Nepal’s vital infra projects in China’s hands
The story first appeared in The Annapurna Express
SAWM Nepal member journalist Asha Thapaliya speaks in this interview to Nepal expert and retired general of the Indian army Ashok Mehta. The role of China in Indo-Nepal political relation, some important political equations and how Nepal can maintain its independent relationship with both the neighboring countries came up in this comprehensive interview.
The big-power rivalry in Nepal is getting curiouser and curiouser. India imposed a crippling blockade on the landlocked country for its reservations over Nepal’s new constitution. Gasping for life, the country and the then KP Oli government naturally turned to China, Nepal’s only other immediate neighbor. He went there in 2016 and signed many vital agreements, most importantly the Trade and Transit Treaty and a deal to import a third of Nepal’s oil from the northern neighbor. The goal was to forestall another blockade-like situation at all cost. His policy of ‘diversifying’ away from India paid electoral dividends— and at long last led to Xi Jinping’s Nepal visit. The Indians are worried. What does the growing Chinese presence in Nepal mean? Does it pose a direct threat to Nepali democracy? Does it spell an end to its traditionally dominant role? India and China have seldom cooperated for the benefit of third countries in the region, and it would be naïve to expect them to do so now, never mind Wuhan or Malappuram.
There is also a perception in Delhi that the common ideology of the ruling parties in Nepal and China helps bring the two countries closer. “India does not seem to have any effective ideas to meet this massive Chinese cultural, ideological and political challenge,” writes SD Muni, an old Nepal hand in India for The Quint.
Ashok Mehta, a retired general of the Indian Army and another Nepal expert, believes it is more a case of Nepal being “somewhat fearful of China and doing things after receiving some signal from Beijing.” Yet most Indian analysts also seem quietly confident that Nepal is trying in vain to overcome the hard constraints of geography.
How did you view Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Nepal?
The visit had been pending since 2014. We had been hearing different reports that Xi was not happy with the preparations for his trip or that he was not visiting Nepal. Finally, he visited Nepal and conveyed a big message. In my understanding, no foreign leader has had the impact that Xi did during his two-day state visit. When Indian Prime Minister Modi went to Nepal for the first time in 2014, it was billed as landmark. Modi also won the hearts and minds of the Nepali people.
Preparations for Xi’s visit were taking place for a long time. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi went to Kathmandu a month ago. A delegation of the Chinese Communist Party had also visited Nepal. And a seminar on Xi’s political thought was recently held in Kathmandu.
Before his visit, Xi himself wrote an article that was published in private and government newspapers. He went to Nepal with a new blueprint for bilateral relations. He said China would help Nepal become ‘land-linked’ instead of ‘land-locked’. He talked about the Nepal-China Economic Corridor under the Trans Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity.
The visit was the outcome of well-thought-out preparations. Its timing was also significant. Currently, Nepal has a communist government with a big majority in the parliament. In this context, the visit by the paramount leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is a turning point in Nepal’s history.
What did you think of the agreements signed during Xi’s visit?
The agreements do not have much substance as there are no deliverables. The financial assistance, however, is important. There have been agreements to conduct feasibility studies of some connectivity projects, which are significant. But until and unless India gets involved in such vital connectivity projects, China will not invest its money and technology. There is no economic benefit in extending the railway line up to Lumbini, because the flow of tourists only would not sustain it. The main target of the railway line is obviously India’s market. Nepal has always wanted to be a bridge between its northern and southern neighbors. When Baburam Bhattarai was the prime minister, he pushed the concept of trilateral cooperation. However, India’s focus is on continuing and enhancing bilateral cooperation because it thinks of itself as the dominant power in South Asia. As far as the economic corridor is concerned, it would gain significance if India joins it. India-China relationship is tense at the moment and it is poised to remain so for long. Therefore, the feasibility study of China-Nepal-India economic corridor is challenging. Billions of rupees are required for the construction of roads and railway lines.
How do you evaluate the current state of Nepal-India and Nepal China relations?
The two cannot be compared because Nepal and India share an open border, whereas the Nepal China border is a closed one. Nepal and India also enjoy close military cooperation. China, with a closed border with Nepal, cannot demand the same type of relations that India has with Nepal. There may be flaws in the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty of Peace and Friendship, but the fact remains that the two countries share an open border. There is frequent movement of people, one lakh Nepalis are currently employed in the Indian security forces and two lakhs of them receive pensions. In terms of geography too, the major Chinese population hubs are much farther from Nepal than are Indian population hubs. With some caution I would say that Nepal fears China. Nepal frequently says Taiwan is part of China, it keeps reaffirming the one-China policy, it strictly curbs anti-China activities, it closes the office of the Dalai Lama, and bars the celebration of his birth-day. All these indicate that Nepal is somewhat fearful of China and does things after receiving some signal from Beijing. Now that Nepal has a communist majority government, there is more pressure than in the past. But China is giving more development assistance to Nepal as well.
How can India minimize China’s influence on Nepal?
India should focus on completing its development projects in Nepal on time. All its works, be it the Rax-aul- Kathmandu railway line or any other development project, should be of high quality. However, major development projects are already in China’s hands. Nepal is handing over projects to build airports, roads and hydropower plants to China. China-Nepal economic corridor is under construction. The letter of exchange mentions investment in infrastructure and hydropower projects. In the past, there was no such focus. Now China is constructing transmission lines in Nepal.
Are you suggesting that Nepal is already in China’s fold?
We cannot say that. My analysis is based on the current political situation in Nepal. What type of political equation emerges in the future cannot be predicted.