Dr. Hu Shisheng is the director of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). Dr Hu received his BA in Hindi and MA in Sanskrit from Peking University and PhD in International Politics & Relations from CICIR in 2006. Also a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in 2004, his researches include the political and security situations in India and Pakistan, ethnic and religious problems in South Asia, and the Tibetan issue. Dr Hu recently talked to Ritu Raj Subedi of The Rising Nepal, on diverse subjects, including Nepal-China relations, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), among others. Excerpts.
How do you evaluate Sino-Nepal relations?
Nepal has entered a new era. You find the relations now generally okay. But when there are dramatic changes of regimes in Kathmandu, Sino-Nepal relations, particularly the China-funded development works are more or less disturbed. If the government changes too fast, the long-term joint projects do not move ahead. Take Kerung-Rasuwagadhi highway for example, the second highway between Nepal and China. The two countries signed the MoU to construct it in 2011 but it began in 2015. The Chinese government hesitates to invest in new long–term projects when the government does not survive for long.
Now Nepal has a two-thirds majority government of the left party that shares similar ideology with the Chinese Communist Party. So it should be a new era for China-Nepal cooperation. Now that Nepal government has formulated major laws and regulations, focus should be given on the construction of projects. Otherwise, the ordinary people will lose hope. They have high expectations. If this government can do nothing, no government can. There is also a big pressure or obligation not only for Kathmandu’s leftist party but also for the Chinese government to make a big change. So do not let ordinary people down. We must have a concrete action plan. My personal view is that implementing capacity is very important. Likewise, transparency in all our bilateral cooperation is very important. There should be coordination between the key departments. We are in such an advantageous position to do something.
It has been more than 22 years since a high level visit to Nepal from China happened. Despite being a close neighbour, it seems China is not giving priority to Nepal when it comes to the highest level visit here. How do you see the possibility of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal in the near future?
Personally speaking, it seems illogical for having no high level visit from China since Nepal is one of its very significant neighbours. We should have high level regular contacts for Nepal is important not only for frontier stability and development but also for the future development of BRI. We have also seen so many high level visits from Nepal to China in the past several years. I think it is time for the Chinese leaders to visit Nepal to give further boost to Sino-Nepal relations and even for boosting party-to-party cooperation. The most important thing is that such a visit will boost the future cooperation addressing the higher expectations.
But any kind of visit may be disturbed by some unexpected incidents. Some three years back there were arrangements for Xi’s visit to Nepal but sudden change in political leadership in Kathmandu led to its cancellation. Anyway, I want to say that such high level visit is a must to maintain momentum of the bilateral relations and BRI development projects.
There are reports that Xi is going to visit India and will also have a meeting with Modi in Banaras. Is it not a good time for Xi to visit Nepal?
This also depends on Nepal’s counterpart office in China to make the visit happen. This kind of high level visit to India is not only limited to the bilateral relations but it is important in view of regional and global developments, even the expected domestic developments and governance. It depends on how the situation will develop in future. I don’t think India and Pakistan will engage in a war. I believe it is more imperative for the two top leaders to sit together and communicate if the situation really gets much worse. So they need to communicate with each other.
Why is there no momentum in the BRI projects in Nepal despite having a strong stable communist government in place?
There are several reasons behind the delay in the implementation. It is new era ushered in by the enactment of new constitution, three-tier elections and formation of the new government. Next step is to implement the constitution. For this, it needs more laws and regulations according to the constitution. That needs sometime. Otherwise, you reach nowhere. The government is active in framing new laws, revising the old laws and writing specific laws. If you want to implement specific projects, you need more regulations. If there are rules and laws, only then can concrete projects be carried forward. Without them, a lot of problems and questions of legacy of projects come up later.
Secondly, Nepal has already signed MoU on BRI, and agreement on trade and transit with China. Nepal’s President also participated in the second BRI summit. The pre-feasibility study on railway linkage has been complete. Now a detailed feasibility study needs to be conducted. The railway departments of two nations will discuss pre-feasibility study and project cooperation later this year. The railway linkage is not only limited to railways. You should also take consideration of environment, land acquisition and its economic prospect. Otherwise, the railway can’t be sustainable. You want to make this a factor for the total transformation of economic structure of Nepal and a corridor among Nepal, China and India. So many things should go in a coordinated manner.
We should build high voltage transmission lines of electricity in a place that is more than hundred kilometres away from the border of two nations. Otherwise, electrified railway linkage cannot be built. You should take everything or expected disturbances as much as possible into consideration. Else, this kind of project would be like what happened to China’s BRI in Malaysia or even in Sri Lanka where Rajapaksa government was replaced by the Sirisena government and a project in Colombo was delayed by a year. In Malaysia, the construction of East Coast Railway Link was postponed and re-negotiated. In Indonesia, the construction of high speed rail linking between Jakarta and Bandung was delayed for nearly three years owing to land acquisition dispute. At the same time, all the western media are demonising the BRI by blowing the debt-trap theory or accusing that it promotes exploitation, follows no rules and lacks transparency.
I came to know that even the railway from Shigatse to Kerung was delayed for some time but how long it was delayed I am not sure. Originally, it was said to arrive near border of Kerung by 2020. It was delayed as there is only low-voltage electricity in Kerung. It needs high voltage. So we can’t say there is a lack of progress, we have already made more efforts on the regulations. Criticisms are also rife that there is lack of essential laws such as procurement law and investment law. There is also need for training desired number of engineers and labourers required for the maintenance of railway.
So you mean there is no delay in moving ahead the railway project?
Chinese and Nepal governments are determined to carry forward BRI. South Asia is an important territory for BRI to be covered. We have now only two territorial economic corridors – China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on the west and China-Myanmar Economic Corridor on the East. But these are periphery, the marginal base of South Asia. If you want to get into inland of South Asia, you have to build economic corridors either through Sri Lank from north or through Nepal in the south-west. South Asia is a bridge linking Maritime Silk Road and land-based Silk Road. China has two kinds of silk roads that match with each other. You know India is not only reluctant to join BRI over CPEC. It is also criticising and boycotting it. We have to cooperate with both Sri Lanka and Nepal but the latter is the most important as it plays a central role for brining BRI to South Asia.
Is it through Kathmandu-Kerung railway or highway the BRI comes to SA?
Yes, the transit agreement between Nepal and China has allowed the former to use ports in China, which enable Nepal to import goods via China. You can also term it the kind of Trans-Himalaya land-based/sea-based Silk Road. It is not only railway but also pipelines, transmission lines and optical highways which boost connectivity.
Do you mean to say that Kerung-Kathmandu railway is the gateway to SA?
This is a gateway for Tibet. There are several ways to carry forward BRI in South Asia. Tibet wants to be developed and integrated into SA.
So are you satisfied with the progress of the construction of this railway?
Not fully. It is somehow delayed. Construction activities are taking place. And I am confident that railway will definitely come there, taking future development of Tibet into consideration. That is sure.
Of late, the US is pushing Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) here and many see it as a geopolitical instrument to counter BRI. How do you see it?
In my personal views, there are various interpretations and concepts regarding the Indo-Pacific Strategy. India, Japan, Australia and ASEAN countries have their own interpretation of it. But it is the US-version of strategy in focus. If you read the Indo-Pacific Strategy report the US published in June this year, you find that it has only one purpose – to disturb BRI and contain rising China. There is already a trans-party consensus in India. Whoever, whatever or whichever party comes to power, there is no substantial change on this kind of strategy. Changes were made in only approaches.
There are three approaches towards this strategy. One is military approach that is to concentrate or relocate majority or say sixty per cent of American military forces in Pacific, according to the Obama administration’s Asia ‘pivot’ or rebalancing strategy. So in terms of military arrangement, it is only the continuation of Obama’s rebalance of Asia policy. No big change; only some enhancement of previous policy. Or another difference is the view of Indian security concern. During Obama’s time also, the US government viewed India as a lynchpin of ‘rebalance’ of Asia. So we can say that there is no visible difference between the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the ‘rebalance’ of Asia. Only differences lie in the enhancement of military containment of China or also make military modernisation much more rapid than before. Then they are putting in more money for this compared to Obama’s time.
Second approach is economy. It has its own Indo-Pacific infrastructure construction policy. The US is asking Australia, Japan and other bilateral organisations to carry out infrastructure construction in the countries located in the Pacific but the problem is that America lacks the capital. It just wants to demonise BRI, with logic that I lack financial support to build infrastructure in those countries. If I could not do it, I would not let others do it.
The third approach is ideological. They project IPS vs BRI as competition between different values and systems or between a totalitarian dictatorship and multiparty democracy. In the name of values, they are also creating so-called colour revolution in the periphery around China. The ongoing drama in Hong Kong is a case in point.
Now come to Nepal. Nepal could serve America in two ways – IPS has mentioned Nepal. If my personal understanding is correct, it has two expectations from Nepal. It is as frontline platform to create disturbances in the Tibetan region which they think needs colour revolution like what is currently happening in HK.
Second, to use Nepal as frontline soldier to block BRI from coming to SA. The Americans say that they have so many in assistance for you. This kind of assistance aims to reduce temptation from the north. Otherwise, I could not see any reason to include Nepal in the IPS because Nepal is a landlocked country.
Under Nepal Compact of Millennium Challenge Cooperation, the US is providing grants to build transmission lines and other infrastructure. If Nepal takes benefits from it, what is the problem for China?
We will see what kind of purpose and goal it is. China will be disappointed if the US uses Nepal as frontline platform to create instability in Tibet and blockade the BRI to enter SA through Nepal. In my view, such kind of short-term small assistance promotes some growth but it does not serve Nepal’s long-term interest. Nepal needs long-term mega projects like highways and railways for its future transformation. The US can’t invest in such kind of projects because it has gone bankrupt.
So China is not happy with Nepal’s engagement with the US?
The US has an intention to use Nepal. Nepal is a sovereign and independent nation and you have the freedom to decide, but what I want is that Nepal must not be used to serve the US interests.