By Xu Liang–
Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli will embark on his first foreign visit to India soon, scotching speculations that he would choose China as his first destination in office. Kathmandu’s swaying between Beijing and New Delhi is worth exploring.
The Nepalese government was not serious when suggesting earlier that Oli may visit China ahead of India. Kathmandu was just sounding out New Delhi’s attitude. As Nepalese prime ministers have traditionally chosen India as their first destination for state visits, Nepal was attempting to find some leeway in the negotiation with India over the ongoing blockade triggered by the adoption of the Nepalese constitution, which India feels does not protect the rights of the Madhesi, an Indian-backed lowlands minority. And thus, India imposed an unofficial blockade upon Nepal, plunging the country into a severe fuel crisis.
Eager to address its fuel shortage, Kathmandu threatened to sort trade agreements with its northern neighbor, namely, Beijing, during the visit. This has made New Delhi nervous.
In fact, driven by vanity, the Indian government cares a lot about Oli’s choice. India expects the visiting order to reflect its dominant status in South Asia. It is likely that New Delhi compromised sub rosa with Kathmandu over the blockade, hence the change in destination.
Facing Nepal-India rows, China should be aware that the disputes cannot be resolved immediately. As a responsible country, Beijing ought to help address the issue in accordance with its own capacities. First of all, China is supposed to play a role as a mediator between Nepal and India. On the one hand, it is necessary to provide temporary aid to Nepal. Beijing is now transporting oil to its southern neighbor to ease Kathmandu’s fuel shortage. On the other, it is of great importance for China to safeguard its own national interests. The aid should not be at the sacrifice of Beijing’s interests.
In addition, China ought to be careful not to step into the minefields between Nepal and India. Maintaining a neutral stance is of significance for Beijing. During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Beijing, China and India “agreed to hold negotiations on augmenting the list of traded commodities, and expand border trade at the Lipu-Lekh Pass” in the joint communiqué. But the territorial disputes over the Lipu-Lekh Pass have been simmering for years between Kathmandu and New Delhi. The mention of the pass in the China-India joint statement has triggered Nepalese protests. Therefore, Beijing ought to be extremely careful not to unconsciously touch on sensitive issues between Kathmandu and New Delhi.
China can absorb Nepal into some Beijing-led regional organizations. For instance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization may grant Nepal observer status. The regional organizations will serve as a platform for Kathmandu to resolve bilateral and multilateral problems. By joining regional institutions, Nepal will find it easier to come up with a solution to strike a balance between China and India. Beijing, as a close friend of Kathmandu, has a responsibility to help its southern neighbor.
(This article was originally appeared in Global Times on Jan. 15. The author is the Executive Director at Indian Studies Center from Beijing International Studies University. [email protected].)