[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]
The proposed CNIEC offers huge potential for underdeveloped Nepal to boost its economy and development activities. Given its limited capabilities in terms of tapping its rich water, hydropower and tourism resources, trilateral cooperation will prove substantially beneficial for Nepal. China’s capability of time-bound completion of projects and the low-cost loans it offers is perceived as a positive factor for CNIEC by Nepal. The realisation of the economic corridor would facilitate the establishment of links between cities and in the process would support local industries, including tourism. As the development of CNIEC could have a positive impact on the development of infrastructure, this is expected to boost tourism in the Himalayan nation. Since Nepal has untapped natural beauty with snow-capped mountains, rivers, and valley, infrastructure development will not only enhance trade but also boost the other things such as tourism and employment for locals.
Moreover, the costs of transportation of goods through the CNIEC will be considerably lesser than air or ship. With the corridor functioning, the hospitality and local service sector industries are also expected to benefit. Besides, it can also pave the way for the rise of industrial clusters in Nepal and the districts bordering on India. More job generation and a market for local produces are expected along with trade products and the growth of local industries.
The China-Nepal-India economic corridor can also make a major contribution towards sustainable and achievable South Asian connectivity. The connectivity aspect will be one of the biggest beneficiaries as hostile national boundaries among South Asian states have been major factors in constraining trade movements as of now. This would be a win-win situation for all the partners along with other South Asian states if CNIEC becomes reality, as other nations like Bhutan and Bangladesh will possibly get connected with the CNIEC corridor in due course. In this process, smaller nations would emerge as the bigger beneficiaries. As in a globalised world order once the physical distance among the individual states is reduced, the scope for greater interaction escalates. Unfortunately, South Asian states, thanks to their internal politics and rivalries, haven’t been able to come to a consensus in terms of open borders which can facilitate the trade and commerce and eventually work as an instrument towards achieving regional peace and other aspirations.
Better economic cooperation will have positive implications on people-to-people contacts in terms of strengthening cultural ties among the three countries. Religious ties such as Buddhism can play a major role in strengthening economic cooperation. It is important to mention that there are already existing religious and other cultural ties at bilateral levels. Once trilateral cooperation takes shape through CNIEC, this could contribute to reducing tensions among the countries to a great extent.
Besides, the cultural ties would give further impetus to the tourism sector in all three countries. Since western China is a hub of Buddhism and the connectivity among three countries by road will generate massive movement of the population from western China to south Asia for spiritual purposes and pilgrimage it will establish a connection and boosting of cultural ties among the peoples of the three countries. The huge Chinese population practising the Buddhist faith can have a direct and convenient link with Lumbini in Nepal and other Buddhist shrines in India. According to Chinese statistics, more than 130,000 Chinese tourists visited Nepal (Sahu, 2015) in 2012. Consequently, this link will contribute towards increased trust and communication of China with Nepal and India.
Any proposals for peaceful co-existence have always been seen through the prism of idealism. But the assertion of a ‘national interest’ discourse, though understood from a very narrow perspective, dominates the analysis by policymakers and the academics alike. In this vision, the proposal for the CNIEC, both in its past and in latest forms, has been a victim of narrow narratives. In a sense, the Chinese proposal is mostly seen by India as part of China’s attempt to dominate Asia in general and South Asia in particular. Conversely, smaller powers like Nepal view India’s concern and diplomatic efforts as New Delhi’s attempt to dominate their internal affairs. Thus, the age-old perception of Indo-centrality in the region dominates the discourse along with current perceptions of Beijing. Significantly, in this entire process, the whole narrative on any trilateralism is reduced to the rivalry of India and China or smaller states’ perception of India as hegemon. Going by these narratives, the CNIEC proposal appears to be nothing but wishful thinking.
But there is an alternative aspect to this issue, viz. the potential of better economic cooperation and connectivity that could meaningfully address many of the differences and existing narratives concerning the three countries. Nepal hopes that other than its ties with New Delhi, CNIEC depends on how the Beijing-New Delhi relationship advances. Importantly, it boils down to how India and China are going to address their border issues. If both find a way to resolve the border conflicts amicably, there is a greater possibility of CNIEC becoming reality.
Meanwhile, whether India is concerned or not disinterested in any economic corridor projects of China, Beijing’s aid diplomacy and its attractiveness to smaller states like Nepal makes it difficult for India to control the expansion of China’s influence in India’s neighbourhood. Hence, it is perhaps better to rethink the Chinese offer to build infrastructure in Nepal and what India wants and how it should be done. In this context, India can negotiate with China about its concerns and seek assurances from both China and Nepal that it will address India’s concerns and interests, including on the border issues. On mutual agreement, a mechanism can be worked out. On the positive side, it is expected that the corridor will provide the possibilities of greater physical connectivity, people-to-people contacts, apart from aiding the growth of local industries, which could help in bridging the trust deficit between India and China and India and Nepal.
Anshuman Behera is Associate Professor in Conflict Resolution and Peace Research Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, India and M. Mayilvaganan is Associate Professor in International Security and Strategic Study Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, India.