Even before Xi Jinping paid a two-day state visit to Nepal earlier this week—the first by a Chinese president since 1996—Nepali media, foreign policy pundits and commoners appeared confident about one thing: President Xi wouldn’t disappoint. And he didn’t.
During his 20-hour stay in Kathmandu, Xi didn’t just meet President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, and opposition leader Sher Bahadur Deuba on issues of mutual interest. By the time he left on the afternoon of 13 October, he had witnessed the signing of 20 agreements on multiple fronts of bilateral cooperation including trans-Himalayan connectivity, security, energy, trade, and economic assistance. These would, he said, help develop “a new blueprint for Nepal-China relations.”
One of the major highlights is the commitment to trans-Himalayan connectivity: accords to open up more border points, construct or upgrade roadways connecting the two countries, develop economic corridors, and identify the possibility of a major railway or tunnel. This ambitious, multi-billion dollar scheme has a suitable mouthful of a name: the China-Nepal Trans-Himalayan Multi-Modal Connectivity Network, part of China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. A joint communique issued Sunday, October 13, also notes that both sides “reiterated their cooperation on Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini Railway Project.”
China plans to expand the Qinghai-Tibet Railway up to Kerung, a border town around 35 km from the Nepal border, by 2020. That crossing, the Rasuwagadhi border, is 72 km from Kathmandu. The much-talked Kathmandu-Kerung railway and the staggering idea of a Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini rail line remain distant, costly dreams, but Nepal got what it wanted: a commitment from China’s highest authority. “China would help Nepal realize its dream of transforming itself from a landlocked country to a land-linked country,” Xi said at the state reception held at Soaltee Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kathmandu on Saturday evening.
Other notable agreements include an understanding to resume progress on the long-stalled Arniko highway, form the Nepal-China Electric Power Cooperation Plan, establish the Madan Bhandari University, named after late communist icon and President Bhandari’s husband, and open a Confucius institute under Tribhuvan University.
Experts say that these agreements, if sincerely implemented, could be a game-changer in spurting economic growth and development and ending Nepal’s ‘India-lockedness’.
“This visit could give [us] what we badly need: investment in infrastructure development and FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] for growth of trade and commerce,” said Tanka Prasad Karki, a former ambassador to China. “It is not in China’s interests or in India’s interests to let Nepal remain as it is: a least developed country. Both countries, emerging global powers, are increasingly realizing this fact.”
Xi’s short visit was equally significant for security and strategic reasons. In a signed op-ed published in the Nepali dailies on the eve of his visit, Xi described China and Nepal as good friends, partners, neighbors, and brothers as he stressed the need to enhance and expand strategic communication, practical cooperation, people-to-people exchanges, and security cooperation.
While Nepal has long supported the One China policy, the visit was a chance to reaffirm this. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece, The Global Times, led its analysis of the visit by reporting that Xi had said during his visit that “anyone attempting to split China will be crushed and any external force backing such attempts will be deemed by the Chinese people as pipe-dreaming.” The paper quoted a Chinese analyst as saying that “such a strong and clear signal sent by the Chinese top leader is a stern warning to not only Tibetan separatists, but also other separatist forces in Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong,” as well as a strong warning to the West not to exploit Nepal’s geo-strategic importance.
Xi’s visit brought other symbolic messages, too. Perhaps aware of the scandals and air of moral decay surrounding the ruling Nepal Communist Party, Xi told ruling party leaders that public trust was the only infallible mantra to retain power and urged them to devote them in service of the country and countrymen like their Chinese comrades. Last month, NCP leaders reportedly received an orientation on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, from Song Tao, the foreign affairs chief of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Against the backdrop of his government’s performance looking increasingly lacklustre, PM Oli on Sunday hailed the visit as a milestone in taking Nepal-China relations to new heights. In its enthusiasm to please Xi, the Oli government had reportedly been on the verge of signing an extradition treaty similar to the one driving protests in Hong Kong, but pulled back amid intense criticism from opposition parties and rights groups. The two sides have agreed to keep all doors open for future discussion on the treaty. Many fear that this will be used, in the first instance, to target Tibetans in Nepal. Residents of the Tibetan Refugee Camp in Jawalakhel, Kathmandu, were confined to the camp under surveillance of security agencies throughout Xi’s visit.
The Oli government went an extra mile or two to impress Xi. An army of workers was pressed—or press ganged—into service over Dasain; potholes disappeared overnight; major stretches of road inside Kathmandu were blacktopped overnight and festooned with welcome gates; large stretches of the Bisnumati’s dirty, slum-filled banks were shielded from Xi’s view by large barricades. Public places, including traffic islands and sidewalks, were turned into temporary parks and gardens; indeed the government is thought to have spent around Rs 50 million just on flowers.
In a rare gesture, President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Vice President Nanda Kishore Pun, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, Cabinet Ministers, Chief Ministers and the heads of security agencies were all present at the airport to welcome Xi. The government directed civil servants to queue up along the road in Xi’s welcome.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had received similar welcome from the state and, on the face of it, earned more greater fans than Xi did, on his first visit to Nepal in 2014. The economic blockade that followed on the heels of anti-constitution protests, which many believe was imposed by India at the behest of some protesting Nepali leaders, put pay to that dividend.
Some observers believe that Xi’s visit and the range of agreements signed on trans-Himalayan connectivity are a well-thought out blueprint of a trilateral cooperation between China, Nepal, and India.
“Xi could have directly come to Nepal, but he decided to come via India for a reason. China is using Nepal as a safe gateway to the Indian subcontinent due to Indian sensitivities elsewhere in the region,” said Kapil Shrestha, a political science professor at Tribhuvan University.
Experts say the visit will be of little consequence if the government fails to start prioritising and working toward implementing the agreements. “It’s a good beginning, but it’s just the beginning,” said Shrestha.
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