Belt and Road Initiative: China looks askance at Nepal’s commitmentsDespite Nepal’s repeated commitments to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a sense of uncertainty and scepticism persists among Chinese officials.
Despite Nepal’s repeated commitments to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a sense of uncertainty and scepticism persists among Chinese officials.
Chinese think tanks and government officials during an interaction with a delegation of Nepali journalists in Beijing and Kunming last week were of the view that Nepal must act to assure China that Nepal “indeed is committed to the BRI”, in a clear indication that “Beijing wants to see the commitments from Kathmandu translated into action—the sooner the better”.
They were particularly unhappy that Nepal took four years to sign up to the BRI.
Nepal signed a framework agreement on the BRI on May 12 this year, four years after it was launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping as part of his ambitious plan to expand links between Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond underpinned by billions of dollars in infrastructure investment.
In addition, sending the deputy prime minister to Beijing to attend the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) on May 14, two days after Nepal signed up to the BRI, also seems to have not gone down very well with Chinese officials, as this left an impression that Kathmandu is not “very serious” about the BRI.
China on May 14-15 gathered 29 heads of state in Beijing where Xi pledged $124 billion for his flagship project—also called the new “Silk Road”.
Jiang Yuechun, a professor at China Institute of International Studies, a think tank under China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Beijing was expecting Nepali prime minister instead of deputy prime minister at the BRI summit. Krishna Bahadur Mahara had participated in the summit.
“This looks like Nepal is yet to fully embrace the BRI,” Jiang told the Nepali journalists.
Though there has been a $1-trillion connectivity project on the table from the Chinese side since September 2013, the Nepali side has done zilch, giving enough ground to the northern neighbour to look askance at Kathmandu’s commitments.
Nepal’s signing up to the BRI only means a framework agreement, which officials from both the countries know needs to be taken forward to get projects under the initiative rolling.
Around 60 countries and 40 international organisations have so far signed agreements with China under the BRI. The Chinese government has already started multi-billion-dollar connectivity projects under the BRI in different countries. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is one example.
The $2.5-billion Budhi Gandaki Hydro Project and a Buddha’s statue in Jhapa are some of the projects China has enlisted so far under the BRI in Nepal.
The Chinese side seems to be under the impression that Nepal’s hemming and hawing over the BRI stems from its strategy of not annoying India, which has not only been sceptical but also critical about the BRI, as New Delhi believes the BRI is China’s tool to bolster its global leadership ambitions. India had chosen to skip the BRI summit in May.
Chinese officials are not oblivious to what they understand as Nepal’s “one step forward, two steps back” strategy in a bid to maintain a balance with her two giant neighbours.
“China should understand Nepal’s limitations. In the meantime, Nepal needs to know its potential as well as the benefits the country can reap by bringing China and India closer,” said Prof Guo Sui Yan, a researcher at Yunnan Academy of Social Science.
Political instability and priority shifts due to frequent government changes in Nepal also have made Beijing wary of Kathmandu.
Li Jinze, deputy director general of Yunnan Provincial Development and Reform Commission, minced no words: “The onus to create an environment for investment lies on Nepal.” “You need to have an investment-friendly economic and political environment if you want investors to come to you,” Li told the Nepali delegation.