Xi’s Nepal visit treaded softly on Indian sensitivities

Chinese President Xi Jinping on a state visit being received by Nepal President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, Kathmandu, October 12, 2019

If anyone would have thought that in the backdrop of our “muscular diplomacy” in the recent period, there could be an anti-India bias to President Xi Jinping’s state visit to China, things didn’t happen that way. 

The main takeaway from Xi’ state visit on October 12-13 is that a trans-Himalayan connectivity network is taking shape, finally. After much angst in the Nepalese mind about going ahead with the massive projects, Kathmandu decided to cross the Rubicon. In a recent visit to Kathmandu, one could see animated debates going on regarding the the pros and cons the Chinese projects. Who says Nepalese don’t have a mind of their own?

China will now commence the feasibility study for constructing a 70km rail link through extremely inhospitable mountain terrain across the “roof of the world” that would connect Gyiron in Tibet with Kathmandu. The timeline for completing the project is 2029. 

Alongside, China will also construct a 28-kilometre long tunnel that could more than halve the distance from Kathmandu to the Chinese border. Both promise to be audacious technological feats. The joint statement issued after Xi’s visit says,

“The two sides agreed to intensify implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative to enhance connectivity, encompassing such vital components as ports, roads, railways, aviation and communications within the overarching framework of trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network with a view to significantly contributing to Nepal’s development agenda…”  

At the regional level, China visualises Nepal to be a regional hub for developing its trade and economic links with the South Asian region. At the bilateral level, as Xi put it figuratively, China is helping Nepal transition from a “land-locked” country to a “land-linked” country. 

A Nepali official was more explicit, “These facilities will give us alternative trade routes when we face border blockades.” The reference is to Nepal’s bitter experience of the Indian blockade resulting in several months of acute shortage of fuel and medicine in 2015 and 2016.

In sum, these massive infrastructural projects underscore Beijing’s long-term strategy towards the South Asian markets — principally, India and Bangladesh — apart from boosting Nepal’s development and creating goodwill. 

The security of Tibet is China’s core interest vis-a-vis Nepal. The porous border provided infiltration routes for militants to carry out subversive activities to destabilise Tibet. Border security vastly improved in recent years, as China-Nepal relations took an upward trajectory. 

However, uncertainties remain. On October 5, on the eve of Xi’s visit to India and Nepal, the so-called Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala issued a provocative statement that Beijing has no locus standii on the “reincarnation” of the next Dalai Lama. Lobsang Sangay, the Sikyong or the “president” of the Tibetan government-in-exile, is a creation of the US. 

Evidently, the security of Nepal’s border with Tibet becomes a high-stakes affair. Xi’s reported remark in Kathmandu warning foreign powers inciting separatist forces in Tibet testifies to it. 

Nepal may agree to the signing of an extradition treaty with China in a near future, despite pressure from Washington. During Xi’s visit, a China-Nepal Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty on criminal matters has been signed, which is usually a precursor to extradition treaty. 

Suffice to say, a friendly government in Kathmandu is a top priority for China. The two countries have elevated their Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship to Strategic Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-Lasting Friendship for Development and Prosperity. 

What does it imply? The joint statement issued after Xi’s visit explains that the relationship “has entered a new phase.” China is putting the relationship with Nepal on a higher footing, strategically viewing it and focusing on development. The joint statement underscored the broadening of the economic partnership. Nepal is all set to be a showcase of the Belt and Road Initiative. 

During Xi’s visit, China announced aid package of $490 million for Nepal through the next two-year period. Aid is seldom altruistic and self-interests of donors play their part. But the red line appears when aid takes the form of imperialism. Why should China try to dominate Nepal? 

Arguably, the real political and diplomatic challenge for China lies in building an equal relationship. China cannot but be aware that Nepal has refused to accept Indian hegemony, although much smaller and weaker than India.  

The fact of the matter is that Beijing’s main worry about Nepal is the Tibetan nationalist activities. China seeks a Nepal that is politically stable and predictable so that it can plan for trade, investment and connectivity through Tibet with the vast South Asian hinterland. 

No matter the strains in the Sino-Indian ties currently, China takes a long term perspective that once the RCEP gains traction, its trade and investment ties with India would see a leap forward. 

Clearly, Xi’s state visit did not assume any “anti-India” overtone. The joint statement bears out that the optics were almost exclusively as a “bilateral” event. The deepening of China-Nepal relations, therefore, need not cause heartburn in India. But if it does, why is it so? 

Plainly put, the underlying factors have nothing to do with China as such. Short-sighted Indian policies have alienated the Nepalese political elites and public opinion. Nepal is acutely conscious of its heavy dependence on India but confidence in Indian goodwill is badly shaken. The blockade was an appalling mistake. 

In the multipolar world, concepts such as “blocs” or “sphere of influence” have become obsolete. All countries, big and small, have the option today to follow independent policies. Like China, India too should prioritise regional stability and development in its South Asian strategy. India’s handicap lies in its pathetic performance as a development partner.

India has a right to counter any attempt by China to incite animus against it in the neighbourhood. But there is no shred of evidence to show that China, which has a GDP five times bigger than India’s — and each year is only going to add to the huge hiatus in their respective comprehensive national power — feels any need to “contain” India. 

Being a global power, China has its own interests to pursue in the South Asian region and it is unrealistic to expect Beijing to roll back its ties with the countries of the region for the sake of placating India.