Nepal-China Relations – Understanding Strategic Partnership

At the heart of the concept lies the fundamental diplomatic exhortations – strategic partners will recognise the legitimacy of the communists-led system, respect the country’s territorial integrity and support the eventual unification of the motherland.

By Ritu Raj Subedi

(KATHMANDU, 20 October 2019) – In the aftermath of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s historic visit (Oct. 12-13) to Nepal, diverse opinions have come to the fore regarding its outcome. Indubitably, President Xi’s sojourn has not only added fresh impetus to Nepal-China relations but has also thrust Nepal into the geostrategic limelight. His passionate speech, delivered during the state banquet, was enthusiastically greeted by the public members. The contents of the 14-point joint statement and 20 agreements have drawn larger attraction and interpretations from multiple sectors. Now both the neighbours have brought into use the term ‘strategic partnership’ to redefine their age-old ties.

The new framework of bilateral relationship is a welcome move but the reference of the China-India Plus that reportedly cropped up in course of delegation level talks goes against the grain of ‘strategic partnership.’

Literally, China-India Plus is about mustering the support of big neighbours for Nepal’s economic development. But, going deeply, it smacks of hegemonic frame, undermining Nepal’s sovereignty and long, glorious history of independence. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has strongly refuted it and, instead, called for trilateral cooperation and partnership between the three neighbours.

However, widespread curiosity has been raised over the notion of ‘strategic partnership’ which the Chinese president declared during his meeting with his Nepali counterpart Bidya Devi Bhandari. It has found the space in the first point of the joint statement: “Both the sides decided to….. elevate Nepal-China Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship to Strategic Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship for Development and Prosperity.” The debate has started as to how Nepal and China enforce their ‘strategic partnership’ for their mutual benefits. Some sections of people have demanded further explanation of the term, questioning whether it is compatible with the country’s long-standing adherence to Non-Alignment Movement. This is the first time Nepal has officially become a strategic partner of a county though it has been in similar relationship with India and the US for decades without using the term.

The Chinese government had started espousing the concept of ‘strategic partnership’ as a new foreign policy instrument after the end of Cold War. Although the term does not connote a military alliance that pits one country against another, it still lacks hard and fast definition in the Chinese diplomatic parlance. Its form and contents vary from country to country based on the scope and nature of its relationship with them. China has so far entered strategic partnership with almost 50 nations, Brazil being the first one in 1993. It announced strategic partnership with Russia, the US and India in 1996, 1997 and 2005, respectively. During his visit to European nations in 2004, former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao had defined the concept while explaining the ‘Sino-EU comprehensive strategic partnership’ which both the sides had forged a year earlier. He defined the word ‘strategic’ as ‘long-term and stable cooperation that transcends the differences in ideology and social system and is not subjected to the impacts of individual events that occur from time to time.’ Likewise, by ‘partnership’, he meant that the cooperation should be equal-footed, mutually beneficial and win-win. “The two sides should base themselves on mutual respect and mutual trust, endeavour to expand converging interests and seek common ground on the major issues while shelving differences on he minor ones.”

When the Soviet Union and its socialist blocs collapsed in 1989, the Chinese communist leadership was shocked by such unexpected geopolitical catastrophe of global scale. China had to interact with and make economic strides in a unipolar world crowded by the capitalist nations. So it unveiled the notion of ‘strategic partnership’ to make sure that its political and economic concerns are well addressed, and that its peaceful rise is not obstructed at any cost. At the heart of the concept lies the fundamental diplomatic exhortations – strategic partners will recognise the legitimacy of the communists-led system, respect the country’s territorial integrity and support the eventual unification of the motherland. 

Now it is the second largest economy poised to overtake the US within a decade. So the concept of ‘strategic partnership’ is more associated with the enhancement of the bilateral economic cooperation than the fulfilment of military goals. Under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has launched massive infrastructure projects across the continents. Thus, ‘the strategic partnership’ aims at guaranteeing the security of Chinese overseas investment, trade and cultural exchanges. It obliges China and its strategic partners not only to share costs and benefits of joint ventures but also the risks associated with the mega projects having broad economic impacts. The Sino-Nepal strategic partnership carries two significant characteristics – everlasting friendship, and development and prosperity. The themes of the partnership are appropriate given that Nepal has been vigorously striving to achieve the overarching goal of Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali brought forth by the Oli government. The strategic friendship facilitates both the neighbours to match the means and goals of their foreign policies.

They require coordinating the policies of the whole gamut of their bilateral subjects, including economy, trade, investment, defence, law, education, culture, water resources, climate change, and border management. The list of instruments and joint statement contain provisions that bolster strategic friendship of two nations. They have stressed building connectivity projects such as road, railway, port, tunnels, communications and hydropower plants under the rubric of the Trans-Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity Network. Nepal joined the BRI in 2017, seeking to bring in Chinese investment, technology and construction skills to fuel its economic growth and create jobs.

Treading fine line
While acting as China’s strategic partner, Nepal should also tread a fine line between the China-led BRI and US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) in addition to assuaging the Indian geopolitical anxiety. IPS is the recalibrated US foreign policy tool aimed at promoting its own neo-liberal values and interests in Asia. It is believed that US is trying to prevent China from spreading its BRI-driven economic clout across the globe. Wary of growing Western footprints on the Himalayan soil, China wants Nepali land must not be abused by its ideological nemesis to instigate ‘colour revolutions’ in its periphery. As an ancient civilisational state, Nepal must assert its role and demonstrate diplomatic dexterity so that it won’t get enmeshed in the tricky geopolitical gambit.

(Deputy Executive Editor of The Rising Nepal, Subedi writes regularly on politics, foreign affairs and other contemporary issues)

This article first appeared in The Rising Nepal.

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