NEW DELHI: A relationship once steeped in sentiment and history seems to be giving way to more practical considerations, at least for Nepal. The ‘roti-beti ka rishta’ may have been the umbilical cord between India and Nepal for centuries. But with China promising bagfuls of goodies to an impoverished nation, sentiment and traditional links are giving way to a more hard-nosed approach by Nepal that’s driven by both development needs and political ideology.
The latest round of goodies was rained during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Nepal on October 12 and 13 as part of Beijng’s efforts to increase its sphere of influence in a country that India once regarded as its backyard.
Xi announced that Nepal will be provided 56 billion Nepalese rupees over the next two years for development programmes. The two sides also inked 18 pacts encompassing a range of areas during the first visit by a Chinese President to Nepal in over two decades.
This should have India worried. For, the Kathmandu-Beijing tango that has continued apace in recent years has gathered further steam following President Xi’s visit. Even more worrying, say observers of the Kathmandu-Beijing clinch, is the growing synergy being witnessed between the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) and the Chinese Communist Party.
“There are very strong linkages between the Communist Party of Nepal and that of China. Cadres of the Chinese Communist Party are training Nepalese cadres on how to run the party and the government. The Nepalese Communist party seems to be developing an organic relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” former Indian ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Rae told SNI.
Regarding the 18 pacts inked between China and Nepal during Xi’s visit, Rae said that India’s engagement and outreach with Nepal remain unmatched. However, he drew attention to the changes taking place in the Nepal-China dynamics. “On the margins, things are changing incrementally. The Nepalese government and the ruling party is very keen to engage with the Chinese.”
Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli himself has made no bones about his proximity to China. He rode to power early last year on strident anti-India rhetoric. Thereafter, even though he has made the right noises about India being a friend, his government’s actions have made it amply clear that China will be a close ally too.
Observers note that Oli with his nationalist, anti-India outlook is very close to the Chinese government and, therefore, New Delhi needs to keep a watchful eye on the Kathmandu-Beijing axis.
The growing synergy between Communists of the two countries can also be gauged from the fact that a pact for setting up a Confucius Institute at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu was also signed during Xi’s visit. While the ostensible aim is to teach Chinese language and culture, it’s widely believed that they are an extension of the Chinese government and used for propaganda.
Importantly, the land-locked country in a bid to reduce its dependency on India inked pacts on connectivity that included roads, ports and railways during President Xi’s visit. The pacts are seen as intrinsic to the larger Chinese goal of a trans-Himalayan corridor which is part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While India has kept out of BRI on grounds of sovereignty, Nepal is part of it.
The pact to look into the feasibility of a China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway Project to connect Tibet Autonomous Region’s (TAR) capital Lhasa with Nepal’s capital Kathmandu is being seen as an important component of the trans-Himalayan corridor, more formally known as the trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network.
However, questions about the economic feasibility of the cross-border railway project remain as it will also take a long time to execute given the challenging terrain.
The joint statement issued upon the conclusion of Xi’s visit acknowledged the importance of connecting the two countries. As part of these efforts, Nepal and China have also agreed to work together on a feasibility study to construct tunnels along the road from Jilong/Keyrung on the border between the two countries to Kathmandu.
The effort to improve connectivity links between the two countries also saw the two sides deciding to work together for the upgradation and reconstruction of the Araniko highway. This highway links Kathmandu to Kodari which is on the Nepal-China border.
While the aim to build a cross-border railway certainly seems an ambitious aim given the difficult terrain, the signalling is clear. The Left-leaning Oli-led government has been sending clear signals to New Delhi ever since it took charge—that Kathmandu is no longer willing to put all its eggs in one basket as far as its dependence on India is concerned. Nepal, it seems, has learnt its lessons after the unofficial blockade imposed by India in 2015 when Oli was PM.