When Xi comes to Nepal, he will break the 23 years gap of presidential visit to Nepal. Can this inspire the US which has never sent its sitting president to Nepal?
KATHMANDU-Biswas Baral, the editor of The Annapurna Express, was perhaps the first (or among the first) to write with certainty that Chinese President XI Jinping will visit Nepal. When he wrote in June that Xi will come “perhaps in as little as three months” many reacted by saying: ‘Are you serious?’ Why would he come?’
This sense of disbelief must be changing now with the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was here until Tuesday reportedly to discuss the details and, perhaps, the itinerary of Xi’s Nepal trip. But the earlier skepticism is also justified because it is not the first time Kathmandu expected Xi but the trip did not materialize. His possible visit was in the news in 2016 as well. “Chinese leader Xi Jinping to make likely visit to Nepal in October,” wrote Hong Kong-based newspaper The South China Morning Post on June 9, 2016. He was supposed to land in Kathmandu on October 16 on his way back from the eighth annual BRICS summit. Xi did attend the BRICS summit in Goa but did not come to Nepal.
Between June and October 2016, Kathmandu had witnessed the change of guard. The government of KP Sharma Oli had been toppled. Oli was gone as Beijing may have been planning Xi’s trip to Kathmandu.
Heads of states or governments of major foreign powers visiting Nepal has become a rarity in the past many years. Come to think of it: For 17 years, there had been no prime ministerial visit to Nepal from India until Narendra Modi made it in 2014. Ever since, prime ministerial visit to Nepal from India has become more frequent. Since 2014, Modi has come to Nepal three times and he is supposed to come this year too.
For 11 years since Zhu Rongji came to Nepal in 2001, there had been no high-level visit from Chinese side to Nepal until Wen Jiabao came in 2012. For 23 years since Jiang Zemin’s visit in 1996, no Chinese president has stopped in Nepal. It is way too long since Europe and America, Nepal’s foreign aid donors, limited their engagement with Nepal through bureaucrats and ministers.
How did Nepal become the country, where, when the news of a head of foreign country visiting it is speculated, people react with disbelief? How did our standing fall so low? These questions merit separate discussion. Meanwhile, it is almost sure that Xi Jinping will come to Nepal sometime in October, on the way back home from India, where he will be participating in the second India-China informal summit. Thus assuming that Xi’s Nepal trip won’t be cancelled this time let me write further.
The imagination of Xi
Xi’s visit is going to become an event to watch for Nepal and the rest of the world. For one, Xi generates mixed imaginations across the world. In China, he is called “Xi Dada” and “Big Daddy Xi.” In China, there are love songs about Xi, odes to Xi, academic papers about Xi, cartoons of Xi,” according to December 2014 report from the UK’s The Telegraph. For his chief global adversary Donald Trump, Xi is a “brilliant leader,” “great leader,” “great man,” “a great gentleman,” and “the most powerful (Chinese) president in a hundred years.”
When we judge leaders, we need to consider how they are perceived by their own people, for the failure or success of leadership largely rests on how people regard or disregard it.
Though born to the family of a communist revolutionary, when his father was imprisoned in 1962, Xi suffered. As a teenager, Xi had been sent to work on a farm in the remote and poor village of Liangjiahe of Yanchuan County. He evokes this grassroots connection to appeal to the Chinese people. As he leads the dream of great rejuvenation of China, he has convinced the Chinese youth that the dream of great rejuvenation will come true only through struggles of young people. Call it the boon of one-party system or what else but he enjoys unparalleled support within his country. According to reports, current trade war with the US has made Chinese people even more patriotic.
However, it is not for this reason that Xi’s visit will be keenly watched. He will be here at a time when the US-China confrontation is escalating and they are competing for global dominance. These are the times—and no ordinary times—when what Xi does and says, and likewise what his adversary Donald Trump does and says, is going to determine wellbeing of nations and peoples across the globe. In Nepal, the visit is happening at a time when the debate is around at what level Nepal should expand, or limit, its engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), which seem mutually exclusive.
At one time, Nepal’s foreign policy formulation was caught in what can be called a triangular trap. In the 1950s, as Nepal was emerging out of the shadow of century-old Rana rule, transitioning to democracy, trying to reach out to the world from years of isolation, one of the big concerns of India, which itself had just emerged from years of colonial rule and was charting its new destiny, was to keep China and the US at bay in Nepal. Indian thinking in those days was that Nepal won’t be able to handle relations with countries like China and the US, and India should therefore be entrusted with that responsibility.
Some of the Nepali leaders dithered but they eventually cultivated ties with China and the US convincing India that Nepal’s good relation with China and the US was for Nepal’s interests, not against India’s interests.
We often tend to think big powers don't care about Nepal. That’s not always true. Nepal used to be very much discussed and is perhaps still discussed outside. I was thrilled to read this exchange of conversation between American president Gerald Ford and Chinese Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping during their meeting in 1975. Sanjay Upadhya writes about it in Nepal and Geo-strategic Rivalry between China and India. During the meeting with Ford in Beijing, Ford asks Deng Xiaoping if there is any threat of Indian military invasion in Nepal. Deng acknowledges such threat but dismisses the possibility of military moves. He also says that China is doing all it can for Nepal at the time and the US should do “more with Nepal.” Henry Kissinger chimes in and says US attaches importance to Nepal. Deng still insists on the need for the US to help out Nepal. He says to Ford: “It is necessary to help Nepal. They are a nation that can fight. Nepal isn’t Sikkim or Bhutan.”
Only foreign ministry mandarins (of the past) may be able to point out when exactly Nepal started falling low in comity of nations. But I can say only this much: Nepali heads of state and government started being complacent in meeting with secretary level representatives of the foreign countries, without any care for diplomatic protocol. Then our foreign friends must have started to think there is no need of higher level exchanges with Nepal.
If Nepal stopped becoming foreign policy priority subject among big powers post-1990, it could be largely because Nepal took its engagement with rest of the world for granted or it did not think it necessary to reach out beyond. The governments changed too often and our foreign policy looked direction-less.
Rajeshwar Acharya, who served as Nepal’s ambassador to China from 1998 to 2003, recounts the cost of this indifference in a recently published Nepalko Kutnitik Abhyas (“Diplomatic Exercise of Nepal”). He talks about how Nepal had, or Acharya had, tried to push transit treaty with China right then (learning the lesson from 1989’s blockade) and how he had even sent a written proposal to Chinese side in 2000. The Chinese side recommended some changes in the draft and sent it to Acharya, which Acharya sent to Kathmandu. But there was no response from Kathmandu, he says. “I wrote letters. I telephoned and even met the concerned people and lobbied for transit treaty with China but in vain,” he rues. “I regret this even today.”
On connectivity and infrastructure, how Nepal and China cooperate with each other now will determine whether future generation will look back to this time with regret or applause.
The signature foreign policy mantra of this government has been ‘enmity with none, amity with all.’ That’s how it should be. One way by which to maintain that amity is through exchange of high level visits. For this, Nepal needs to be able to not only send its prime minister and ministers to other countries, but also be able to bring their government heads to Nepal. When only Nepali leaders keep flying to their countries and the visits are not reciprocated, it does not look like equal relations. Executive level visit from countries like China, India and the US provides an opportunity for Nepal to communicate its development priorities and garner support for the same. Relations among countries evolve and mature, so do their engagements. Nepal has come a long way since the 1950s, 1970s and 2015. We are no longer the country for the world to take for granted. We have our priorities, we have our importance.
The immediate outcome from Xi’s proposed visit might not be tangible. Progress in connectivity projects may not accelerate in the speed we want. But look at the symbolism and the message it sends to China, which, in recent years, has become main source of tourists for Nepal.
So far, visits of Nepali prime ministers to countries like India, China and the US have often been one-sided. There is little or no reciprocal response. India broke 17 years gap of high level visit to Nepal in 2014. When Xi comes, China will be breaking 23 years gap of presidential level visit to Nepal. The US, whose officials say it has been according greater importance to Nepal than in the past, has never sent its sitting president to Nepal in 71 years of its diplomatic relations with the Himalayan country.
President Trump, who seems to think Nepal is a part of India and has to be reminded that it is an independent country, will be welcomed here too. When Xi will be in Nepal, he will surely draw Trump’s attention. Can we expect his visit too?