Sunday, March 20, 2016

Fuel Pragmatism Or False Promise?

From all the pre-departure buzz, it sounded like everything from the future of the current political dispensation to the fate of Nepal’s existence as an independent and sovereign state depended on the success or failure of Prime Minister Khadka Prasad Oli’s official visit to China.
So it was rather grating to note that Nepal would not be signing that much-touted petroleum agreement with China during the visit. To press home the point, the cabinet minister in charge of that file did not find a place in Oli’s extended entourage.
Amid the strains in relations with India accompanying Oli’s rise to the premiership, Nepal flashed the “China card” with a brazenness that shocked many Nepalis. The Indian ‘blockade’ was mostly about petroleum products being held up on the Birgunj-Raxaul crossing. Whatever trickled in from other border points was pushed from the open to the subterranean market. The people heaved and moaned, but believed in the promise of ultimate liberation from India’s stranglehold.
Not that the ‘China card’ lacked substance. The Oli government publicly proclaimed its intention to import at least one-third of its total petroleum needs from China. When Beijing gave some 100,000 kiloliters of fuel as grant, Nepali tankers wore a festive look to and from the border. India didn’t seem too bothered by our in-your-face mirth.
Beijing seemed hesitant to conclude a full-fledged long-term agreement to export fuel, and began citing such bottlenecks as the harsh geographical terrain, tax matters, and transportation hurdles. We knew all that going in.
Still, the general feeling was that two countries would sign an agreement during the visit of Oli, now that he had backed down from his threat to make Beijing his first port of call as head of government. Following our prime minister’s visit to India in February, fuel supplies from the south eased as the ‘blockade’ mysteriously collapsed.
At the last minute, Nepali news reports, quoting anonymous sources, began suggesting that, although Oli would seek Chinese support to construct fuel storage facilities, the fuel import agreement would take more time. One report had it that India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who met Oli on the sidelines of a South Asian ministerial meeting in Pokhara, expressed her country’s unhappiness with Nepal’s eagerness to hobnob with China on a subject that was traditionally India’s preserve.
There are promises galore. Nepal would no doubt attempt to secure greater development support from China in such areas as energy, trade, transport, infrastructure and post-earthquake reconstruction. Apart from joining the Silk Road project, Nepal may also agree to review the extradition treaty and help curb more effectively the Free Tibet Movement. If all goes well, President Xi Jinping may even reward us with a visit on his way home after the 8th BRICS summit in New Delhi later in the year.
But returning to the fuel fiasco, regardless of what really happened, isn’t it interesting how easily Beijing gets a pass? The mandarins up north are often heard claiming that New Delhi’s failure to address the ‘strategic autonomy’ of other South Asian nations created a level of friction that could ultimately threaten Chinese interests. But, when conditions are propitious, China’s unsentimental pragmatism also gives it enough space to defer to India’s primacy in region. Some things just don’t change.