--BY TAMISH GIRI
On 12 February 1960, Nepal and the Philippines established bilateral relations and in these past 61 years, both countries have enjoyed a healthy relationship which has been nothing but cordial and mutually beneficial.
Both Nepal and the Philippines are members of the Non-Aligned Movement and have shown their adherence to world peace and stability. In the past six decades, the two countries have engaged in government level co-operations. Similarly, they have shared common views on issues like climate change and international trade facilitation for developing and underdeveloped nations in forums such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Both Nepal and the Philippines are agrarian economies and are also major source countries of migrant workers for nations of the Middle East and other parts of the world. Though Nepal and the Philippines are different in cultural and social aspects, they have both faced lengthy political upheavals and armed conflicts.
Despite the six decade long cordial relationship, Nepal and the Philippines have not developed any significant economic cooperation and made noticeable progress in bilateral trade. According to Suraj Vaidya, honorary consul general of the Philippines to Nepal, the focus should be on bolstering bilateral relations by strengthening trade ties between the two countries. “Until now, our relationship has been linked mostly to the education sector as many Nepali youths go to the Philippines for higher studies,” he says, adding, “However, there are many potential sectors where Nepal can attract Filipino investors.” Vaidya, who is the president of Vaidya's Organization of Industries and Trading Houses (VOITH), sees tourism and education as key sectors to attract investment from the Philippines at present.
Currently, the size of annual bilateral trade between Nepal and the Philippines stands at USD 1.70 million. In 2015, the Philippines ranked Nepal as its 124th trading partner out of 220 countries of the world. Similarly, Nepal was ranked as its 108th export market (out of 212 countries) and 141st import supplier (out of 201 countries).
Vaidya notes that there are several obstacles in the way of developing meaningful economic cooperation between the two countries. “One of the reasons behind this is regional as both countries are yet to eye economic opportunities beyond their respective regions. Nepal is a SAARC country, whereas Philippines is an ASEAN nation. So, their focus has been to develop their investment and trade within their regions because it gives them leverage in terms of imports and exports,” he says. While the obvious distance between the two countries has kept them apart, still, there exists tremendous potential if both sides engage in realising this potential, Vaidya believes.
According to the Department of Customs, Nepal’s main exports to the Philippines are handicraft items made from wood and silver, Pashmina, Lokta paper, honey and essential oils. In 2014, the Himalayan nation’s exports to the Philippines amounted to USD 2.85 million. Similarly, the Southeast Asian archipelago exported goods worth USD 2.6 million and USD 1.7 million to Nepal in that year.
A milestone in economic cooperation was achieved in 2015 with the establishment of the Nepal-Philippines Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NPCCI) through the efforts of the then Filipino Trade Counselor John Paul Iñigo and Vaidya.
Vaidya says that people-to-people connection is crucial to developing good economic relations between the two countries. “Nepali students have been going to the Philippines for higher studies for many years now, and many have seen potential areas for promoting business. The Nepal-Philippines Chamber of Commerce was formed to harness such potential,” he shares.
Vaidya and the Nepali delegation of the Nepal-Philippines Chamber of Commerce regularly participate in trade fairs in the Philippines to showcase Nepali products. Vaidya has been arranging business trips for both Nepali and Filipino entrepreneurs to promote trade relations between the two countries. “I have noticed that supermarkets and marts across Nepal sell imported goods from ASEAN nations in noticeable quantities. Some of these items are produced in the Philippines too. We are working to supply more Filipino products in the Nepali market,” Vaidya adds.
According to Vaidya, tourism is one of the areas with the most potential where Nepal and the Philippines can expand their economic cooperation. “Nepal has beautiful mountains and the Philippines has mesmerising seas and beaches. So, we can work on ‘mountain-to-the-sea concept’ to promote tourism,” he says.
Another area he sees is the education sector which has long worked as a means of people exchange between the two countries. Nepali students have been choosing the Southeast Asian nation as a destination for tertiary education in various streams. “The Philippines is ideal for students looking for high standard foreign education at reasonable expenses. Therefore, we should work with the Philippines to establish internationally accredited educational institutions in Nepal,” he says.
For attracting Filipino investors, Vaidya suggests that the government needs to amend its policies to create an investment-friendly environment in the country. “Our government should follow in the footsteps of India, China and Bangladesh and offer incentives to encourage foreign investors,” he says.
Vaidya is also a member of the Honorary Consul Corps - Nepal (HCC-N), an association of Nepali businesspersons representing different countries in Nepal as honorary consuls and consul generals who aim to contribute to the country's development through economic diplomacy.
Vaidya says that he is very impressed with the initiatives of the HCC-N to help foster Nepal’s ties with many countries across the world. “HCC-N has done some amazing jobs. If you look at the conferences HCC-N has organised, it has brought in honorary consuls from around the world to discuss various issues related to economic diplomacy,” he says, adding, “However, the government is yet to wholeheartedly recognise our initiatives.” According to him, the government needs to take HCC-N as an important means to fostering economic and trade ties with other countries. “Unless you get the right type of treatment and support, real serious work will not come,” he says.
He expresses his dissatisfaction over the government’s decision last year to penalise the entire community of consul generals for the misdeeds of one individual. “We were told to stop using the blue coloured [Diplomatic] license plate on our vehicles. Similarly, the pass system provided to us for entering the Tribhuvan International Airport to receive guests was also taken away,” he mentions.
Vaidya says that it is difficult for Nepal’s embassies to work on all the matters related to developing economic and trade ties with countries. “HCC-N can help the government in this regard,” he says.