North has renewed cross-border train pledge, but progress slow on the groundChinese foreign minister earlier this month said China will help Nepal with road and rail connectivity. Nepal officials say feasibility study has failed to chug along.
Prithvi Man Shrestha
On December 8, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China will help Nepal with road and rail connectivity. “China will make solid progress in the feasibility study of a cross-border railway project, improve the Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network, and help Nepal realise its dream of changing from a ‘land-locked country’ to a ‘land-linked country,’” Wang said while addressing the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction via video link.
Wang’s statement comes as China’s renewed support to build the cross-border railway project, which has been in talks for the last few years and has captured the Nepali imagination.
China had agreed to conduct a detailed feasibility study of the Kathmandu-Kerung cross-border railway with its own funding during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in October 2019.
Right after his visit to Nepal, the world came down to its knees as the coronavirus swept across the planet starting December 2019.
As the world grappled with the pandemic, bilateral exchanges were halted across the globe. Nepali and Chinese bilateral visits also took a back seat.
Officials in Nepal, however, say there has been no progress on conducting the detailed feasibility study of the railway project. “We are where we were,” Deepak Kumar Bhattarai, director general at the Department of Railway, told the Post. “The Chinese side had started the work on a detailed feasibility study by collecting certain data. After Covid-19, there has been little progress.”
Nepal-China regular flights have remained suspended since the pandemic began.
About five months ago, the railway department had sent a letter to China’s National Railway Administration, requesting the latter to work on a feasibility study.
“But we have not received any response,” said Bhattarai. According to him, Nepali officials are discussing holding virtual meetings with the Chinese side regarding the development of the project.
Nepal’s railway department is coordinating with China’s National Railway Administration for the development of this project which is expected to enhance Nepal’s connectivity with the northern neighbour.
Aman Chitrakar, spokesperson and information officer at the department, said that they were in contact with officials of the National Railway Administration of China.
“They are also awaiting approval from the government to carry out works related to the railway project, including a field study,” he said, adding that his office is aware that the Chinese side was performing its duty through the remote sensing method.
Even though it was agreed two years ago that the Chinese side would conduct a detailed feasibility study, no concrete deadline had been set for completing the study, according to Nepali officials.
The cross-border railway project, which is an important component of the Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network between Nepal and China, was incorporated into the Belt and Road Initiative at the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April 2019.
Even though the Chinese side agreed to conduct a detailed feasibility study, no agreement has been reached on its funding.
Nepal wants to split the bill with China if the latter is unwilling to fully fund the study.
Former foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali had told journalists after visiting China in April 2018 that he had requested China to build the cross-border railway under grant assistance as a symbol of bilateral relations between the two neighbors.
The trans-Himalayan railway project, however, has been dubbed easier said than done given the difficult topography.
Earlier in December 2018, China First Survey and Design Institute had prepared the pre-feasibility study of Kathmandu-Kerung railway and the National Railway Authority of China had handed over the report to Nepali officials.
Its findings suggest the Kathmandu section is in the “collision and splicing zone” along the Eurasian plate, presenting six major geological problems. The hard rock burst and the large deformation of soft rocks would cause extremely high stress.
The problem of the fault effects of the deep, active fractures are in high-intensity seismic zones. The report says the level of seismic activities could present problems with high ground temperatures, slope stability, debris and water erosion. As per the report, around 98.5 percent of the railway would either be bridges or tunnels, and construction cost would be Rs3.55 billion per kilometre.
The project’s longest and most steep gradient is up to 95 km long out of its total length of 121 km. The report says continuous use of air brakes would cause abrasion of the brake shoe and heating of tyre.
Euphoria among Nepalis over a rail link to the north is one thing, but a railway across the Himalayas, by even China’s own admission, will be a test for their technological might.
Nepal has for long sought to have a railway link with the northern neighbour. The pursuit began in 2006 when Beijing opened the Qinghai–Tibet Railway. When the railway line reached Shigatse in 2014, Nepali officials found it to be quite close. But the 2015 earthquake shifted focus on relief and reconstruction.
After India imposed a border blockade in 2015 following the promulgation of the constitution in Nepal, officials and politicians in Kathmandu once again started exploring options to establish connectivity with the north to overcome the country’s almost complete dependence on India.
The government that came after the 2017 election in 2018, led by KP Sharma Oli, was also more open to engagements with China.
However, the project has failed to chug along.
While there has been delay in detailed feasibility study in Nepal, China has been expanding its railway network in Tibet.
In June, China started operating the first bullet train line in Tibet, linking Lhasa to Nyingchi near the border with Arunachal Pradesh in India. The Lhasa-Nyingchi rail is one section of the Sichuan-Tibet line connecting two provincial capitals.
There are also concerns if China is indeed interested to invest in such a costly—and difficult—railway project unless it is linked to India, Beijing’s one of the biggest trade partners. Despite tension between them, India-China trade crossed a record $100 billion this October.
India itself is undertaking the feasibility study of the proposed Kathmandu-Raxaul Railway project, which has been taken as India’s response to China’s efforts to increase its influence in Nepal through railways.
During Xi’s visit to Nepal, the two countries had reiterated their commitment to extending cooperation on Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini Railway Project.
Leela Mani Paudyal, former Nepali ambassador to China, said the renewed commitment from the Chinese foreign minister to the railway suggests they are very much serious about building this project.
“China wants this project to be implemented as part of its efforts to keep its neighbourhood stable with the development initiatives,” he said.
But, according to Paudyal, this railway is more important for Nepal to reduce its dependence on a single country and it should be taken as the country’s effort to diversify its international relations.
Questions, however, have also been asked about the economic sense of building this project given that Nepal does not have goods to export to China. During the first four months of the current fiscal year 2021-22 starting mid-July, Nepal’s export to China stood at a meagre Rs311 million while imports from China ballooned to Rs94.3 billion, according to the Nepal Rastra Bank.
Paudyal believes that Nepal should interlink with China’s industrial value chain the way South East Asian countries are doing, which would in the long run benefit Nepal.
But geopolitical concerns also remain. Some like India and the United States of America have looked askance at Nepal’s signing up to the BRI and China’s increasing interests in Nepal, according to analysts.
India has cautiously refrained from taking part in the BRI, while the United States has time and again reminded Nepali leaders that any assistance from the north should be in Nepal’s interest, not China’s.
In February 2019, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, Joe Felter said, “We welcome a constructive relation with China, we welcome the investment by China, but as long as that investment is designed to serve the interest of Nepal and not just China.”
He had also stated that some activities that China has been engaged in the past across the region—in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Malaysia—are a cause of concern.
America’s Millenium Challenge Corporation, under which Nepal will receive $500 million in grant, is seen by many as a US bid to counter the BRI. Some statements made by the US officials that the MCC is part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy too has created confusion in some sections of Nepal. The MCC has been languishing in Nepal Parliament for over two years now due to divisions among Nepali political parties over its passage.
In May 2019, the Chinese embassy had asserted that the BRI initiative will not create a “debt trap” but will liberate underdeveloped countries from no development, in a bid to debunk the debt trap theory that often emerges when it comes to China’s investments in various countries.
Foreign policy experts say that India and the US could try to stifle the project as they don’t want to see China’s influence in Nepal increasing.
“The interest of India and the US has converged when it comes to controlling Chinese influence in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region as both are Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) partners,” said Lokraj Baral, former Nepali ambassador to India and a professor of political science at the Tribhuvan University. “China investing in infrastructure in foreign countries was not a big concern for them in the past. But amid deteriorating relations between China and India as well as western powers, particularly the US, they take China’s involvement in infrastructure development abroad with suspicion.”
China, however, is well aware of this fact, which is apparent from the Chinese foreign minister’s remark on December 8.
“China supports Nepal's leading position in rebuilding international cooperation,” said Wang. “All parties should respect Nepal's sovereignty, security and development needs and should not attach any political strings to assistance to Nepal.”