-Shamim Zakaria 16 October 2019
Amid an entourage of high-level delegates and battery of media personnel, as the Air China fleet touched the tarmac of Chennai’s international airport, the flag-bearer of one of the world’s most powerful nation walked down the red carpet, waving to the resounding traditional welcome accorded to him. Chinese President Xi Jinping was on a state visit to India for an informal summit in the coastal city of Chennai’s Mamallapuram. This meeting is a continuation of last year’s first informal summit in China’s Wuhan that saw the two leaders coming together amid tensions running high from the Doklam standoff.
This time on as observers were glued to the summit between these two leaders, intending to decode what transpires, yet given the nature of informal summits – devoid of inking any pacts, no joint media interaction, and anything and everything coming under the purview of discussion – things can only whirl around speculations. While everything is pivotal to the Xi-Modi summit, let’s not forget this was soon followed by the Chinese President’s Nepal visit on October 12 and 13. As greater focus beams on Xi’s India visit, this should rather be seen more as Beijing’s intelligent act of balance. President Xi’s Kathmandu touchdown had a much greater strategic significance as China wants to continue to mount its influence on Kathmandu without unnerving New Delhi.
The visit is mattering not just because, this is the first in 23 years by any Chinese president, but also because this trip is likely to witness the inking of several crucial deals between Kathmandu and Beijing. More so from India’s point of view, because Nepal – once India’s close pal – now found a new bestie in China.
Compared to what was seen in India, the enthusiasm is on the next level in Kathmandu. From refurbished roads to banners, posters, and flags embellishing the streets of its capital, Nepal is leaving no stones unturned to ensure the significance of Xi’s visit reverberates with exhilaration.
Besides, the Chinese side is also attesting indisputable importance to this trip. Ahead of embarking on this visit, in a signed letter, President Xi well explicated how his visit tantamount to a renewal of China-Nepal friendship. Reminiscing China’s efforts in the restoration of Nepal post-2015 devastating earthquake, Xi wrote, “Our two countries have respected each other and trusted and supported each other, setting an example of quality, friendship, and mutually beneficial cooperation between neighbouring countries”. Besides addressing each other as ‘brothers’ the piece boasted China’s role in the infrastructural advancement of Nepal.
A close friend, there was a point when India even meddled with the domestic political affairs of Kathmandu; however, things started tilting, back in 2015.
Nepal adopted a new constitution in 2015 with Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli elected as the 38th Prime Minister. Oli’s anti-India sentiments laced with the Madheshis, Janajatis, and Tharus – three marginalized communities – discontentment with the newly promulgated constitution, started unstitching the threads of this friendship. These groups, Madheshi, in particular, felt they have been ignored in the new constitution so began a blockade at the border points.
The Nepalese government accused India of deliberately worsening the restriction by not allowing vehicles to pass from check-points where no protests were held. While the Indian side refuted these claims, the four-month-long political unrest led to a severe dearth of essential commodities like fuel, food, medicines, and vaccines. The UNICEF had even warned the blockade put more than three million infants at the risk of death or disease.
Though Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli’s 2016 visit to India helped to ease the tensions yet Oli’s anti-India rhetoric was visible again during his 2018 prime ministerial campaign, wherein he vowed to end India’s monopoly over Nepal. This brewing crisis with India laid the perfect foundation for Nepal’s bonhomie with China, a country that continues to cement its position in Asia and the world. Besides, Oli making his intentions clear to end India’s monopoly over its trading routes and enhancing connectivity with Beijing, was a perfect icing on the cake.
Furthermore, back in 2016 when the government of India demonetized 500 and 1000 denominations of India currency, it also dealt a blow to Nepal as Indian currency is a legal tender in the country. Moreover, it gave rise to a mistrust toward India allowing Nepal to slip to the arms of Beijing. As Amish Mulmi, a Nepali writer was cited, China has started to be seen as “the great emancipator, the counter-weight to India’s bullying, and the panacea to all our problems.”
China making inroads
The Post 2016-era saw the injecting of a new impetus to the China-Nepal bilateral relations. With investments to inking new deals, a new dawn descended on the bilateral ties of both the nations, Nepal has been a prime entrant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Back in 2016, a transit trade treaty was signed between Beijing and Kathmandu aimed at reducing dependence on India for the transportation of goods to Nepal. This was followed by a deal in July 2018 to build a strategic 628km railway link connecting China’s Tibet Autonomous Region with Kathmandu and the signing of eight other deals worth US$2.4 billion. In due course of time, Beijing also infused investment to build or upgrade highways and airports.
President Xi’s visit to Nepal will came with goodies of new investments and deals spearheaded by the BRI encompassing ports, railway, road, aviation, and telecommunications networks. Apart from a 200-MW hydropower project worth about 500 USD, an extension of railway project was finalized. The signing of a total 17 Sino-Nepal agreement, very well echoes the weight Beijing has attached to soaring its ties with Kathmandu. Whilst his meeting with Modi might be discerned as a mere stopover, Xi’s Nepal visit is certainly of a much greater magnitude.
Undoubtedly, given its already surging influence and closer ties with countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, China is on a quest to play a key role in South Asian affairs. Thus, it will be in India’s greater interest to jump on this multilateralism bandwagon and flourish together with caution but without skepticism.