Wen in Nepal…
By Erik Wilson
Wen Jiabao drops in to Kathmandu
Saturday’s visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao came as a surprise to many in the Kathmandu Valley. The Nepali Government announced the visit only an hour before the Premier landed at Tribhuvan International Airport, and Kathmandu woke up to increased security measures, particularly in the Tibetan areas of the city. The subsequent meetings with Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai lasted just over 4 hours and resulted in the Chinese pledging more than US $140 million of assistance for everything from finalising the peace process and improving the police forces to assistance for a new international airport in Pokhara and 3 large hydropower projects. US $20 million is to be given immediately for the peace process, with a further US $120 million over the next 3 years.
By now, discussions of China’s increasing influence in Nepal and the inherent interplay and conflict with Indian interests are well hashed out. So are the acknowledgments that much of Chinese policy towards Nepal is contingent on the Nepalese Government taking an unwaveringly pro-China stance on the issue of Tibetan refugees. Indeed, Premier Jiabao was originally scheduled for a 3-day visit to Nepal in December that was cancelled in no small part because of the threat of protests and the potential for self-immolation by Tibetan activists. It has also been noted that Saturday’s whirlwind visit just so happened to coincide with the Buddhist Kaalachakra initiations being given by the Dalai Lama in Bodhgaya. Many Tibetans travelled to India for the event, and upwards of 200 of them were detained on the return trip. This is in addition to the many Tibetans that were detained around the valley on Saturday. These events come as no surprise as the Nepalese Government has been anxiously awaiting the Premier’s visit – and the promise of financial support – since December. So with all of this in mind, what new insights can we take away from the Premier’s trip and China’s monetary pledges?
Let’s start with the numbers. China’s Ministry of Commerce lists the value of China’s overseas non-bond investments in 2010 at USD $57.9 billion (the numbers have yet to be published for 2011). China’s pledge of USD $140 million to Nepal represents a mere one-quarter of one percent of China’s overall foreign investment in 2010. The point here is not that China should be investing more in Nepal, but that distinct consideration should be given to the amount of influence China is able to wield for such a relatively small sum of money. Nepal definitely needs investment, especially if it is to become a successful bridge between India and China, but the societal cost of that investment should be weighed carefully.
Nepal has suffered under the specter of poor security and volatile foreign investment since 1996. The country is finally starting to emerge from this shadow (as evidenced by the recent lifting of the US travel warning and the return of the Peace Corps). What Nepal cannot afford right now is renewed insecurity. A definite catalyst for conflict has been and continues to be ethnic marginalization. Aggravating Tibetan communities will only stir the pot, not to mention drawing unnecessary attention from countries in the West where many hold a romantic view of Tibetan culture.
Saturday’s events and the actions of the Nepalese Government suggest that crackdowns and arbitrary arrests are likely to continue. Investments like those made by China will help Nepal provide for its citizens, make essential improvements and push the boundaries of development, but citizens must also trust their government. The Government of Nepal therefore must walk a fine line between creating the conditions for a cohesive society and meeting the demands of donors, a process that could have, but unfortunately did not, begin on Saturday.