Former Minister for Foreign Affairs Mahendra Bahadur Pandey is appointed as the ambassador of Nepal to China and is assuming the post from July this year. As an envoy of the country to the world economic superpower which is also the second largest trading partner, important source of tourists and other various exchanges, Pandey has to prove his mettle to take the bilateral relations between the two countries to newer heights in the wake of the signing of the agreements to use the ports in China and Nepal’s entry to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), taking the progress of the bilateral connectivity infrastructure and trade issues. Gopal Khanal and Modnath Dhakal of The Rising Nepal talked to Pandey about the contemporary as well as past issues and his plans as an envoy to China. Excerpts:
You have already served as the Foreign Affairs Minister of the country and worked as the policymaker of the foreign relations while you are taking up the responsibility of the country's envoy to the world's largest country and second largest economy. How do you feel about it ?
We were writing constitution when I was the minister so we were more focused on social, cultural and other policies for the people of the country. The foreign ministry had to discover some innovative methods to deal with some topics in absence of policies. Foreign policy is largely the same for every country meaning that we work to fulfil and achieve the ‘national interest’. It is also said that foreign policy is the reflection of the domestic policy therefore we must have our house in order to make the external relations better and effective, but regardless of who comes to the power, it remains the same. The constitution has also clearly enshrined that foreign policy would remain the same for all friendly nations whatever political party comes to power while the Charter of the United Nations and other international treaty and conventions will also guide it. We want to befriend all and resolve the issues, if any, in friendly way and diplomatically.
Being an ambassador to China is an immense opportunity. The two countries have millennia-old relationship. Rana Prime Minister Ranodip had brought Chinese language teacher to learn it. Cultural, social and economic relations have been taken to newer height in every regime in both countries. But relations do change with the time and we have to be wise enough to understand the changes and move accordingly. China has about one fifth of the world’s population and is source of a large number of tourists, investment, trade and cultural exchanges. Nepal needs to understand the global status and China's position as well as Nepal's interest with China and international scenario. We have long-lasting cultural and economic relations which need to be developed and upgraded as per the changing time and technology. China is a country which has achieved much progress in a short span of time so Nepal has lot many things to learn from its northern neighbour.
Have you made any rough planning or to do list as an ambassador of China?
My job would be strengthening bilateral political, diplomatic, cultural and economic relations between the two countries. Making the relations more trustworthy and reliable and attracting Chinese tourists and investments to Nepal would be my priorities. Likewise, there is a necessity to further develop people-to-people relations, create impactful connections between the think tanks across the border, exchange of professionals, and knowledge transfer in agriculture, communication, business and education.
We must not forget that although countries might be large and small, powerful and less powerful in terms of demographics, size and economy, their sovereignty is equal. Therefore, the United Nations treats all its members equally. I think that we have maintained cordial relations with China as well as any other countries. China aims to completely alleviate the poverty by the end of 2020, by lifting the living standard of about 100 million people. Nepal can learn many things in economic, health, technological, communication, cultural and educational areas from China.
Some of the Chinese ideologies, such as the one by incumbent President Xi Jinping, are opposed by some intellectuals but every country wants to promote its policies while every other country should learn from the good practices of its neighbours and elsewhere. I believe that our cooperation in the areas of science and technology and innovation would be more beneficial for us.
Nepal had signed Transport and Transit Treaty with China during the first tenure of PM KP Sharma Oli, when Nepal’s relations with the southern neighbour had touched the lowest ebb, and protocols for the same were signed last year which has opened the way for Nepal to access additional 7 dry and sea ports in China. How would you work to make it practically viable for Nepali entrepreneurs and traders ?
The trilateral relations had witnessed its low when Nepal signed the treaty. We must not forget that PM Oli took a stand and helped in easing the blockade imposed by India five years back. He visited India first then China only after his stand of not visiting the former until it lifted the blockade was addressed. The signing of the treaty was not a temporary measure against the blockade but a long-term strategy for the expansion of trade and economic cooperation.
When Xi Jinping visited Nepal about 20 agreements had been signed. China has allowed Nepal to use its 7 ports. But we need to have people and goods to move via those ports. Nepal's participation in BRI has been interpreted from various dimensions, but we have to work to use the initiative in our favour in terms of the creation of infrastructure and promoting international trade. A cross-border railway between Nepal and China has also been received critically by some economists. They say that it should only be developed if China provided grant and Nepal should not seek loan to build it nor invest its own funds in the projects. They have the view that Nepal cannot handle and manage the project of that scale. This is a biased view.
Therefore, we have to be prepared in terms of the goods to send to China and beyond before using the route in China in order to reap the benefits of the new 7 ports that were open to Nepal for the use. We have to increase our agricultural and industrial production and enhance the quality. Nepal can benefit a lot from Chinese tourists. I had proposed the topic to the Chinese government when I was the minister and they have expressed concerns about the availability and quality of infrastructure. Chinese tourists would have been increased following the official visit of President Xi, but COVID-19 pandemic spoilt the opportunity. However, hopes are still alive that Nepal will certainly welcome more tourists from China in future. Nepal is a unique tourist destination in terms of culture, people and ecology - it has new climatic condition in every 10 km, but we have not been very successful in promoting it. Nepal is an example of religious tolerance, attractive cultures, and heritages.
Chinese President Xi, who initiated the BRI with the theme of partnership and shared prosperity, visited Nepal after 23 years. Nepal has also become the part of the initiative. Have you talked with the government about the projects under the BRI ?
I have met the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister as well as the officials at the ministry and experts regarding the issues and projects with China. The northern neighbour is developing railway up to Keyrung soon. But we are not prepared for the connecting infrastructure in Nepal’s side. Only pre-feasibility study of Tokha-Chhahare tunnel is completed. But as the projects to create tunnels and railways in Nepal are in priority, I am hopeful that things will move in positive direction in the near future. I have also discussed the issues of education, tourism, agriculture, and technology with PM Oli, ministers and experts.
China has pledged its support for Madan Bhandari Institute of Science and Technology. It will have affiliated campuses in all states. The government also aims to run schools to create students capable to pursue science and technology in higher level. I would like to take such issues further. I have also discussed with the private sector entrepreneurs and traders to understand the export opportunity in China and things that the government should facilitate.
There is also a need to establish a bank with bilateral investment since its absence has affected the bilateral trade. Chinese banks have already shown interest to open a branch, the matter is under discussion. As we have Indian, Bangladeshi and other banks in Nepal, there should be a Chinese bank as well. We should accord priority to the BRI and projects under it because it will help Nepal to reduce the infrastructure gap and create greater connectivity with other countries. Since we need it, we have to exhibit greater concerns to the initiative. Nepal should soon create policies to get benefits from both the immediate neighbours. Since we want to get benefit from the projects, we have to show greater concerns.
President Xi had said that China would help Nepal in becoming a land-linked country from the landlocked one. Many said it heralded an age of strategic partnership between the two neighbours. Do you think it has tried to redefine the bilateral relations?
When we talk about land-linked status, it should be understood that we need two powers to create a link. China will build a rail line up to Lumbini and India has announced to build one up to Kathmandu. This will be a strong link between the two economic powers. It will facilitate bringing Chinese goods to South Asia or facilitating Indian pilgrims to reach Mansarovar in Tibet. Such projects will benefit immensely. It will not only redefine the relations but also give the much needed impetus to growth and development. The relationship followed by a bond of a new initiative is stronger and more reliable. We will create an environment to win the confidence of both the countries. I would also like to repeat that Himalayas in the north is not a challenge but a symbol of amity between Nepal and China.
You are assuming the post of envoy to a neighbour at a time when another neighbour had unilaterally encroached Nepali land and developed infrastructure there. China also comes in the scene so far as the trilateral connection point is concerned. What is your take on the Chinese statement that Kalapani is a bilateral issue between Nepal and India and solution should be sought by the two ?
Kalapani area has been pushed into a dispute not because of Nepal but India. Nepal has sufficient and strong historical evidences that it is Nepal’s territory. We have to follow the historic facts; this should be the modus operandi for finding solution. Nepal also believes in the same principle. Nepal has unconditionally supported India for many times including India's election to the UN Security Council, and I don't think India would sit with the problem any further troubling its neighbour which shares unparalleled relations anywhere in the world. The friendship won’t erode due to the current problem and the issue will be resolved as per the evidences available. I believe that India will thankfully return the land to Nepal. But first, it is a bilateral issue so Nepal should resolve it first with India then only talk about the trilateral point should be initiated.
Indian occupation of Nepali territory has halted Nepal-China border demarcation primarily from pillar no. 1 to pillar no. 0. In 2015, when India and China signed an agreement to set the bilateral border point at Lipulek, we sent diplomatic notes – I was the foreign affairs minister then, while China expressed its readiness for further investigation and discussion, but India said that it was its own land. Recently when Indian army chief made comments about the Kalapani region, I said that threatening the neighbour and using the army chief instead of diplomats would not help in finding the solution. But many intellectuals criticised my statements. There were rumours that I said King Mahendra had exchanged Kalapani with gold. Those intellectuals have lost 'intellectual honesty'. I would like to urge the media persons and experts to directly consult me about the issue and not tarnish my loyalty to the nation and nationalism. My perspectives are clear, and no one can force or create deterioration in my belief and orientation.
In the recent years, the trade between Nepal and China has grown significantly but Nepal’s exports are minimal while Chinese imports have increased. What would you do to address this issue ?
First, we have to produce enough for the domestic consumption. Then effective assessment should be made about the goods and products that are in demand in the foreign markets. Most of the industries developed with cooperation from foreign support are sick. Rubber industry, sugar factory, cotton mill and textile mill are all shut.
The country must establish industries to cater to the domestic need as well as foreign markets. Nepal can be a market of ancillary and spare parts industries which can be established in cooperation with the industries in China and India since they are the largest markets.
Herbs and herbals including yarsha gumba are in high demand in China so greater focus should be on such produces. We opened market of citrus fruit from Nepal to China but we import lemon and other citrus fruit from India.
Nepal should learn from the experiences of other successful countries. Promotion of technology in agriculture and its commercialisation should be given utmost priority.
In the last couple of years, a section of people has been saying that Nepal's ties with China are growing. Do you think it happening while the country, after the current government coming to power, has adopted a balanced foreign policy ?
There is no limit to knowledge, science and conscience which means we must take every good thing and idea happening anywhere in the world, not only in China and India. Reading Adam Smith doesn't mean that one is the supporter of capitalism while reading Karl Marx does not mean following the philosophy of communism. For us, Nepal's relation with China is similar with the latter's relation with India.
We are not pro to any power be that China, India, the USA, EU or Japan. We are pro-Nepal and want cordial and balanced relations with all.
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