Chinese President Xi Jinping and Nepalese Prime Minister KP Oli have pushed the ties between the countries on a fast track as Kathmandu emerges out of India’s shadow.
Ever since Delhi’s mindless blockade of Nepal in 2015, over the new Republican Constitution, India lost much goodwill in the country. The move that then prime minister Oli initiated, not to be solely dependent on India by turning to China, has accelerated since the two Communist parties jointly fought the elections in 2017 and later became one party.During that period of crisis, Oli turned to China and signed a number of agreements with its giant eastern neighbour. He was toppled soon afterwards, and Nepalis blame India for his ouster. Now visiting China, for the first time, with an overwhelming majority in Parliament, these projects will gain momentum.
Oli’s first visit since taking office was, however, to Delhi. India, realising it had miscalculated earlier, is hoping to get Nepal back on board. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited that country twice. But Oli’s six-day trip to China is significant. Projects formerly talked about are taking shape. Their completion will change the Nepalese economy and make it much less dependent on India.At the heart of the connectivity projects will be a railway line from China directly to Kathmandu. The track will begin at Kerung in Tibet and wind through rough mountain terrain.
Earlier, Indian diplomats often said that Nepal may wish to balance its ties with India by getting close to China, but the natural barriers made it an impossible dream. China has already built a rail line to Tibet and gathered valuable experience in laying tracks on the Himalayas. Once the railways are built, the enormous expenses incurred in trading by air will be substantially reduced. The Indian border is on the plains and transporting goods is easy.
“The train from Shigatse will arrive in Kathmandu,” Xi was quoted as saying, during talks with Oli earlier this week. The initial study of the over 120 km of the Kerung-Kathmandu railways is expected to be completed this August and a detailed project report will be prepared in the next six months or so.
The project is expected to take around six to seven years to complete. Besides this, agreements have been signed for a Rs (Nepalese rupee) 15 billion cement plant, a 1,000 megawatt electric power plant and a 159-km transmission line, which will be the first Nepal-China cross-boder transmission line.The power line will help Nepal export surplus electricity to feed China’s ever-growing thirst for energy.Nepal is just one example of China’s growing footprint in India’s neighbourhood. All of them with the sole exception of Bhutan have signed on to President Xi’s pet belt and road initiative. Sri Lanka’s present government is India-friendly, yet the $1.4 billion Port City project, adjoining the Colombo port, which was initiated by former president Mahinda Rajapakse and was bitterly opposed by the then opposition on environmental grounds, was approved by the Sirisena- Wickremasinghe combine.
The Chinese are attracting investors’ interest worldwide and already has $4 billion in the first phase of development. It is expected to attract $13 billion vestments in the next 20 years. This is a part of the ancient silk route initiative of Xi.
Bangladesh, India’s closest ally in the region, has several important infrastructure projects with China. China’s footprints are all over the Maldives, where strong man Abdullah Yameen has imprisoned most of the opposition leaders, including half-brother and former strongman Maumoon Gayoom.The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is the centerpiece of the ambitious silk route project. China is pouring in at least $60 billion to build roads, bridges, airports to service the Gwadar port in Pakistan. The port was built by China. At present, work in Balochistan is progressing full steam, though the Baloch separatists, opposed to the Pakistan Government is fiercely opposing the move. Kidnappings of Chinese workers, killing some of them and often posing a security threat is a major headache. There is talk of China deploying its force to guard the Gwadar Port and look after its interests in Balochistan. But these are teething problems and China is unlikely to let this hamper or slow down things.India is deeply unhappy about China’s growing influence in its backyard. When the CPEC was first announced, Delhi protested loudly, as a part of it passes through POK, which India claims as its own. India has turned its back on the China’s BTI. Earlier, it tried to get its friends in the neighbourhood not to sign up, warning of the debt trap lurking behind the generous dolling out of dollars. But neighbours crying for new infrastructure have turned a deaf ear to these pleas.India is uneasy but unless it can come up with new ideas, China will loom larger and larger in its neighbourhood. Once the infrastructure projects are completed in another five to 10 years’ time, South Asia will change. Gwadar is already working but in a couple of years once everything is in place, it will transform the region.The old tired rhetoric will not do. Fresh strategic thinking is needed to breathe life into India’s neighbourhood policy. Old ways of doing business will not hold up against China’s efficiency. When India promises projects, they take years to implement. Turf war between various government agencies, and the usual lackadaisical ways of tackling projects does not bring confidence. Whether it is the former Congress government or the new BJP alliance, implementation has always the problem.
Long-term strategic thinking is required. That is sadly lacking. Pakistan and India need to come to some kind of agreement to live perhaps not as friends but at least as normal neighbours. At the moment with both India and Pakistan on election mode, nothing can happen. But a pragmatic policy need to be worked out. A good way to start would be to tone down the bitter rhetoric. Getting SAARC restarted would also be a good idea.