Connectivity and investment key agenda of BIMSTEC Summit: Foreign Minister Gyawali

Nepal is holding the fourth Summit of BIMSTEC next week. The regional body is expected to discuss various issues pertaining to connectivity, investment, poverty alleviation, trade and curbing cross-border crime. At the same time, another regional body, SAARC, has failed to hold its summit in time. Against this backdrop, Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali talked with The Rising Nepal about Nepal's relations with India, China and European countries. Excerpts:

It's been six months since the government came to power, and you have already visited China, India and Europe. How do you find the conduct of Nepal's foreign affairs?

Although it's been five months since I assumed the post of Minister for Foreign Affairs, the last six months have delivered many positive results in terms of external relations. We were more focussed on taking the bilateral relations with the immediate neighbours to newer heights and identifying new areas of cooperation and collaboration. The efforts have begun to yield results. In addition to this, work has been done to make our affiliation to multilateral international organisations, such as the United Nations, more effective in the changed context, find new areas of relations and cooperation with the donors and Development Partners (DPs) and initiate effective diplomatic exercise and communication with the countries of the labour destinations to promote the interest of Nepali workers there. Everyone out there accepts that our diplomatic initiatives have been fruitful.

Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has also visited India and China. What have been the outcomes?

During his India visit, PM Oli lay emphasis on three issues – creating a new foundation of trust by ending the ups and downs and problems experienced in the past, developing a time-bound implementation framework for the execution of past agreements, and identifying new areas of cooperation in railways, waterways and agriculture. From my perspective, there have been significant achievements in these three areas. Strong trust has been built between the two countries, which has been further solidified based on the concept of sovereign equality, mutual benefits and respect for each other.

We are trying to bridge the gap in the implementation of the agreements signed between the two countries in the past, and which was ever growing. There has been significant progress at identifying new entry points for aircraft, resolving the inundation problems in the Terai, developing canals and link roads as per the Pancheshwor Project, and reviewing the Commerce Treaty. We have set coming September as the deadline and are working on a war-footing. Similarly, significant achievements have been made in terms of the Raxaul-Kathmandu Railway, inland waterways and agricultural cooperation. All these initiatives have given Nepal-India relations positive shape.

Likewise, the age-old Nepal-China friendly relations were further strengthened during the PM's visit to the northern neighbour. There were deliberations on strengthening the bilateral relations and identifying new areas of cooperation. Operating railway lines and north-south roads under the Trans-Himalayan Multimodal Transportation Network, developing economic corridors, new agreements in the energy sector, construction of the Madan Bhandari Technical Institute and export of Nepali goods to China were the major agenda of discussion during the PM's visit.

Therefore, I would say that Nepal's relations with its neighbours are moving ahead with maturity and stability. The recent visits of the PM have given even better shape to the relations, which have bred hope that such cooperation would create a more favourable environment for economic development of the country.

But Nepal and China are yet to sign the Transportation and Trade Protocol.

Dialogue is taking place between the two countries at various stages regarding the protocol. A Nepali delegation visited China last month, and dialogue with the Chinese side has resolved many issues. But, as it’s a technical document, and we need to settle issues such as the transportation route, sea and land port, and many other critical issues, we are minutely working on it. I am hopeful that we will sign the document very soon.

Is there a possibility of a high-level visit from China?

When PM Oli extended his invitation to the Chinese President, he had said that he had received the request much earlier and was interested in visiting Nepal at an appropriate time since the country has entered the age of political stability and economic prosperity after a prolonged political transition. He has assured us that he would visit Nepal at the earliest possible date. Diplomatic channels from both the countries are in talks regarding the high-level visit from China, and I hope that the Chinese President will visit Nepal soon.

How do you assess your Europe visit?

Europe is Nepal's crucial development and trade partner. It plays an effective role in numerous global issues. Since the European Union (EU) and other country-specific organisations play an import role in such issues, Nepal has assigned high priority to the relations with the EU and its member countries. I held interactions with my counterparts and think tanks in Europe and updated them about the recent political developments in Nepal. Talks were held on increasing European investments and tourists, and providing additional facilities to Nepali products in Europe. I have urged the EU to treat Nepal as a special priority nation till 2022 when the country graduates to a developing nation from a Least Developed Country (LDC), and until the post-quake reconstruction is complete.

I updated them about the unique peace process that Nepal underwent, achievements in terms of democratic practices, progressive social justice provisions in the Constitution and its implementation. I received many positive responses and assurances.

 

Nepal is organising the 4th BIMSTEC Summit next week. What is the status of the preparations?

BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) is a common mechanism of seven countries around the Bay of Bengal. Although Nepal and Bhutan are not directly connected to the Bay, our environment is. Rain producing clouds are created in the Bay of Bengal and cause rain in the region, and the rainwater returns to the sea in the Bay. So we are in the same ecology. We share common values and cultures, which have defined our identity. The region, which extends from the sea level to Mt. Everest, features exclusive bio-diversity, and has a population of 1.7 billion where the youth constitute a large part. Therefore, it is an area with high potential.

BIMSTEC was established 21 years ago to achieve shared prosperity in the region, and now we are preparing for the fourth summit of the regional mechanism. Since it is the first major international event happening in the country after the formation of the new government, we have assigned high priority to it. Preparations for the physical construction, technical management, documentation of drafts related to various issues, and bilateral and multilateral meetings are taking place at the desired speed. We are in the final stage of the overall preparation. The Summit will witness high dignitaries from all the member countries. All countries will be represented by the head of the government or head of the state, the executive one. There will be two presidents and four prime ministers.

What are the special agenda to be raised by Nepal at the Summit?

Peaceful, prosperous and sustainable Bay of Bengal is the theme of the Summit. Our major focus will be on peace, prosperity and development. To achieve these targets, we have set five priority areas. The first is the development of connectivity, transportation network and electricity transmission lines. Second is investment, trade and tourism development, third poverty alleviation, fourth mitigating the effects of climate change, and fifth is control of cross-border crimes. Through these priority areas, we are trying to develop the regional cooperation body as an effective mechanism to lead the people of the region towards prosperity.

While we talk about BIMSTEC, another regional body SAARC is going through difficult times. The SAARC Summit is not happening.

Nepal is making utmost efforts to further activate SAARC. It is an important network for us. Therefore, we have been telling the member states that there might be misunderstandings on some issues between the countries at the bilateral level, but they can be resolved through dialogue, that the table is the only place where we can resolve the issues and bridge the gap created between the members and identify a common way for cooperation. We have witnessed how countries having severe animosity between them have come together for dialogue and created mutual understanding. So the SAARC member countries should gear up for dialogue and try to clear the misunderstanding between them. There is no reason to slow down the SAARC process. Nepal is individually urging every member nation to create an understanding among the members and activate SAARC. As the chairman of SAARC, we will try to hold meetings of the foreign ministers of the SAARC member countries on the sidelines at the upcoming General Assembly of the United Nations to take it ahead smoothly.

Can we hope SAARC would get revitalised after the Summit?

We are hopeful. Pakistan has got a new government, and it should create a new environment. Misunderstandings should not be allowed to damage the relations. Millions of people will be affected if the misunderstandings continue. Therefore, we have to find ways for cooperation in the midst of the misunderstandings and agreement in the midst of differences.

The government has been trying to regulate the foreign aid sector, especially the National and International Non-Government Organisations (N/INGOs). But a section of the society says that the government is trying to be autocratic.

Democracy is about openness. The government has no intention to control the voice of the civil society and squeeze the civil space. The present government is not there to enjoy the luxury of democracy and benefits for itself. It has been formed by the leaders that had spent their lives fighting for democracy. People who question the government's promise of democracy are biased. But it is true that we want to regulate the foreign aid sector in order to reduce the duplication of aid and channelise the support to our priority areas. We need huge investments in infrastructure, such as drinking water, health facilities, roads and education. We need to create employment rather than spend money on raising awareness. We have also asked the donors and INGOs to respect the diversity of our society and not propagate anything that could disturb the harmony in the society.

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