Not long ago, Beijing’s perspective towards Nepal was limited to that of a ‘good neighbour’ only. Though the presence of about 20,000 Tibetans in Nepal has been an issue of major concern to Beijing, it has carefully managed its relations with Nepal which it sees as a strategic geographic zone in the Himalayan valley. The Chinese outlook seems to be changing fast as evident from the outcomes of President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Nepal on October 12-13, 2019. With growing emphasis on strengthening bilateral cooperation especially on building sub-regional connectivity, Beijing seems to be orchestrating a Himalayan approach in its relations with Kathmandu – revealing a grander Chinese policy in making.
On the side-lines of his Nepal visit, President Xi’s article published in Nepali newspapers sketched a bigger Chinese ambition with a view to forge “strategic and long-term” cooperation between the two sides. Stressing on a ‘renewed friendship’, Xi’s article was a curtain raiser to the joint statement which outlined resolute Chinese goals to promote “trans-Himalayan multi-dimensional connectivity network” in the region. Such ambitions are not unusual in Chinese strategic calculus — a similar approach could be noticed in China’s interactions with other immediate neighbours such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar in particular. What is striking about China’s recent outreach to Nepal is its effort to transform the relationship into a comprehensive partnership, aiming to integrate with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Himalayan valley.
In other words, Xi’s recent visit to Nepal could be viewed within the spectrum of China’s ‘neighbourhood’ policy that Beijing has been reinforcing for some time through greater strategic presence and multi-modal connectivity plans, and importantly, offering attractive financial aids. Orchestrating a pragmatic mode of comprehensive partnership, rather than just a simple form of engagement, is becoming the highpoint of China’s Himalayan approach.
Bilaterally, Xi’s visit to Nepal was the first-ever by a Chinese President since 1996. With more than 20 agreements, his visit outlined an ambitious Chinese approach not only to promote the flagship BRI-funded projects but also to link it strategically with its various trans-Himalayan connectivity projects that are being discussed between the two sides. For instance, the intended cooperation on Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini Railway project, restoration of Zhangmu/Khasa port, implementation of various highway projects in the Himalayan valley promoting transit–transport connectivity and plans to promote three north-south corridors in Nepal (Koshi Economic Corridor, Gandaki Economic Corridor and Karnali Economic Corridor) – all outlining China’s ambitions to deepen connectivity with Nepal, both within and outside the purview of the BRI.
Nepal, a signatory to the BRI, signed the Transit Transport Agreement (TTA) with China in September 2018, which in a way assured Nepal of access to seven transit points in China – four seaports (Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang) and three land ports (Lanzhou, Lhasa and Xigatse). Further, based on the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed on June 21, 2018, both countries agreed to cooperate in the field of energy, hydropower, wind power, solar power, biomass energy and other kinds of new energy. While the ports would be enabling Nepal to end its transit dependence on India slowly, the same also operated as an assurance of continued economic as well as strategic relations between China and Nepal.
Xi’s recent visit to Nepal should also be seen beyond the purview of bilateralism. An upgrade in the China-Nepal relationship comes amidst Beijing’s effort to increase its influence in South Asia. Such Chinese intent was aptly noted during Xi’s first visit to India in September 2014. In his speech, he explicitly factored in all the South Asian countries including Nepal as being central to the BRI (then referred to as ‘One Belt One Road’).
Further, the locus of geo-politics has been increasingly shifting towards the Indo-Pacific which is also encouraging China to accord more importance to Nepal and other immediate neighbours in the region. With many countries viewing China’s BRI doubtfully due to concerns over its opaque and unjust policies, creating financial debt burdens in the process, it has increasingly become a challenge for Xi to ensure the sustenance and success of the connectivity initiative, a focal point of China’s foreign policy. In this regard, Nepal’s enthusiastic stance towards the BRI comes as an advancement of China’s greater connectivity ambitions with a focus on the Himalayan region. The Chinese attempt is to gradually change Nepal “from a landlocked to a land-linked country”. For Nepal, inclusion in BRI means a much-wider strategic platform to connect with China as much as with the entire Himalayan region.
From envisioning cooperation between the two sides in the United Nations to multilateral trading regimes to various infrastructural development and regional connectivity projects, the two countries are increasingly exhibiting signs of an evolving relationship. However, the China-Nepal relations are not unidimensional. Trade and economic contacts are an important aspect. China remains the second largest import partner to Nepal with bilateral trade worth $1.523 billion in 2017-18, a shift from mere $445 million in 2009. Further, their commitment to promote exchange and cooperation in the fields of culture, education, tourism, traditional medicine, media, think tanks and youth at different levels re-emphasise a comprehensive outlook to their relations. China has offered 100 Confucius Institute scholarships to the Nepali side and initiated the ‘friendship city’ concept to strengthen the ties between Kathmandu and Nanjing and also Butwal and Xi’an. This approach of connecting city to city is a classic Chinese scheme, a part of its ‘development partnership’ strategy that is even evidenced in the case of India-China, China-Pakistan, China-Sri Lanka, China-Bangladesh and China-Maldives ‘Sister City’ cooperation framework.
Importantly, any advancement in the China-Nepal relations should also be perceived from the perspective of Beijing’s rising footprint in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, under Xi, China’s South Asia policy has been heavily influenced by connectivity and infrastructural initiatives such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), deep seaports at Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and Chittagong Port in Bangladesh. In a way, these only validate China’s traditional “peripheral diplomacy” that Xi revitalised through the October 2013 “Peripheral Diplomacy Work Conference” by focusing on land and maritime domains. These projects give China strategic access into the Indian Ocean and expand its presence in the region to protect its sea lanes of communication (SLOC). In this regard, while developing relations with Nepal might not directly provide China access to the Indo-Pacific, a strategic dimension to the China-Nepal relations in tandem with China’s South Asia policy would help Beijing expand its influence in the region.
Beijing also acknowledges Nepal’s fervent yet cautious approach towards China and its connectivity initiatives, in the context of India’s staunch condemnation of the CPEC as well as the BRI. Nepal acknowledges the need to tread carefully between India and China so as to preserve its growth and territorial integrity. Aware of Nepal’s dependence and historically close relations with India, China too would be cautious not to hurt its developing partnership with India at the cost of its new strategic partnership with Nepal. This was aptly reflected in Wang Yi’s recent press briefing, post Xi’s visit to Nepal, where he stated that “no matter how the external situation unfolds, China would continue to create opportunities for both countries”, hinting at a long-term cooperation with both Nepal and India. China’s continuous pitch for a “China-India Plus” cooperation framework, as Wang Yi’s statement indicates, refers to an open South Asia policy that is much more engaging. Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, former prime minister of Nepal, had espoused his vision of a trilateral cooperation between India, China and Nepal during his visit to New Delhi in April 2013. Since then, Nepal and China have been pushing for such a cooperation.
Beijing takes serious note of India’s rising profile as a power, mainly as a strategic pivot in the Indo-Pacific construct. The same is encouraging China to view its relationship with India through a new spectrum, specifically after Xi’s visit to India for the Mamallapuram ‘informal summit’, just ahead of his trip to Nepal. Hence, China would aim to forge a partnership with Nepal without disrupting its growing engagement with India.
In brief, Xi’s visit to Nepal signifies China’s emerging approach towards its immediate neighbours. Solidifying relationship with Nepal strengthens China’s sub-regional outreach in the Himalayan valley. Xi’s Kathmandu visit thus sets a new parameter for the China-Nepal ties to imbibe a regional approach, moving away from the traditional interstate relations based on simple bilateral modes of engagement.
The writer is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi