This year, Nepal and China marked 67th anniversary of their diplomatic relation which was established on August 1, 1955. Although there were no remarkable activities to mark the occasion, Nepal-China ties have come into the spotlight in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan that triggered much controversy, forcing China to desperately muster support for its One-China Policy on a global scale. Nepal, on its part, has reiterated this policy that it has maintained since the opening of formal relations much to the satisfaction of the northern neighbour.
In his recent visit to China (August 9-11), Foreign Minister Dr. Narayan Khadka said that Nepal firmly adhered to the One-China principle and would never allow any activities conducted on its territory to oppose China or harm China's interests. “Nepal supports China's legitimate position on its internal affairs, including those of the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” Khadka said. Though Nepal continues to take this stance, it bears greater significance in view of ongoing intense Sino-US rivalry on the Nepali soil.
Dr. Khadka’s visit added renewed focus to implementing the past agreements between two nations. One of its important gains is China’s commitment to finance the feasibility study of Nepal-China cross-border railway. After his meeting with Nepali counterpart, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that his country would send experts to Nepal to conduct survey work within this year. Bringing Chinese rail into Nepal was one of the important poll agendas of all major political parties during the 2017 general elections. There was much euphoria when China and Nepal signed an agreement on building a cross-border railway linking the Tibet with Kathmandu in 2018. The idea of building a high-speed railway was included in a treaty on trade and transit the two nations inked in 2016.
During President Xi Jinping’s visit in 2019, Nepal and China had agreed to conduct a feasibility study of the railway project with the Chinese funding. However, there was not much serious debate on the investment modality of the Kathmandu-Keyrung Railway considered to be a game changer in the region. The then KP Sharma Oli-led CPN government asked the Chinese side to construct the cross-border railway in the latter’s grant. Although the deal on cross-border railway was agreed upon during Oli’s premiership, he did not show interest in implementing it and other vital accords to be constructed under the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The threat of debt-trap diplomacy, spread by a section of the Western and Indian media, also allegedly put a damper on the construction of much-talked about railway line.
Ironically, unlike in the past, a sense of enthusiasm is conspicuously missing here when China declared to fund the feasibility study of the cross-border railway. On the other hand, the news has rekindled hope and happiness among the Chinese. It immediately trended in Chinese Twitter-like social media platform, Sina Weibo, on August 11. A netizen commented: “I think that China dares to do such a super infrastructure project. I am really excited about going to Mt. Everest.” Some of them have also expressed their hope to see the connectivity and friendship between China and Nepal further deepened. “This is a win-win situation for both China and Nepal.” “It will help Nepal reduce dependence on India and further strengthen its cooperation with us.” “To build this railway is very necessary. It has huge economic and political significance.”
However, laying a railway track over the world’s complicated geological terrain is not a cake walk. It requires rigorous engineering skill, and huge human resources and financial costs as shown by a pre-feasibility study carried out in 2016. The concerned authorities said that it will take at least 24 months to finish the feasibility study of the railway project. Of course, the railway will be a milestone in connecting the two neighbours but there has not been comprehensive groundwork to make it economically viable for Nepal.
Meanwhile, China will provide Rs. 15 billion for the year 2022, conduct pre-feasibility study of Nepal-China cross-border transmission lines and the feasibility of setting up chemical fertiliser factory in Nepal, encourage the Chinese investment in enhancing its manufacturing capacity, modernise agriculture and promote self-driven development. Similarly, China has announced to support in the export of Nepali tea, traditional medicinal herbs and pasture products. Nepal produces high quality tea but it has recently faced obstacles in the Indian market. If Nepal’s tea finds market in China, this will also reduce the widening trade deficit with the northern neighbour.
The two sides have agreed to expedite the implementation of China-assisted projects in Nepal. They are for concluding negotiations on an implementation plan for BRI cooperation as soon as possible. The two foreign ministers agreed for setting up a joint mechanism for pandemic control in border ports. Although the two sides have reached an agreement to open Rasuwa-Kyerung and Tatopani-Jangmu ports for two-way trade, they have not yet come into full operation. The continuous disruption along Nepal-China border has a negative impact on Nepali trade and economy, and the Chinese side is expected to pay attention to resolve this problem.
Nepal-China relations are based on the principle of equality, mutual respect, non-interference in each other's internal affairs and support for one another over issues concerning their core interests. No any geopolitical tussle should undermine their age-old bonhomie and Nepal's efforts to benefit from the second largest economy. A strong political will and bureaucratic efficiency is required to implement accords inked during Dr. Khadka's visit.
(The writer is Deputy Executive Editor of this daily.)