Next Door Nepal: Hurdles on the Silk Route

By Yubaraj Ghimire (10 April 2017) –  Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal did not sign any agreements during his week-long visit to China in March. All that Dahal said on his return was that the visit was a success and the two countries would move together on the path of common prosperity, executing all past agreements.

In fact, his official visit to Beijing, the first after he assumed office eight months ago, took place at a time when Chinese suspicions towards him were visibly deep. President Xi Jinping did not conceal these. He gave two crucial pieces of advice to Dahal, first, to enhance trust between the two sides and second, to make enforcement (of past agreements) a priority.

Global Times ,which represents the official view and perception of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote on the eve of Dahal’s visit that he would try to dispel the impression that he is “pro-India”. The pro-India tag sticks on Dahal for several reasons. He was in India for eight years during the decade-long insurgency that began in 1996. India mediated the peace process in Nepal and the Maoists came to the centrestage of Nepali politics. In recent times, K.P. Oli, as Prime Minister, signed many deals with China and brought the two countries very close to each other on diplomatic and trade relations. He was soon replaced. Not surprisingly, China became suspicious of Dahal since he replaced Oli as PM.

The deals Oli signed, including Nepal’s commitment to join China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, have not moved an inch forward ever since he left office. Global Times’ view clearly implied that New Delhi was behind it.

President Xi did not go that far during their 30-minute meeting, but he seemed to want Dahal to be trustworthy and willing to enforce agreements that have been reached in the past. Xi had cancelled his visit to Nepal, which was decided when Oli was PM, at the last hour in October and instead visited Bangladesh. Dahal, instead, played host to President Pranab Mukherjee, who, as India’s Foreign Minister in 2005-06, had played a key role in bringing Nepali Maoists to the centrestage of the country’s politics.

It is not yet known whether President Xi will be visiting Nepal any time soon, but high-level Chinese visits and their multiple engagements continue. Hours before Dahal was to leave for Beijing, Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan met him, with the offer to supply heavy equipment for Nepal’s army. The visit of Minister Chang, a four-star general of the People’s Liberation Army, and member of the Central Military Commission, comes nearly a month prior to Nepal-China joint military training, a first in 60 years of bilateral relations. Back home, Dahal said, “Nepal will formally sign a memorandum of understanding with China becoming part of the OBOR initiative at the earliest.” He added that Nepal was also keen to develop cross-border roads, railways, transmission lines and industrial parks in cooperation with China. But surely, the Chinese will want to see that in action rather than words.

China, like India, has apparently told Dahal that the current political uncertainty should be addressed by taking “all sides on board”. But Nepal’s current actors are shy of admitting that they have failed to efficiently manage the transition, bring about political stability and create a conducive atmosphere for economic prosperity. They have failed to reach out to the “other sides” ahead of drawing a “political roadmap” for the future.

India’s new Ambassador to Nepal, Manjeev Singh Puri, tried to strike a different note — that New Delhi will be more into Nepal’s development than its politics — indicating that India was keen to build the “strategic” 76-km Nijgadh-Kathmandu fast-track that links the capital with the Terai, as well as the proposed international airport at Nijgadh. However, within a week after he made the plea, the government decided to entrust the over-$900 million project to the Nepal army which both India and China are vying to keep in good humour.

Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat visited Nepal to receive the title of the “Honorary General” of the Nepal army, a reciprocal arrangement between the two countries since 1965, and assured extensive cooperation to further the “age-old ties” between the two armies. But both sides are aware of the political mess-up in Nepal and the emergence of the Maoists at the centrestage of mainstream politics, thanks to the mediation by India, has strained relations between the two armies. That the Nepal army today looks for help from China is a direct fallout of the Indian government’s support to the Maoists.

This article has been posted in The Indian Express on 10 April 2017.

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