Huang Youyi serves as an expert at the Charhar Institute, a prominent Chinese think tank that gives the Chinese government inputs on China’s diplomacy and international relations, including in South Asia. A close student of Nepal-China relations, Youyi was recently in Kathmandu to take part in the ‘China Nepal Think Tank Conference’. Biswas Baral, Mahabir Paudyal and Kosh Raj Koiralamet him at the sidelines of the conference to discuss Nepal-China relations and the rivalry between India and China in Nepal.
What in your view is the current Chinese policy on Nepal?
China has always enjoyed very friendly relation with Nepal. If you ask the Chinese about their impression of Nepal, you will find that their response is always positive. Before I came here I conducted a survey for a study and asked Chinese people what they thought of Nepal. Most of them said Nepal is “serene”, “beautiful” and “peaceful”, but a country that has been hit by a devastating earthquake. The Chinese are sad that the earthquakes caused great human and property loss. If you look at the Chinese media, 99 percent coverage on Nepal is positive. The impression in China is that Nepal is developing and its political system is stabilizing. In social media, Chinese people mostly talk of Nepal as a good tourist destination. This is the China’s official position on Nepal as well. We the members of think tanks have the responsibility to inform the Chinese audience more about Nepal. We will take the message home that Nepal and Nepalis are very positive about China as well.
China wants to foster stronger ties with Nepal but China also understands Nepal’s geopolitical situation. Nepal has enjoyed long and historic relation with India. This should continue and should not come in conflict with China-Nepal relations.
In recent times, there have been commentaries in the Chinese press that have in roundabout way warned India not to treat Nepal as its backyard. Why this shift in China’s traditionally hands-off approach in Nepal?
You have to understand that the newspaper, Global Times, where these commentaries were published carries diverse views. Nepal’s trade with China is only around 12 percent, while it does more than 60 percent of its trade with India. So, naturally, Nepal interacts more with India than with China. China has no objections. But we have an objection when India reacts badly to increase of Nepal-China exchanges. After China’s assistance during the earthquakes, and after Nepal and China signed deals during KP Oli’s China visit, we heard criticisms from India. India became jealous of warmer relations between Nepal and China.
Nepal is not the backyard of India. You have cultural, economic, historical and religious ties with India. Maintain these ties, we say. But why should that be an impediment to better Nepal-China relations? India should be more open and supportive of better relation between Nepal and China.
What are China’s main interests in Nepal right now?
China wants to further Nepal’s interest. That is it’s only interest. We want to see Nepal develop. If there is greater connectivity with Nepal, Nepal-China economic exchanges will also increase. If more Chinese tourists come to Nepal, that will benefit Nepal as well. In the past 60 years of its diplomatic ties with Nepal, China has never interfered in its political affairs. We hope to see the agreements that have been signed between Nepal and China implemented soon. This is also what everyone in Nepal wants.
There is a feeling in Kathmandu that China is looking to ramp up its South Asia diplomacy in light of the growing strategic ties between India and the US. Could this be a motivating factor behind China wanting to engage Nepal more?
Until recently China was concerned only with its domestic developments. We were one of the poorest countries only 30 years ago. This is not the case now. We are a great power and our interests have spread. Trade, easy movement and security are our priorities. In recent times, China has been very active in establishing its agenda not through empty slogans or through military weight but through initiatives such as ‘One Bolt One Road’ (OBOR) for the greater good of all countries. But this is not what countries like the US want. The US is working in several Asian countries, helping them counter China. That is understandable. But India should not be too close to the US, for it can suddenly turn against India when it needs China. The US is an unpredictable power. It would be in India’s interest to maintain good relations both with the US and China. But India is clever. I don’t think it blindly follows every instruction of the US.
Do you think that there has been shift in China’s Nepal policy since President Xi Jinping came to power?
You may call it a shift, but I would say this is reinforcement of economic engagement with Nepal. At the core of President Xi’s foreign policy is his vision of “community of shared future”. The OBOR is a tool to implement that vision. Xi is keener to work with Nepal as compared to the past Chinese governments.
When PM Oli had gone to China, President Xi had categorically said that Nepal, China and India should work together. But India does not seem interested in such trilateral cooperation.
This is because India is not open enough and they have not come around to see the benefits of trilateral cooperation. Or perhaps the US is giving them wrong advice.
But surely, India and China must be in constant touch at all levels. If so, why these persistent disagreements?
We have been talking to India at all levels and about all aspects of our bilateral relations.
A few years ago, I helped establish a China-India media exchange forum. We wanted to bring Indian and Chinese news media together so that they can exchange ideas and understand the position of each other. Initially, India did not respond. But later the Indian government itself proposed a formal mechanism for such exchange. So every year a group of Indian journalists comes to China and we send our journalists to India. The media can influence the society and the government. I would like to see the same kind of arrangement between Nepal and China. Later we can create a mechanism comprising Nepal, China and India as well.
How do you think OBOR will specifically benefit Nepal?
I have seen that there is a thriving market in Nepal. But there is also the need for infrastructure and for better utilization of its resources. Infrastructures can bring wonders, which is the focus of OBOR initiative. Connectivity is the key word, connectivity through train and road networks, through cultural and economic exchanges. During the 2008 economic meltdown, China’s overseas trade fell. Suddenly the world stopped buying Chinese goods. But if we had closed down our factories, many people would have lost their jobs.
So China started focusing on expanding its own markets for Chinese products through expanded connectivity. We linked every village with road. This move was debated. Many questioned us why we needed to build roads to areas where so few people live. Why not bring them instead to city areas? Road building was a costly enterprise but China continued with it. So soon the Chinese products started finding market within China itself.
People began to buy refrigerators, TVs and other gadgets. China sold to its own people what it could not sell to the world. China has the experience of how better infrastructures work wonders. It kept the Chinese economy rolling even during the global meltdown. You should understand the importance of OBOR in this context.
China sends more tourists abroad than any other country. And yet so few of them come to Nepal. Why is this the case?
Lots of my friends go to Sri Lanka. I ask them why and they say that they saw the country advertised in public buses in Chinese cities. Sri Lankan Tourism Bureau and Sri Lankan Embassy in China also launched a campaign in China to promote Sri Lanka as a tourist destination. Countries like the Mauritius and France come to China and ask us to send tourists to their countries. Again, Sri Lanka brings publicity right at the door of the Chinese. This is how they promote tourism in their countries. Nepal could follow these examples. Nepal could launch publicity campaign in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
Nepal should also focus on building tourism infrastructures such as hotels and transportation networks. If you do this, there will be a flood of Chinese tourists in Nepal. Let’s chance track a bit. Many eyebrows were raised in New Delhi when the joint Nepal-China military drills were announced. How do you see these drills?
I think you need to ask Indian friends why they are raising such a hue and cry. India and China have military exercises. Indian Minister of Defense visits China. Indian military officials go to China. We have joint military exercises with the US, Vietnam, Russia and many other countries. What is then wrong when China has this kind of arrangement with Nepal, its neighboring country? There is a history of military exchanges between China and India. If India can have joint military exercise with Nepal, so can China. I don’t understand why India is so worried.
If you want to have connectivity, you have to ensure that transportation routes are secure.
Better military ties will help with this. And then there is the Tibet issue. So there is a need for better security cooperation with Nepal, and the military drills are part of the same effort.
Free-Tibet activism in Nepal has been vastly reduced, say compared to a decade ago. Does this give China confidence to open up Tibet for greater connectivity with Nepal?
If you talk to the central government in China, they are in favor of opening more border points between China and Nepal. What Nepal has done in controlling Tibetan independence issue has given China a lot of confidence. Your government has stated that you will not allow anything to affect its relations with China. If there is a train service from China to India via Nepal, all three countries benefit. I don’t know how receptive India is to the idea of expanding railway network to India via Nepal but this is in interest of all three countries.
In a recent interview with Republica a Nepali foreign policy expert warned that prolonged instability in Nepal could make China start considering Nepal as more of a burden than a friend it could work with. Is this a real danger?
Nepal will never be a burden for China. Your strategic location prevents you from being a burden to India and China. But frequent government changes delay implementation of vital development projects. This is why stability is important. Stability in Nepal is in the interest of Nepal, China and India. How Nepal should achieve this, it’s up to Nepal to decide.
Is there a possibility of President Xi visiting Nepal this year?
I hope that he will come. But assume for a while that he comes and signs more deals. In China, Xi will see to their implementation because he will be in power for the next five years. But what is the guarantee that when a new set of characters assume leadership in Nepal they will follow through on those agreements? Suppose I am thinking of inviting you to my home as a guest. But how can I invite you knowing that when you actually come I will no longer be part of the family that is to host you?
Are you suggesting that Xi Jinping didn’t come to Nepal last year as the deals China had signed with Oli government fell through?
Not really. China has patience. We just want to see a government in place that can function and implement policies for several years, not for a few months.
China-Nepal Think Tank conference is the first of its kind in Nepal. Can we see it as start of a series of such efforts at think tank level to boost Nepal-China ties?
I hope it’s not a one shot thing. We have annual conference with India in which we discuss the whole gamut of issues. We should have such conference in Nepal as well.
We 14 delegates representing five different institutions came to Nepal this time. More Chinese experts and scholars can come to Nepal next year for a similar purpose.
We should hold more of these conferences and both government and non-government institutions should support such initiatives.