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  • Nepal must focus on building land routes connecting India and China if it is to act efficiently as a bridge
- SEEMA PANDEY
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Jun 21, 2014-

Nepal’s foreign policy of non-alignment, neutrality and forging an equidistant relationship with both neighbours has definitely helped Nepal stand as a sovereign and independent state. The discourse of Nepal as ‘a yam between two boulders’ was a view necessitated by an international context dominated by a realist worldview. However, there has since been a shift in worldview from realism to institutionalism and constructivism.

Since the end of World War II, cooperation has become the new agenda for the modern era. The focus is now on mechanisms for discussions and cooperation. The United Nations has provided a forum for states to come into formal contact with each other. Belief in institutionalism and cooperation is exemplified by the European Union—once rival states that struggled for a balance of power amidst security dilemmas now stand as an example high level regional cooperation. In Europe, economic cooperation has triumphed over animosity. The EU has shown that competition can be gradually converted to cooperation.

Changing definitions

The concept of national security, therefore, has gradually shifted to a much broader definition. Primarily in the Third World, security threats to the state apparatus appear to be frequently internal than external, especially given that many decolonised nations were formed containing substantial linguistic, cultural or ethnic minorities with few ties to the state. Internal underdevelopment and exclusion can be major factors for state disintegration. It is evident that the security strategy of states now requires an internal response ie, through development and social inclusion.

Nepal’s multi-ethnic and multi-lingual nature, along with a highly unstable political system and ranking among the poorest states in the world pose a major threat to its security, rather than any potential external military threat. Therefore, Nepal urgently needs to focus on aspects of development by calculating the maximum benefits it can extract from its two giant neighbouring economies. Nepal possesses great potential to become a bridge between these two nations, given its geostrategic position. An example perhaps can be taken from the landlocked state of Mongolia, which has reaped benefits as a transit state between Russia and China.

Landlocked to land-linking

Nepal’s landlocked nature certainly impedes its competitiveness but a good foreign policy will take advantage of the geostrategic position and strategise the nation’s growth amid such challenges. Much rhetoric has come from political actors in favour of tri-lateral cooperation, from king Birendra to Baburam Bhattarai and Jhala Nath Khanal. Indeed, Nepal must capitalise on its status as a ‘land-linking’ nation and move beyond the victim mindset of seeing itself as ‘landlocked’.

Nepal’s geography means that its trade diversification option with countries besides India and China depend on transit through India, making it difficult and less competitive.  Nevertheless, it is fortunate to be located between two giant economies surging ahead rapidly with an average growth rate of 7 percent for the last few decades. Focusing carefully and strategically on Nepal’s two neighbours for a more productive relationship is therefore key to its development. Diversification of relations was relevant during king Mahendra’s time. However, now, it is essential for Nepal to embrace its geographic reality and use it for a strategic and objective end instead of upholding a victim-mindset of being a landlocked state.

A transit state

In spite of Nepal’s core foreign policy, allegedly based on maintaining an equidistant relationship with India and China, the practice remains arguable. Deep cultural ties and commonalities between India and Nepal have made maintaining equidistance more difficult to operationalise. Nepal’s relation with India is marked by a special relationship through the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which accords special status to India.

India and China, despite some strained relations due to unresolved territorial disputes, have been brought together through the unprecedented economic growth of their domestic spheres. Their mutual economic interest and need has transformed them into a substantial trading partners—China overtook the United States to become India’s biggest trading partner in 2008. The growing trade between these two giant economics in the absence of a permanent and feasible trade corridor seems to have necessitated adopting Nepal as a transit partner.

However, transport remains a major impediment to Sino-India bilateral trade as there is no efficient overland route to connect their geographies. The pass, Nathu-la, which was blocked after the 1962 Sino-India War but re-opened in 2006, is the only current operational trade route. However, standing at above 4,400 metres, the pass is snowy, risky, costly, and far from India’s major industrial hubs. Thus, Nepal holds great potential to become an efficient trade corridor.

Lhasa will soon be connected to mainland China by rail ie, the Lhasa-Shigatse rail link is expected to be completed by 2014. The Shigatse-Tatopani-Kathmandu-Birgunj link would be all of 815 km between India and China while at present, the trade between western China and India requires over 5,000km of rail/road plus sea transport.

There are 27 routes for mutual trade and six immigration points between Indian and Nepal. On the other hand, Nepal and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region have a 1,414 kilometre-long border shared by seven counties—Tingkey, Tingri, Naylam, Kyirong, Saga, Drongpa and Purang—and

bounding 14 of Nepal’s

districts—Taplejung, Sankhu-wasbha, Solukhumbu, Dolakha, Sindhupalchowk, Rasuwa, Manang, Mustang, Dopla, Mugu, Humla, Bajhang and Darchula.

At present, only the 393 km Birgunj-Kathmandu-Kodari highway serves as a link between India and China that goes through Nepal. Another highway route via Rasuwagadi-Kerun is under construction and hasn’t yet been used for trade purposes.

The shortest potential transit routes between India and China other than the Raxaul-Trishuli-Rasuwa, as proposed by the Division of Roads in 2005, are Janakpur-Dolakha-Lambanagar; Mohana-Dhangadi-Atari-Baitadi-Darchula-Tinker; and Rani-Hile-Kimathanka. The corridors will have more access to the economic centres of Ahmadabad and Mumbai in India than the Tibet-Sikkim transit corridor. These corridors could be pivotal in linking Central Asia, South-west China and South East Asia.

According to the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works, priority has been given to the North-South connection, such as Birgunj-Galchi-Dhunnche-Rasuwagadi, Biratnagar-Kimathanka, Bhittamod-Lamabagar, Bhenighat-Larkey, Bhairahawa-Jomsom-Korala, Nepalgunj-Surkhet-Hilsa and Mahendranagar-Darchula-Tinka. The Birgunj-Safrubesi corridor has been completed and the Rasuwa-Safrubesi corridor (part of the Birgunj-Safrubesi corridor) has also been recently completed with the assistance of the Chinese government.

However, as Nepal’s north, being less developed than the south, requires a stronger focus on infrastructure and connectivity. Moreover, the land-linking project has great potential to usher in development through tourism, transit, taxes, customs and duties, trade, cooperation with both neighbours and cultural proximity among India-China-Nepal. To reap the benefits of being a transit state, Nepal needs to begin constructing its own domestic infrastructure like highways, renovating border cities, communication development, transportation, warehouses for storage and strengthening internal and border administration.

Pandey holds a Masters in International Relations and Political Science from Universidade Fernando Pessoa, Portugal

Published: 22-06-2014 09:40

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