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Nepal’s view on “Belt and Road Initiative”: Together it never fails

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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.          

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East Asia

Taiwan: The First and Oldest ‘Thorn’ between China and the West

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Over three hundred and fifty years ago, when the West lost its first war with China over Taiwan, the technological level between the two sides was fairly even. But the Dutch, then the most dynamic colonial power, paid a heavy price for misbelieving “China might have invented gunpowder but we possess superior guns.” Today, the world is witnessing China’s rapid rise and the US is in decline. The question is, will Taiwan once again bust the Western (aka US) superiority myth?                                                                         

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In 1662, the West fought its first war with China and lost. The Sino-Dutch War, as it is called now, was fought when a Chinese admiral dared the Dutch East India Company to give up its little under half century ‘rule’ over Taiwan. The defeat resulted in the island falling under Chinese rule for the first time in history. It is not so important to know it was China’s first great victory over Europe’s most dynamic colonial power. In the words of the Dutch historian, Tonio Andrade, what is more significant is the first Chinese victory over the West broke the myth of Western superiority as it had been achieved on the basis of “Chinese advantage in strategic and tactical culture.” (Emphasis added) The Chinese victory also broke another myth which the Western historians held on to until as recently as in 1970s, i.e., the Chinese might have invented the gunpowder but didn’t know how to use it as weapon, Andrade, the author  went on to add.

Fast forward to the present-day tensions in the Taiwan Strait. As China embarked on the path of Reform and Opening-up, relations between Beijing and Taipei too started improving in the early 1980s. Seen as a remarkable political development on both sides of the Taiwan Strait in 45 years, the KMT government in Taipei declared in 1991 “an end to the war with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.” However, since the election of Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000, political headwinds in Taiwan have been moving in the opposite direction to Beijing. Alarmed by Chen’s backing of demands for Taiwan’s independence, Beijing was quick to pass anti-secession law a year after Chen was reelected in 2004.

In 2016, following Donald Trump’s victory in US and the victory of Ms. Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s president respectively, Beijing’s fear of Taiwan declaring itself an independent country has reached unprecedented levels. In fact, Beijing is feeling seriously threatened by the US role in creating conditions for Taiwan to declare independence. Immediately upon assuming office, President Trump held telephone conversation with the Taiwan president – something which no other US had done in the preceding forty years. This was the beginning of a new trend in US-China relations and which grossly undermined the “One China” policy.

During the past decade (between 2007 and 2019), the US warships made over one hundred trips through the Taiwan Strait. No wonder Beijing has been describing Taiwan as “the most important sensitive issue in Sino-US relations.” According to New Strait Times, in 2020, the year of Coronavirus pandemic, the cross-strait faced its worst crisis in the past two decades. Without denying that the PLA fighter planes crossed maritime border with Taiwan, China however dismissed Taipei’s claims of “incursions” by the mainland. Beijing even maintained its warplanes, bombers and anti-submarine aircrafts “conducted normal exercises on September 18 and 19 respectively and that the median line never existed.”

However, according to experts, the median line is the unofficial airspace boundary between Taiwan and China, and was demarcated by US Air Force General Benjamin Davis Jr. in 1955, before the US pressured both sides to enter into a tacit agreement not to cross it. Media reports originating from Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore claimed the forty or more PLA incursions last October, were prompted by two US top officials visiting Taipei during August-September period last year. “U.S. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach arrived in Taiwan on Thursday for the second visit by a high-level American official in two months. The first visit was by the US Health Secretary Alex Azar in August 2020.” The visits by Krach and Azar respectively were first highest-level US Cabinet visits to Taiwan – in gross violation of the US commitments to China – since the US switched formal relations from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979.

This year, especially within hours following President entered the White House, the new US administration lost no time in announcing “our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.” Two days earlier, the State Department invited and officially received Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador in Washington to Biden’s inauguration – the first envoy from the island present at a presidential swearing-in since 1979. Both the statement of commitment to Taiwan and the presence of Taiwanese envoy at the presidential inauguration respectively were interpreted by strategic affairs experts in Washington and Beijing as moves to provoke China towards making a strategic mistake leading to military conflict.

Further, Taiwan has returned as “thorniest” issue in US-China relations under President Biden – since perhaps it is easier to violate “One China” policy than to either rally European allies against China or to announce a decisive Washington position toward Beijing. As President Biden gears up to embark on his maiden in-person visit to shake hands or bump elbows with his European allies, the US administration has further escalated tensions over Taiwan. Last Sunday, a bipartisan contingent of three US Senators – Tammy Duckworth and Christopher Coons, both Democrats, and Dan Sullivan, a Republican – briefly visited Taiwan on a US military aircraft.  According to media reports, the Chinese Defense Ministry described the visit as “extremely vile provocation.” Reuters citing Chinese sources said China believes that “Biden administration is challenging one-China principle and trying to achieve the so-called goal of ‘using Taiwan to control’ China.” 

Experts in Beijing point out, Biden is accelerating the pitch of what started under Obama and was intensified by Trump, i.e., to use “the US economic and military might to pressure Beijing and force it to accept US hegemony in the region.” Elsewhere, first the joint statement following Biden-Suga summit in April and then in late May the statement released after the summit meeting between European leaders and Japan’s Prime Minister Suga, are being interpreted as “belligerent stances towards Beijing initiated and encouraged by President Biden.” The EU-Japan post-summit statement called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Similar to several moves initiated by Trump and Biden challenging one-China policy, the EU-Suga joint statement too is the first time that Taiwan has been included in such a statement. 

A scholar in Tianjin, who writes a column for ftchinese.com, the daily online Mandarin version of the Financial Times, thinks Biden has intensified the so-called Thucydides trap. In a recent article, he has actually put forward a solution for Beijing to not only avoid falling into the trap, but also steer clear of having to choose between using force to reunify with Taiwan and being forced into military conflict with the US by striking first. To sum up Li Yongning’s rather long thesis, he prescribes that China fight out Thucydides trap with economic growth and people’s prosperity. To prove his point, Li flashes the example of de-escalation of hostility between China and Japan. Remember until a few years ago, heightened tensions between the two over Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands. Of late, especially since the middle of Xi Jinping’s first five year tenure, belligerent provocations between Beijing and Tokyo have almost ceased.

How did China under Xi achieve this? According to Li, Xi’s strategy to strike peace and tranquility with Japan was simple and practical. “China’s GDP exceeded Japan’s in 2010 and by 2019 it became 2.8 times more than Japan’s, which put an end to Sino-Japan competitiveness. Likewise, once China achieves one and a half times or twice bigger GDP of the USA, the China-US competitiveness will be rendered as joke,” Li contended. In 2017, in PPP terms China had already exceeded the US economy. Li cited a Brookings Institution report which predicted China’s GDP will cross America’s in 2028. “Once China reaches there, higher GDP will act as shock absorber for all Sino-US conflicts,” Li wrote.

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China’s know-how on becoming the oldest society in the world

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china bicycle

For decades, China had a “one-child policy” that permitted families to have only one child. A few years ago, this restriction was changed to a “two-child policy”, and now the Chinese government has allowed the Chinese people to give birth to three children.

The main reason for this is the concerningly low birth rate and the impending demographic crisis. China is still the country with the largest population (1.41 billion), but UN forecasts indicate that India will soon surpass it, since India has a much higher birth rate.

Statistics show that last year approximately 12 million babies were born in China, which is the lowest birth rate China has had in many years. For instance, in 2016 when the “two-child policy” was implemented, the number of newborns reached 18 million.

Chinese demographers argue that it will be difficult for China to boost birth rate in the near future because the number of women in the reproductive age is decreasing. This was caused by China’s “one-child policy” that was in force from 1979 to 2015.

Chinese families could give birth only to one child, and many families chose to “spend” this quota on a boy, since in China boys have traditionally been valued more than girls. If a family were told they were expecting a girl, the mother would often decide to have an abortion.

This caused an unexpected outcome – the number of men exceeded the number of women. Although it was not allowed to find out the sex of the baby during pregnancy, there were several ways to do so which lead to numerous late abortions. That is why currently there is a disproportion between the number of men and women in the Chinese society.

As a result, modern China is overproducing men and is in a grave lack of women. Statistics indicate that there are 35 million more men than women – leaving many men with no chances of finding a spouse.

Moreover, the beliefs and values of the Chinese people have also changed over the years, i.e. many women wish to pursue a career first and only then to establish a family. The recent years have seen a rapid decline in marriages in China.

These trends are particularly prevalent in Chinese cities, leading demographers to predict that the gap between the situation in cities and the situation in the countryside will only widen in the future – people in the countryside still prefer larger families, while city dwellers have a hard time giving birth to a single child.

“Now, we are allowed to have three children. The problem, however, is that I don’t even want one child,” a user of the Chinese social media network Weibo wrote in his account.

Many are asking the question – will the “three-child policy” change anything if the “two-child policy” wasn’t able to do so? That’s why people are happy about the government’s decision to provide other incentives and motivations in this regard.

For example, education costs – which were twice as high in two-children families – will be cut, people will see additional support on tax and housing issues and working women will be granted more rights. In addition, the government also has plans to educate young Chinese people on the issues of marriage and love – now, state propaganda will not only deal with shaming the West, but also teach people how to love correctly and “make children”.

This leads to believe that the Chinese government has taken quite a peculiar approach to identifying mistakes in their previous policies, but it isn’t truly admitting these mistakes – as is the case in all authoritarian regimes. If the previous plan fails, simply improve it a bit and relaunch it anew.

The “one-child policy” has led to one-and-a-half generation where there are six people from the non-working population for each person in the working population, i.e. the person’s parents and two sets of grandparents. This is the Chinese Communist Party’s know-how.

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Global Health & Health Silk Road: The Other Side Of Picture

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The new world order is a twisted maze of political, economic and cultural ambitions. China’s obscure political economy presents an unparalleled challenge to those unfamiliar with the cultural and historical undercurrents driving Beijing’s global movements. Following the onset of the CoVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the global society observed one of the hasty economic convulsion since World War II. Nearly all nation states sealed their borders and placed global supply chain and trade in limbo as the spread of the virus continued unabated. As Beijing’s flagship investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was similarly disrupted. The BRI initiative has formed the cornerstone of President Xi’s approach to strategic diplomacy and challenged the traditional concept of development. Key rhetoric underlying the initiative, such as “the community of common destiny for mankind”.

Nevertheless, there is a “Digital Silk Road”, and “Space Silk Road”, so it should come as no bombshell that China is also building a “Health Silk Road”. China’s HSR first appeared in a speech given by President Xi in 2016. At the first BRI Forum 2017, a Beijing Communique of Belt and Road Health Cooperation and Health Silk Road was signed by China, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS, OECD, GAVI and other participating countries. Since then, China made a significant move towards the consolidation of its role as a major player in global health. Similarly, it is no secret that China is making a boost for global health leadership during CoVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic spread across the world, China sought to provide aid packages and medical assistance to partner states within the BRI under the name of “Health Silk Road”. The ongoing CoVID-19 pandemic is not only going to fundamentally transform the global politics, but also the foreign policy priorities of many countries. Since the outbreak, the CoVID-19 pandemic has exposed the significant weakness of public health infrastructure of developed and developing countries alike.

There is widespread understanding among scientists, heritage and history writers that one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, black death, originated in China and spread along the old silk road to central Asia, northern India and Europe. It exhibited a blueprint that is as old as human history, – when people and goods travel, so do viruses and bacteria. Today, there is some speculation about whether CoVID-19 circulated along the “new silk road”, and it has been criticized that the BRI contributed to the spread of the virus. These kinds of debates are pointless because, even without modern means of transport like trains, cargo-ships, and planes, the plague can reach the most remote places in the world and kill a large portion of the global population. Highly criticized for covering up and not preventing the virus from turning into a global pandemic, China is making an efforts to reinstate its persona as a symbol of support, strength and leadership. Opponents have also alleged that Beijing rationalized itself as a global health champion at a time when Washington had abdicated its responsibilities.

Regardless of misgivings, China has been promoting the institutionalization of health cooperation within HSR framework by organizing and sponsoring a number of health-themed forums. For example, the Silk Road Health Forum, China-Central and Eastern European Countries Health Ministers Forum, China-ASEAN Health Forum, and the China-Arab States Health Forum. Beijing also initiated a series of supportive programs on disease control and prevention in alliance with its neighbors in Central Asia. All these efforts were made as part of China’s broader global health diplomacy and leadership before the CoVID-19 pandemic hit the world. With the spread of  CoVID-19 across the world, the Chinese government extended support to countries from East Asia to Europe. It has given 20 million dollars to the World Health Organization (WHO) for assisting developing countries in coping with the pandemic, build up their epidemic-prevention abilities, and building a stronger public health system. China also handed out concessionary loans and played a coordinating role in multilaterals like G-20, ASEAN, the SCO and the African Union, established itself in a leadership position by promptly responding to the crises and catering to the needs of the countries all over.

In contrast with the advance economics, what China has contributed to the global pandemic combat becomes even more admirable. Statistics show that China has provided considerable amount of medical assistance to the rest of world, including approximately 70.6 billion face masks, 225 million test kits, 115 million pairs of goggles, 340 million protective suits, 96,700 ventilators, and 40.29 million infrared thermometers to 200 countries and regions in 2020. China’s medical professionals have also played a vital role in the global pandemic battle by contributing their knowledge and experience on the frontlines in many virus-impacted countries. China has shared medical best practices with a multitude of international organizations, including the ASEAN, EU, African Union, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Caribbean, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as some of the hardest-hit countries such as South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States, and Germany.

Concisely, with all these notable endeavors and substantial contributions, is it still premature to presume that China has taken over the leadership role in terms of global health? China’s engagement in global health, especially during CoVID-19, has positioned itself as a johnny on the spot in global health leadership. The HSR undoubtedly will allow China to re-establish its national repute on the international stage, in particular by contrasting it with the inelegant responses of the United States and other European nations. China’s global aspirations, efforts to present itself as a global health leader should not be considered as surprise. It is still too early to tell the magnitude to which China’s global health sprint will transform its international profile, but there is no reason to be cynical that it will be revolutionary. As an old Chinese saying goes, it takes a good blacksmith to make good steel.

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