the building of fast railway links between South and North Korea.
The two Koreas will get the industrial site of Kaesong back in shape and the old tourist project concerning Mount Kumgang back in track, besides planning new joint economic and tourist areas.
The inter-Korean agreement regards also collaboration for medical and environmental issues, as well as for the protection from epidemics.
In other words, both Koreas think of an economy of compensation between them, which could also develop at a later stage and become a need for the development of both countries.
An economic-political symbiosis that could get the United States out of play and later reinstate Russia, which is increasingly interested in the South Korean economy, as well as finally favour China, which has no intention of leaving the Korean peninsula to the hegemony of North Korea alone.
At the end of the Treaty, there is also the project of a joint participation in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and a joint candidature for the 2032 Olympics.
A few days ago, North Korea also expressed its intention to join the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – a sign that the internationalization of the North Korean economy is now a certainty.
Hence it is a de facto peace treaty between the two Koreas.
If North Korea continues along this line, it is very likely that South Korea will gain a tactical advantage over the sea while, if the relations between South Korea and the United States remain as they currently are, there should be no significant changes in bilateral relations between the USA and South Korea.
However, what is the current state of relations between the United States and North Korea?
In fact, while the inter-Korean relations are all in the framework of effective confidence-building measures, the clear purpose of the fourth round of talks between the two Korean leaders is to preserve a strong US engagement in the whole negotiation process.
Kim Jong-Un wants to engage the United States for his global economic projection and he certainly does not want to remain tied to a regional economy, albeit open and “reformed” according to China’s rules.
For North Korea, the procedure is simple: at first, bilateral talks with the US support for South Korea; later peace between the two Koreas and finally what is only interesting for the USA, namely denuclearization.
It is not even unlikely that the United States does not accept this timing, but it is also unlikely that it realizes the strategic and economic aspects of this timing.
North Korea wants a fundamental agreement with South Korea because: a) it is an unavoidable asset for the modernization of its economy; b) it is the fundamental strategic factor to have the support of both Russia and China, who want to avoid North Korea’s hegemony over the peninsula, but also want to keep it as a rampart for US forces in South Korea; c) it is only through South Korea that North Korea will eventually be in a position to be connected to the Chinese maritime economic and strategic system and reach up to the Mediterranean.
In fact, if the relations between the United States and North Korea improve further, the site of Yongbyon could be dismantled definitively.
Hence currently Kim Jong-Un wants to thoroughly test the US goodwill, rather than South Korea’s goodwill, in developing a long or very long-term peace policy.
In Kim Jong-Un’s mind, there is in fact a key factor: the US behaviour in the phase in which Muammar Gaddafi accepted its proposal to dismantle his nuclear project.
Kim Jong-Un thinks that not even the story of Saddam Hussein is a guarantee for the US long-term reliability and for the stability of its leaders’ word of honour.
This is the real important factor in the strategy of the North Korean Leader.
Moreover, the US immediate reactions to the last meeting between the two Korean leaders have been fast and positive, both by President Trump and by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
And North Korea’s autonomous foreign policy has been seen also recently, with the 70th Anniversary military parade.
North Korea’s military parade and its important national celebration, was attended by Li Zhansu, ranking third in the internal power hierarchy of the Communist Party of China (CPC); by Valentina Matviyenko, President of the Russian Federal Council, the third elected office in the Russian Federation; by a very significant figure, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, President of Mauritania, and finally by Hilal al Hilal, deputy-General Secretary of the Syrian Baath Party.
With peace, North Korea will significantly develop its already multiple economic and political relations with Africa, which will be essential for its new economic development.
At the military parade staged on September 9, there were also authorities from Iran, South Africa and Singapore – which is the never forgotten model of the Chinese “Four Modernizations” -as well as other 60 delegations from “friendly” countries.
At economic level, in August, shortly before the big military parade of the 70th Anniversary, there was the International Fair of Razon, which hosted as many as 114 companies of which 52 North Korean ones.
The North Korean product lines mainly included pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, textiles, electronics and cosmetics.
However, there were many Chinese large companies selling their products in North Korea despite the UN sanctions.
As from September 17, there was also the Autumn Fair which brought together 320 commercial companies from Russia, New Zealand, Australia and China.
This is in fact the new paradigm of North Korea’s foreign policy.
The dollar has also grown in the exchanges with the North Korean currency, both on the official and on the “parallel” markets.
If all goes well at geopolitical level, the North Korean project will be to further improve its light industry, in addition to the diversification and quantity of products, with a view to trying its own autonomous way on the market world, as was the way of the nuclear system.
It should be recalled that this was also Kim Il-Sung’s project.
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