Foreign Minister’s China Voyage: A Closer Examination

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Narayankaji Shrestha, returned home after concluding a nine-day visit (March 24-31, 2024) to the People’s Republic of China, upon the invitation of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. During his stay in China, he engaged in bilateral discussions with his Chinese counterpart and paid a courtesy call on Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Wang Huning. 

His itinerary comprised high-level meetings primarily in Beijing, the capital city of China. However, beyond the diplomatic engagements, DPM Shrestha ventured to three strategically significant locations in China, vital for Nepal’s interests. Concluding his engagements in Beijing, he visited Chongqing, Tibet, and Sichuan, situated in the southwestern part of China. These regions, emerging as pivotal trading hubs in southern China, hold considerable potential for bolstering bilateral trade ties with Nepal.

Upon arrival at the international airport, DPM Shrestha convened a press conference alongside senior officials from the ministry. He asserted that the visit had been ‘highly successful’ and had elevated bilateral relations to new heights. It’s a common diplomatic practice for ministers returning from foreign trips to portray their visits in such positive terms, often using phrases like ‘newer heights’ to describe the outcomes. In Nepal, it has become a fashion statement.  

Despite the vague language used to describe the achievements of the visit, DPM Shrestha emphasized that the primary focus was on extending trade, fostering economic cooperation, and building trust between the two nations. In light of Shrestha’s remarks and the outcomes of his visit, one significant progress emerges: the visit has played a role in restoring understanding and trust between Nepali and Chinese governments. This suggests that the meetings and events during the visit have contributed to strengthening the foundation of bilateral relations.

When KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal formed a new coalition led by leftist parties, breaking away from previous alliances under the Nepali Congress, rumors began making rounds that China may have played a significant role in this surprising political maneuver. Nepal’s volatile political landscape often gives rise to such rumors and gossip, and it was widely speculated that the formation of a leftist-led government in Nepal could only have been possible with the initiation and support of China, given its communist ideology. DPM Shrestha might have shared such comments and feedback with Chinese officials. And, he certainly clarified that the new coalition will try to address genuine concerns of neighbors without tilting to any side.   

Whether India sought to maintain the previous government or whether China supported the formation of the new alliance remains a question best left to be answered in due time. But in domestic political developments, Nepali political parties should stop dragging India and China as parties involved in the process. We should keep in mind that India and China have greater roles to play in a fast-changing global context beyond the neighborhood. It is completely an ignorance that New Delhi and Beijing always contemplate about intervening in Nepal’s internal affairs. This thought is just the byproduct of deficiency syndrome of Nepali general psyche.   

When the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) entered into force last August, it was perceived as a significant setback for China, especially since the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), signed four months prior to MCC, had not seen any tangible implementation. This development was seen as a blow to Beijing, indicating that the US had successfully advanced its project in Nepal while China had yet to materialize its plans under the BRI. Chinese leaders viewed MCC as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy, interpreting its entry into Nepal as a strategic move of the US aimed at countering China’s influence. While the signed document denies China’s claim that MCC is part of the IPS, Nepal’s stance should remain impartial vis-a-vis the strategic rivalry between the US and China. As a sovereign nation, Nepal should maintain cordial relations with both of its neighbors. 

This visit should be seen in the backdrop of growing mistrust between Nepal and China during the previous coalition. In that sense, the primary concern from the Nepali side was to openly exchange thoughts on bilateral cooperation and bridge that gap. DPM Shrestha has worked on it. “The visit has been instrumental in strengthening mutual harmony, respect and trust between Nepal and China,” he narrated.  DPM Shrestha is recognized as one of the few Nepali politicians with a deep understanding of foreign policy and international relations. He has demonstrated an ability to conduct diplomacy in a balanced manner that respects the sentiments of Nepal’s neighbors. While maintaining relations with China, he must have kept in mind that his policy and action shouldn’t be perceived as unnecessarily loyal to any neighbor.  

During the discussion, he reiterated the importance of connectivity between Nepal and China requesting the opening of the 14 traditional trade routes that have remained closed since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, eliciting a positive response from China. This issue has surfaced in previous meetings as well. As soon as China opens all major routes for trade and transaction, it would be beneficial for China too. Nepal and China also agreed to establish a joint commission at the level of foreign ministers. This is a positive development. According to the report, this commission will play a crucial role in regularly reviewing various aspects of the existing friendly relations between Nepal and China, signifying a commitment to deepening bilateral ties through continuous dialogue and collaboration.

The much-awaited agreement on the implementation plan of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was not finalized during the visit, though discussions were held to give a final shape to the plan and advance it toward the execution phase. This demonstrates the ongoing commitment of both the parties to work together on BRI and reflects their shared interests in enhancing connectivity and cooperation. Debate has been there about the modality of financing the projects under BRI. The Nepali side has been asking China to provide grants for some major mega projects while in the rest of the projects Nepal would be ready to accept the loans. China should consider the proposal of Nepal. Given that Nepal shares borders with two emerging economies and rising global powers, it is imperative to seize opportunities while avoiding unnecessary challenges.

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