Nepalese prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda visited China from September 23–30, 2023, nine months after assuming office in December 2022. The beginning of Prachanda’s third tenure as Prime Minister of Nepal was different from his two previous terms, as he chose to visit India as his first foreign visit, reflecting a change in his foreign policy priorities. During his earlier two terms, Prachanda visited China as his first foreign trip soon after assuming office. In China, Prime Minister Dahal met with top Chinese leaders and Chinese President Xi in the city of Hangzhou on the sidelines of Asian games.
As usual, the two sides reiterated their determination to enhance bilateral relations and signed 12 agreements and MOUs pertaining to boosting bilateral cooperation. The two sides agreed to establish joint boundary management between the two countries, allowing for joint inspection of the Nepal-China boundary. The need was being felt specially after a leaked report by the BBC, Nepal accused China of encroaching into Nepal along the shared border of the two countries. The report released in September 2022 claimed that China has been trespassing on the district of Humala in the far west of Nepal, while the state media of China, ‘Global Times’ refuted the charges and termed it a smear campaign. The Ministry of Public Security of the PRC and the Home Ministry of Nepal also agreed to establish a boundary contact system at three levels to augment the level of border management between the two countries.
Both countries also agreed to expedite the ratification of the China-Nepal Treaty on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters in order to enhance security cooperation between the two countries. The two countries also agreed to monitor the progress of the feasibility study of the Lhasa-Kathmandu cross-border railway track. The leaders also expressed satisfaction over the progress of the feasibility study of the Kerung-Kathmandu trans-border railway track. An MOU on the Hilsa-Simkot Road project and the Nepal-China grid interconnection project was also signed. The Chinese side agreed positively, considering the request of Nepal to supply grid power to electrify northern remote villages in Nepal from the Xizang autonomous region of China. President Xi called to boost border infrastructure to end Nepal’s landlocked status, implying its dependence on India. He promised to extend support to augment transit, transport, and utilisation of highways in Nepal to turn it from a landlocked country to a land-linked country.
An MOU between the National Planning Commission of Nepal and China’s National Development and Reform Commission related to cooperation on green and low-carbon development was signed. Another MOU on cooperation in the fields of agriculture, livestock, and fisheries was also concluded. An MOU on cooperation in a joint technical working group for the review and modification of the Nepal-China trade payment agreement was one more achievement of the visit. The two countries also signed a protocol of phytosanitary requirements for the export of plant-derived medicinal materials for Chinese medicines.
Apart from these, China also invited Nepal to join its recently launched global initiatives, i.e., the Global Development Index (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the Global Cultural Initiative (GCI). Nepal showed its willingness to join GDI and kept mum on others, indicating its unwillingness to join the other two initiatives. Explaining his country’s stand, Prime Minister Prachanda stated, “it’s our stated policy not to be under the umbrella of any state. Ours is a non-aligned foreign policy. The American Indo- Pacific strategy and state partnership Programme are part of the security initiative. If we are not taking part in one initiative, we cannot take part in other initiatives either.”
Speaking to the media after returning home and then in the Nepalese Parliament, Prime Minister Prachanda termed his visit very successful. The visit has strengthened the atmosphere of trust between the two countries and further developed the historic relations between the two neighbours. The two countries expressed satisfaction with the boost in bilateral relations which were in passive mode during the pandemic. The two sides were ebullient with all questions answered and all doubts cleared while understanding each other’s sensitivity and compulsions. The bonhomie led the two countries to give their consent to implement all the past agreements gradually. Regular operation of Pokhara International Airport will commence soon. They also discussed trans- Himalayan multi-dimensional connectivity networking to enhance Nepal’s connectivity with the neighbouring countries. Hilsa-Simkot Road project and Nepal-China power grid interconnection project (Chilime-Kerung) between the two countries are good examples of the constructive cooperation.
Meanwhile, Nepal’s first shipment of 45 tons of turmeric reached Kathmandu via Tianjin Port in north-east China and the Zhangmu-Tatopani border point. But shipping and overland transportation via Chinese cities is proving a costly affair for Nepal. Overland transit within China was 3000 km, whereas it used to be 800 km from the Nepal-India transit border point. However, the scenario has led Nepal to ponder the sustainability of the alternative route.
Nepal exhibited its respect for its big northern neighbour by reaffirming its support for China’s stand on Taiwan and Tibet. The joint declaration showed Nepalese commitment to ‘One China Policy’ and Taiwan to be an inalienable part of China. While Tibet has been described as an internal matter of China and Nepal would not allow any separatist activity on its soil. The Chinese side endorsed its support for Nepalese independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty. It also supported Nepalese path to development which best suits its national condition.
China’s mild overtures toward Nepal are motivated by realpolitik. China is enticing Nepal to remain within its sphere of influence. China is attempting to depend on its communist connections as well as unite Nepal’s communist parties in order to make seamless inroads into Nepal. BRI is another tool for China to increase its influence in Nepal. In Nepal, nine BRI projects are awaiting approval. However, given Sri Lanka’s debt issue and Pakistan’s current economic crisis, Nepal is sceptical of China’s BRI initiative in Nepal. China will also face stiff competition from the US Millennium Challenge Corporation. Nepal has broadened its cooperation initiatives in order to reduce its dependence on China.
Prachanda, a stalwart communist leader, had exhibited a natural inclination towards China in his first two terms. But during his third tenure as Prime Minister, he adopted a cautious approach owing to the geopolitical and geostrategic shifts in the region. Nepal is looking reluctant to fall into the BRI trap, witnessing the fate of Sri Lanka, Pakistan and other countries. But it does not have courage to ‘say no’ Italian way. The Nepalese foreign minister Saud, in recent remarks, even denied conclusion of any formal agreement with China on BRI. Chinese intervention in Nepalese politics during the tenure of Ambassador Hou Yanqi forced the country to keep a safe distance from China. It also prompted Nepal to maintain its strategic “policy of equidistance” with China and India. Nepal has finally recognized the importance of India in its development programmes.
Meanwhile, USA has also launched a few big projects in Nepal under its Millenium Challenge Corporation. Thus, Nepal is endeavouring to maintain a balance of power with the involvement of China, India, and the USA in the development projects on its soil. Nepal’s geographical location, which makes it a buffer state between India and China, proves to be its biggest territorial limitation as well. As a purely landlocked country sandwiched between two Asian giants, Nepal has no other option except to remain dependent on its neighbors. Amid increasing Chinese influence in the region and globally, Nepal has calibrated its foreign policy choices in the form of ‘equidistance policy’ with both India and China. It reminds us of an old saying: ‘You can change friends but not neighbours.’ Nepal will have to learn to live with its big neighbours.