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Wednesday, 16 August 1989
Page: 200

Senator TEAGUE(7.32) —In the last week of June and the first two weeks of July I visited India, Nepal and Pakistan. Given the limitations on time today I foreshadow that tomorrow I plan briefly to outline to the Senate some of my observations and conclusions about India and Australia-India relations. But in my remarks briefly now I will refer to Nepal and to Pakistan.

As an undergraduate many years ago, I took a particular interest in South Asian history and politics and visited that region for some two months in 1966-67 as the leader of an Australian universities delegation. Now I had the opportunity to return for this substantial visit to these three countries. So it was my second visit to Nepal when I went with my wife for five days. I was able to call on the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Minister for Finance and the secretary to the King. I met with many members of parliament, religious leaders, academics and other community representatives. It was a busy time, greatly facilitated by the Australian Ambassador who is doing a magnificent job of representation for this country in Nepal.

The principal matter that I will focus on is that which the Nepalese Government regards as the most important and one which was most raised with me in all my discussions, that is the present border problem between Nepal and India. As is well known, India has unilaterally closed 13 of the 15 border points common to these two countries. This is an act on India's part, it would appear, to assert some degree of punishment or to try to gain some kind of discipline over Nepal in economic, defence and foreign relations matters.

India is concerned that Nepal has made a deliberate decision, with popular support, to be like Switzerland, a neutral country, and a zone of peace between its two immediate, very large neighbours, China and India. India is also concerned that, given the development of the Terrai, that rich agricultural area bordering India-Nepal wanting to maximise the economic benefits for its citizens-Nepal has introduced work permits which restrict some Indian citizens who, over some decades, have worked from time to time with more ease in the bordering country. India is also concerned that, following a controversial incident when India transgressed Nepal's sovereignty by violating Nepal's air space, within two months Nepal bought some military equipment, including some anti-aircraft guns, from China, which arrived in a convoy of trucks direct from China in June last year. I might add that Nepal has very limited military equipment and capacity. This decision, made by this independent and sovereign country, Nepal, appears to have annoyed India.

The main effect of the closing of the border points and of the impasse in general bilateral relations between Nepal and India has been a cessation of the distribution of petrol diesel and kerosene that had been, up to this point, the natural extension of the distribution of these products within India. Accordingly, Nepal is now taking new steps to set up a distribution system within Nepal that is able to import these products directly destined for Nepal, not as an extension to India's distribution system. In the current Budget considerable attention is given to the infrastructure costs of this system and to securing a reliable source of purchasing these materials. Materials coming from posts in the Bay of Bengal and destined for Nepal must go across a land bridge in India. The finance Minister in Nepal has pointed out to the Nepalese Parliament that prospects for the country's economic growth are only one per cent this year, rather than the expected six per cent, had there not been these difficulties on the border with India.

Let me make it quite clear to the Senate that Nepal asserts most vigorously and firmly its sovereignty and independence. Whilst it is acknowledged that 70 per cent of Nepal's economic relations are with India, its traditional close neighbour, Nepal has never been a part of India and is an independent and sovereign country. It is disappointing for me as an Australian senator to observe, from both Delhi and Kathmandu, that there has been an enormous and surprising absence of constructive discussion between representatives of the two countries. It is a great surprise to me that India has been a leader of the non-aligned movement, and which has prided itself on the principles of independence, both prior to 1947 and subsequently-India has accepted the principles of the United Nations Charter-has not extended those principles to its neighbour.

The appearance is given to many in Nepal and others in the South Asia region, such as the countries making up the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), that India appears as a bully and as not granting to Nepal the kinds of principles that India very much asserts for itself. That is a perception that is shared by Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Bhutan. I can only appeal, as I tried to do, to officials and Ministers in India to avoid any patronising approach to small neighbouring countries and to genuinely think through the implications of compromising in any way the independence and sovereignty of those countries. It is axiomatic that in all the years ahead Nepal will continue to have its main economic relations with India. I think that it is short-sighted for India not to repair this essentially political and foreign relations problem as soon as possible and to establish this on the basis of sound principles that would be recognised in this chamber and, indeed, not only in Australia but also in all fair-minded countries.

This dispute, with implications and examples drawn from other neighbouring countries to India, has already endangered the actual work, the business, of SAARC. The SAARC headquarters are in Kathmandu and I called on the Secretary-General. Of course he was very diplomatic in not referring to any of these contentious matters, but I know that the recent meetings of SAARC Foreign Ministers were disrupted over the Sri Lanka matter on the ground that there had been some bullying by India in not acceding to the request of Sri Lanka to withdraw Indian troops from that country. Given the similarity of perception in the neighbouring countries to India there is a quite significant problem for the repairing of sound relations in this important part of the world.

Finally, in regard to Nepal, I only have time to mention the excellent bilateral relations between Australia and Nepal and the way this has been furthered by our representation in that country. I commend directly the work of the Australian Ambassador, Ms Di Johnstone, who is well known to members of this chamber. This is her first posting as an ambassador and I think that every one of us can be proud of the excellent work that she, together with her staff, has done in that country.

I also wish briefly to commend Australia's development assistance projects in Nepal, including airport technology and, most especially, forestry projects. With the ambassador and an Australian forestry officer, but mostly, I should say, with the Nepalese village people themselves, my wife and I were able to trek to a high mountain to actually plant some trees in a joint Nepalese-Australian project which has transformed the forestation of the middle heights of hills and mountains throughout the eastern part of the country and has the prospect of having an enormous effect on agriculture and the economic prosperity of the village people. We stayed in a village one evening away from Kathmandu and we are grateful for the excellent hospitality that was given to us. It was a pleasure to have visited Nepal and I thank all those who assisted me in this visit. As the time that I had set for myself has now elapsed I will refer to Pakistan, along with India, tomorrow.