Meet Nepal’s man in Tibet, building bridges on the roof of the world

Gobinda Karkee is fostering his nation’s relations with emerging superpower China, as Kathmandu also tries to balance its ties with Beijing’s regional rival India

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2017, 6:08pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 2017, 10:19pm

High on the Tibetan plateau, Gobinda Karkee holds one of the most enviable diplomatic postings in the world.

As Nepal’s consul-general to Lhasa, Karkee is the head of the only diplomatic mission based in Tibet, enjoying unparalleled access to the ethnically sensitive region in China’s far west.

The wider foreign policy issue facing Karkee and other Nepalese government officials, however, is complex. As Nepal tries to tread a fine line between culturally close India and an increasingly powerful China, what should the strategy be for the small Himalayan nation sandwiched between two supersized neighbours?

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“The Nepal government has adopted a balanced approach – a balanced foreign policy on how to balance good relations with both big countries,” Karkee told the South China Morning Post in a rare interview with foreign or Hong Kong media as visits to Tibet are heavily restricted.

Sitting in his ageing office and residential compound not far from the Potala Palace, Karkee said: “Somehow, Nepal has been able to maintain balanced relationships [which is] good for regional peace and stability.”

With centuries of close ties with India, Nepal’s willingness to accept China’s offer to pump billions into its development projects has not always run smoothly.

Kathmandu decided last month to ditch a US$2.5 billion deal to build a dam with a Chinese firm.

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This came after Chinese companies had pledged US$8.3 billion for new roads, hydropower plants and infrastructure projects in Nepal earlier in the year.

The cancellation of the hydroelectric scheme was a setback to President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” as China tries to forge closer trade and diplomatic ties with nations overseas. The Nepalese move was widely regarded by analysts as bowing to Indian pressure as Beijing and New Delhi vie for influence with Nepal.

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Nepal and China finalised a 1.5 billion yuan (US$226 million) deal in May to build a new international airport at Nepal’s main tourist town of Pokhara, about 200km west of Kathmandu. Export-Import Bank of China will grant soft loans which Karkee said came with “with fewer conditions and a lower interest” rate. “Nepal is really eager to get more benefit from this [belt and road] initiative,” he said.

Tibet, which shares a 1,200km border with Nepal, plays a particularly important role in the Chinese government’s desire for better relations with Nepal.

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Tibet’s governor Che Dalha said at the Communist Party’s national congress in October that boosting relations with Nepal and the Himalayan nation of Bhutan was an important pathway as China develops influence in South Asia.

Karkee said that a number of other projects were under way, highlighting cooperation between China and Nepal.

These include the Tibetan authorities’ plan to extend a railway line from Lhasa to Shigatse across the Nepalese border by 2020, ultimately linking up to Kathmandu. Nepal sees the rail link with Tibet as a strategic alternative to its total reliance on Indian seaports, especially Calcutta.

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More checkpoints were also planned on the Chinese-Nepali border to boost exchanges of goods and people, Karkee said, adding that the volume of trade has fallen following the 2015 earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people and devastated parts of Nepal’s northern border area.

Karkee said the Tibetan government was keen for him to have a full understanding of political decisions in the region.

He is invited to the annual session of the regional advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. “I was given the papers … and had an English interpreter, so I would know what’s going on,” he said.

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Nepal was eager to reap more benefits as China expands overseas investment, Karkee said.

“Our shared history goes back 400, 500 years. At that time many Nepalese businessmen came to Lhasa, to Tibet,” he said, with repeated references to a royal marriage between Songtsan Gampo, the founding king of the Tibetan empire, and the Nepali princess Bhrikuti back in the 7th century.