Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Kathmandu last week was a continuation of China’s growing engagement with Nepal in recent years. His visit was primarily observed in Nepal as a precursor to the probable visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Himalayan republic. Expectations over Xi’s visit have been elevated – Jiang Zemin was the last Chinese president to make a visit to Nepal, in 1996. Surprisingly, Hu Jintao, who was supposed to be highly knowledgable about Nepal after working for a long period in Tibet, did not visit his country’s southern neighbor during his entire 10-year tenure as Chinese president.
If Xi visits in October as anticipated, it could play a very important role in enhancing bilateral relations between Nepal and China.
Although Nepal’s relations with China are ancient, the geographical barrier of the Himalayas has made people-to-people contact difficult. Therefore, the latest discourse in the political, diplomatic and intellectual circles in Nepal with respect to China has been focused on the need to enhance connectivity between the two countries.
This is where the broad framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) might come into the picture. Nepal is one of the signatories of the BRI. However, it appears that there is little knowledge about what exactly the BRI can offer to Nepal or vice versa. Even the Nepalese government does not seem to be have a full understanding of the BRI. Alternatively, it may also be that China has not been able to make the Nepalese side fully understand the advantages Nepal can gain from the BRI.
Some in Nepal have a general understanding that the BRI can act as a panacea for the ills plaguing Nepal’s development, but that would be an exaggeration of what the BRI is all about. China has promoted the BRI as a win-win model for those who are parties to it. Therefore, it should be understood that the BRI is not a Chinese grant-providing venture. It is up to the participating countries to negotiate the terms and conditions for achieving a mutually beneficial outcome.
The United States has been particularly concerned about China’s globalist outlook in the form of the BRI. Critics of the BRI have accused China of conducting “debt trap” diplomacy. The issue of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka is cited as a classic example.
Nepal has not significantly engaged with China in terms of identifying and implementing potential projects under the BRI. Talk of establishing a Kerung-Kathmandu trans-Himalayan railway has gained steam in Nepal in recent years. However, the pre-feasibility report has hinted that because of the extremely difficult geographical terrain, the construction of the railway link up to Kathmandu from Kerung in Tibet would entail huge costs and time. Furthermore, there is no clear understanding in Nepal of the technical and financial modality in which such a railway link would be constructed. The idea that China would build such a huge project totally at its own expense is unrealistic at best. Therefore, a detailed cost-benefit analysis should be carried out before undertaking the railway project.
Nepal has not significantly engaged with China in terms of identifying and implementing potential projects under the BRI
Wang’s talks with Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali mainly focused on issues related to trade, investment and tourism, although it was widely expected in Nepal that the issue of connectivity would prominently feature in the dialogue. Hence his visit is widely seen as the groundwork for Xi’s probable visit.
Wang’s stay in Nepal attracted a bit of controversy as geopolitical dynamics came to the fore. It was reported that former Nepalese prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda), chairman of the Nepal Communist Party, stated during his talks with Wang that Nepal disapproved of the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). That report led to the US Embassy in Kathmandu seeking clarification on the matter from Nepal’s Foreign Ministry.
Nepal occupies a crucial geo-strategic location in South Asia between two giant states, India and China. The late King Prithvi Narayan Shah described Nepal as a “yam between two boulders” in the 18th century, emphasizing the need for the country to maintain balanced relations with its southern and northern neighbors.
One of the most significant guiding principles of Nepal’s foreign policy has always been non-alignment. Officially, Nepal has never disapproved of the IPS. Unlike the BRI, there is no provision to enter an agreement under the IPS. The US has been one of the most important partners of Nepal since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1947.
Being a small power in a sensitive geopolitical location, Nepal can ill afford to be a part of any geopolitical games. In this context, it would be prudent to remember the late King Mahendra, who declared in a joint session of the US Congress in 1960 that Nepal’s foreign policy was guided by the principles of non-alignment and non-entanglement. Therefore, Nepal should be careful not to get entangled in big-power rivalry.