Chinese envoy’s statement on Nepal-India trade sparks controversy

Experts say the Chinese ambassador’s statement violates the diplomatic norms, and has unnecessarily invited controversy over Nepal’s relations with neighbouring countries.


File photo of Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Chen Song. PHOTO: THE KATHMANDU POST

September 7, 2023

KATHMANDU – Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Chen Song’s remarks on the trade of electricity and other goods between Nepal and India as well as on the economic growth of Nepal’s southern neighbour have courted controversy.

Addressing a discussion entitled “China in global economy and its impact in Nepal”, organised on Saturday by the Foundation for Trans Himalayan Research and Studies and Friends of Silk Road Club Nepal, the Chinese ambassador said: “Unfortunately, you have a neighbour like India, but fortunately you have a neighbour like India, because India is a huge market, with huge potential you can tap into.”

He added: “But at the same time, India’s policy towards Nepal and other neighbours is not so friendly and not so beneficial to Nepal. So we call that policy of constraints.”

Sources at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the Indian Embassy has taken up the matter with the ministry but top officials are clueless on how to respond. There are calls to protest the statement by the Chinese ambassador against another neighbouring country of Nepal.

Foreign Minister NP Saud told the Post that the ministry has taken the Chinese envoy’s statement into notice.

“When the Nepal government formulates your economic policies, you have to take your decisions under those circumstances,” the ambassador said.

“It’s not because of the opening of the door of China that China’s economy is booming. It’s because we have a very solid foundation, because almost at the same time, India also opened its door, but we did not see any economic boom in India. Only in recent years, we see that India’s economy is starting to soar,” he said.

So that is another misunderstanding about China, Chen added.

Some diplomats and foreign policy observers say the Chinese ambassador’s statement violates the diplomatic norms and has unnecessarily invited controversy over Nepal’s relations with neighbouring countries.

“I read the statement made by the Chinese ambassador,” Arun Subedi, former foreign relations adviser to prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in the previous government, said. “The [Pushpa Kamal Dahal] government should send a diplomatic note and protest.”

The Chinese ambassador also compared Nepal’s trade with India which some government officials find “out of context, and uncalled for”.

“The question is what our response would be if the Indian ambassador was to make a similar statement,” said Subedi. “The government is silent as the remarks come at a time when China conspicuously refused to use the new map of Nepal while showing its territory.”

The Chinese ambassador’s statement was undiplomatic, an official at the prime minister’s office said, requesting anonymity. “He cannot make such comments on the internal affairs of Nepal. Nor can he comment about our relation with another neighbour that we are hugely dependent on.”

“Last fiscal year, you exported Rs10 billion [worth] of electricity to India. How much did you import from India? My Nepalese friends, you imported Rs19 billion of electricity from India. You had a deficit in electricity trade, one of the products you are proud of, and you think that will bring you economic independence,” the ambassador can be heard saying in the video widely circulated on social media.

Some Indian foreign policy observers said that Beijing is back at poking New Delhi in the neighbourhood.

“China-India relations failed to normalise, so Beijing is back at poking Delhi in the neighbourhood,” Constantino Xavier, a fellow in Foreign Policy and Security Studies at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP) in New Delhi writes on X, formerly Twitter. “The Chinese ambassador portrays India as an obstacle to Nepal’s development. Also lectures Nepal on how to run its economy, create ‘equal social structure’ and accept the ‘BRI gift’.”

The Chinese envoy also made comparisons on other trades between Nepal and India, other than power.

“In the first month of this fiscal year, do you know how much cereals Nepal imported from India? In one month, not in one year,” the Chinese envoy asked, mentioning that the country imported cereals worth Rs7 billion from India.

“So multiply by twelve so each year you import Rs100 billion worth of agricultural products from India. So I will say [and suggest] that the Nepalese government put a priority on the agricultural sector. That is very important.”

The ambassador then commented on Nepal’s performance in the industrial sector. “Also you don’t have very strong industrial basis. Your manufacturing sector has been shrinking from 14 percent of GDP now to below 10 percent.”

He said Nepal is importing every industrial product from India, China, and from around the world but not producing anything in the country.

“So one of the issues Nepalese politicians, leaders, and friends say during our meetings is that Nepal has a huge deficit in trade with China,” the envoy said.

He said the Chinese welcome Nepal to export products to China. “But the problem is that you’re not producing any, not any agricultural products, not any industrial products.”

Former Nepali ambassador to Denmark Bijay Kant Karna said the Chinese ambassador breached the diplomatic line by commenting on Nepal’s internal affairs.

“His statement is undiplomatic. It also shows the Chinese are seeking ‘some say and share’ in Nepal’s foreign policy conduct,” said Karna.

“Why are they posturing so aggressively? In my personal observation, the Chinese side has maintained very hawkish and aggressive behaviour in Nepal after the visit of the Chinese President to Nepal, which we never found in other South Asian nations,” said Karna.

“During the visit, there was an agreement to elevate the bilateral relations to the strategic partnership but what does that mean and entail? From the MCC [the US-funded project] to this episode, why are the Chinese making unwarranted comments on Nepal’s internal affairs?”

Noted lawyer Bipin Adhikari, however, thinks that the Chinese envoy has spoken Nepal’s reality. “It may be undiplomatic, but whatever the Chinese ambassador has said, he has spoken the reality. It seems he is speaking in Nepal’s interest,” Adhikari wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

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