In October 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal for the first time since he assumed presidency in 2013. He became the first Chinese leader in 23 years to visit the Himalayan state. Relationship between the two neighbours has been cordial since the last time a Chinese President visited in 1996. Recently, a change has been observed in their relations as a rapid growth is being seen and a huge emphasis is being put down in strengthening the bilateral cooperation amid increasing concerns in India & elsewhere that Nepal is decisively pivoting towards China. Jinping’s visit has elevated the ties between Kathmandu and Beijing into a “strategic partnership of cooperation”. Both the nations have concurred to escalate the implementation of various projects under the BRI (Belt & Road Initiative) and promote the Trans Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity Network which was announced in 2018. The proposed trans-border railway line is intended to connect Kerung-Kathmandu-Lumbini. Such ambitions are not at all surprising in Chinese strategic calculus as similar type of approaches were seen even before in its interaction with the other immediate neighbours like Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The striking resemblance in this case is the effort that is being given to transform the relationship with Nepal into a comprehensive partnership with the aim to integrate with its BRI initiative in the Himalayan valley. For instance, apart from the railway project, there are plans to restore the Zhangmu/Khasa port, construct highways in the Himalayan valley to promote transit-transport connectivity & also designs for promoting three north to south corridors in Nepal – Gandaki Economic Corridor, Karnali Economic Corridor and Koshi Economic Corridor. All these projects outlines Beijing’s ambition to widen connectivity with Kathmandu, both within & outside of BRI’s purview.
In simple words, the recent visit of Xi’s was observed within the spectrum of Beijing’s ‘neighbourhood’ policy that it is trying to reinforce through greater strategic presence & multi-modal connectivity plans beside offering various attractive financial aids. Developing a pragmatic approach of comprehensive partnership instead of just having a formal engagement is the main focus now behind Beijing’s Himalayan approach. Subsequently, this visit can also be seen from beyond the purview of bilateralism as another important motive of Beijing is to increase its influence in South-Asia. This is very clear as President Jinping, in his visit to India back in 2014 had explicitly factored Nepal to be the centre of BRI (then known as ‘One Belt One Road’).
Additionally, the locus of geo-politics is gradually shifting in the vicinity of Indo-Pacific which is encouraging Beijing to tender more importance towards Kathmandu along with other neighbours in that region. However, President Jinping is facing a huge challenge in ensuring the sustenance & success of the connectivity initiative as a number of countries are doubtful over the BRI due to Beijing’s opaque & unjust policies which is subsequently creating huge financial debt burdens. Now, at this point, Kathmandu’s enthusiasm towards ambitious BRI comes as a step up the ladder for Beijing’s connectivity mission with a focus on Himalayan region. It is clear that China is gradually intending to change Nepal into a land-linked country from a land-locked nation. From Kathmandu’s perspective, inclusion into BRI means getting a much extensive strategic platform for connecting with Beijing as importantly as with the whole of Himalayan region.
The most important aspect to China-Nepal relationship is trade & economic contact. China is the second largest importer to Nepal. In 2017-18 bilateral trade between the two nations were worth $1.523 billion, a gigantic increase from 2009’s mere $445 million. Further, both the nations have agreed to promote, exchange and foster cooperation in various fields such as education, culture, medicine, tradition, tourism, think-tanks, media & youth at different levels to re-emphasise comprehensive outlook in their relations. In order to strengthen the knots between Kathmandu & Nanjing and Butwal & Xi’an, Beijing given 100 Confucius Institute scholarships to Nepal and initiated the concept of ‘friendship city’. This linking of city to city stratagem is a classic partnership development modus operandi which is evident even is case of China-Pakistan, China-Bangladesh, China-Sri Lanka, India-China & China-Maldives ‘Sister City’ cooperation framework.
Critically if we inspect, any development in China-Nepal relationship should be perceived as baby steps towards China’s rising footprints in the Indo-Pacific. As a matter of fact, President Jinping has been able to influence the China’s South Asia policy to a great extent by developing and enhancing new connectivity & infrastructural initiatives like the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) and deep sea ports at Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong Port in Bangladesh and Kyakpyu in Myanmar. In one way, all these validate traditional ‘peripheral democracy’ of China that President Jinping had revitalised back in 2013 through “Peripheral Diplomacy Work Conference” which focused on land & maritime domains. China gained strategic access into the India Ocean through these projects and subsequently expanded its dominance in the region to secure it SLOC (Sea Line of Communication). However, in regard to this, China might not get any benefit to access the Indo-Pacific by developing relationship with Nepal, but a strategic dimension in their relationship in tandem with South Asia policy of China would definitely help Beijing to thicken its influence in the region.
The Indo–Nepal Relation
In the light of the events that are currently taking place, it is crucial to understand the relation between India and Nepal. The nature of relationship between these two countries has always been a mixed bag. Ascribable to its provisions & protocol, the treaty of 1950 quickly became controversial & set conflictive tone in the bilateral relationship. The provisions laid down in the Indo-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950 constrained Nepal to be an ally & a nation under the security umbrella of India. In dealing with various sensitive matters Kathmandu has perceived New Delhi as ‘hawkish’ & ‘selfish’, which projected an unlikeable image of India in Nepal. The most significant among others are high-structure build-up along the border, reluctance in responding to border-encroachment complaints, different river treaties, the harsh behaviour of armed forces, inundation complaints, trade & transit crises and embargoes. Such experiences over the years forced Nepal to look for alternative options so that they can reduce their dependence on India. China has taken this as an opportunity to strengthen its relation with Nepal and hence apart from its ambitious BRI and railway project, it has done huge investment in hydropower, tourism, aviation, telecommunication, cultural & political exchanges, people to people relationships, technology & industry.
Presently, Nepal is putting up every possible effort to widen its connectivity with China. Nepal had went into an agreement with China in 2016 which was about expanding trade & transit network with Beijing. It was clearly a sign of Kathmandu’s intention to reduce high reliance on Delhi. The slew of agreements which were signed between China & Nepal during Xi’s visit in October 2019 was an extension of what was then agreed. Nepal not only view China from the conscience of trade but also a means of negating the leverage of Delhi in matters of crucial decision-making of Kathmandu in affairs relating to both domestic & international. As said earlier, Nepal is a land-locked country surrounded by India on all three sides and China on the North. Hence, the northern border of China remains the only option left with Nepal for harnessing the type of strategic autonomy every sovereign nation aspires to achieve. However, Nepal is aware over her irreplaceable nature of relation that she has with India and equally sensitive to the fact that on any circumstances she cannot afford to jeopardize this relationship. Hence, how Nepal manages to play a delicate balancing act will be spectacular thing for watching in days to come.
Implications for India
The active outreach towards Nepal from China in the recent times has been partly prompted because of Delhi’s increasing force posturing along the border areas which was in first place due to the activities of China along border regions. Interestingly, during the era of former government led by PM Manmahon Singh, considered enhancement of border force for defensive purposes which roughly coincided with the rising interest of China towards Nepal, which proliferated after the 2008 Tibetan protest. Some opined that the evolving relationship between India and US was also responsible for it. Beijing’s engagement with Kathmandu is either directly associated with various actions of India vis-à-vis China or is completely independent of the same. Whatever might be the case, New Delhi’s stratagem to keep Kathmandu’s engagement with Beijing to least possible is no more a viable option.
Next, in case of a war between India and China, it remains uncertain on whether Kathmandu will take New Delhi’s side in accordance with the spirit of the treaty of 1950 or remain reluctant to take either side and stay neutral. Though Nepal still remains an ally of India, constitutionally it has asserted that its foreign policy is ‘based on the Charter of the United Nations, non-alignment, principles of Panchsheel (and) international law’. Often major parties have reiterated this and the general national spirit of the country reflect its desire of remaining neutral as we had seen in 2017 during Doklam standoff.
The agreement between Beijing and Kathmandu on the principle of developing the important border points of Mustang in the north of Pokhara and Kimathanka towards the east have boosted Nepal’s connectivity quest. Beijing has also announced to provide financial assistance worth 56 billion in Nepalese currency over the period of next two years for helping Nepal to become a “land-linked” country from the “land-locked” one. Additionally, more than two dozen agreements were signed between the two countries. If all these projects & agreements work as they expect, it will almost free Kathmandu from depending on Delhi for imports and subsequently elevate trade & commerce between China and Nepal.
India needs to quickly identify and analyse the major causes behind Nepal’s behavioural change that is consistently resisting India while being so welcoming to China. New Delhi needs to critically analyse this issue as Nepal has major trade deficits with both the countries.
The next step for India must be laying focus to introduce and implement attractive economic, developmental & infrastructural initiatives with Nepal which would foster tangible benefits to the citizens of Nepal as well as address the vulnerabilities that might evolve if the country engages with China.
As China is rapidly winning the hearts & minds of the Nepali citizens through generous strategic charity the way ahead for India would be to deviate itself from its exclusively traditional security perspective & become proactive with new innovative strategies & policies. If India wants to keep Nepal closer to itself than from China, it needs to urgently deliver its promises and find out better approaches to make friendships with neighbour states and also in retaining them. Rest remains to be seen how delicately Nepal manages to maintain the balance.