Chinese minister wraps up Nepal visit with mixed signals and messagesBeijing reiterates BRI but Kathmandu fails to mention. Experts say deals signed are customary.
With mixed signals and messages, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is also the State Councillor, returned to Beijing on Sunday, wrapping up his three-day Nepal visit.
Three back-to-back statements issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wang's visit and one by Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, have created confusion in Nepal.
There are stark contrasts between the statements issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Saturday and Chinese statements on Saturday and Sunday.
Wang talked tough on geopolitical issues, during the meeting with the delegation of the CPN (Maoist Centre) leaders without mentioning the recent passage of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact from Parliament while expressing concerns over growing US engagements in Nepal.
China has already expressed concerns over the ratification of the MCC compact—a $500 million US grant to Nepal—by the House, calling it “Pandora’s box.” And it also opposed the “coercive” US diplomacy in Nepal.
“The Chinese minister expressed concerns indirectly over growing US engagements in Nepal,” said one of the delegates who met Wang on Sunday.
No issue related to geopolitics figured in the meeting with the Chinese foreign minister, said Rajan Bhattarai, chief of the UML’s Foreign Affairs Department. “We discussed implementation of the BRI, strengthening of bilateral ties, and called for resumption of [trade through] the border points and allowing Nepali students back into China to continue their studies, among other things,” he added.
Wang had discussed BRI implementation also with the Maoist Centre’s delegation, which was led by party chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Going by the Chinese statements, during Wang’s meeting with Oli and Dahal, BRI featured prominently in both meetings. Maoist leaders had also asked the visiting Chinese minister to expedite BRI-related projects.
“From our side we informed the Chinese minister that we are ready to take forward the Belt and Road Initiative agreement, which was signed by our government,” said Narayan Kaji Shrestha, a senior Maoist leader who was also present at the meeting. “We also requested him to ease the flow of Nepali goods via the border trade points and help reduce Nepal’s trade deficit.”
In its separate statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has expressed its commitment to implementing the BRI projects. “The third point is to support Nepal's deeper participation in the ‘Belt and Road’ construction,” the ministry stated.
“In the past few years, the two countries have made gratifying progress in joint construction of the ‘Belt and Road’, which strongly supports Nepal's national construction.”
But Nepali’s Foreign Ministry was silent on the country’s commitment to implementing the Belt and Road Initiative that Kathmandu signed up to in 2017.
“Whatever we discussed in the meeting is reflected in our comprehensive statement,” another Foreign Ministry official said. “Our commitment to the BRI is intact and unchanged.”
The Nepali side has not released the details of the discussion between Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Foreign Minister Khadka with Wang but according to a read-out of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, China supports Nepal in pursuing independent domestic and foreign policies. “China always holds that all countries, big or small, are equal, and always respects the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries,” the statement said.
“China believes that the affairs of Nepal should be decided by the Nepali people themselves. China opposes attempts to undermine Nepal's sovereignty and independence, interfere in Nepal's internal affairs, and play geopolitical games in Nepal. Nepal should become a shining example of cooperation between China and South Asia,” the Chinese ministry stated.
A Nepali diplomat familiar with Chinese affairs said this is a typical Chinese style of pursuing diplomacy and threatening a third country by using the soil of the host country. “We are aware of what Chinese President Xi Jinping said during his Nepal visit in October, 2019.”
According to a statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry after delegation-level talks with then prime minister Oli, Chinese President Xi had said: “Anyone who attempts to split any region from China will perish, with their bodies smashed and bones ground to powder."
“That was an unwarranted statement from the Chinese president from our soil because we have never opposed the Chinese position in Hong Kong. But he was referring to the Western forces who were encouraging the democratic uprising in Hong Kong,” the Nepali diplomat said.
Later, in June 2020, Nepal supported China's efforts to maintain law and order in Hong Kong.
“Nepal reiterates its one China policy and considers Hong Kong as an integral part of the People’s Republic of China. Maintenance of peace, law and order is a primary responsibility of a nation. Nepal believes in non-interference in the internal affairs of any country and supports China’s efforts to maintain law and order in Hong Kong,” the foreign ministry stated in June that year.
“This time too, from the top political leadership including the President, prime minister, opposition party leaders to foreign ministers, we have committed towards one-China policy, assured and assuaged the Chinese concerns. We have made our position clear and we expect that Chinese are happy with our commitment,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
During his meeting with Wang, Foreign Minister Khadka, however, brought up the MCC issue and tried to dispel the notion saying that the US compact is purely a development assistance.
“The Chinese foreign minister did not raise the issue of MCC during the meetings with the prime minister and me,” Khadka told reporters after the meeting between Deuba and Wang. “But since concerns had been raised [by China] in the past, I clarified that any development assistance coming from outside [to Nepal] is purely for developmental objectives.”
Khadka said that he apprised the Chinese side of the fact that Nepal does not accept any project that comes with strings attached—political or any other.
Another Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said that Deuba in his meeting with Wang stressed: “Nepal will continue to firmly adhere to the one-China principle and never allow any forces to use Nepal's territory for any anti-China activities.”
“Wang appreciated this [Deuba’s statement], pointing out that it is an integral part of the strategic partnership between the two countries,” the statement read.
But for the first time, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Deuba had extended Nepal’s support and active participation in the Global Development Initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping, and agreed that when it comes to international affairs, fairness and justice should be upheld and the UN Charter and international law abided by.
In September, 2021, while addressing the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Xi had proposed the Global Development Initiative for steering global development toward a new stage of balanced, coordinated and inclusive growth in the face of the severe shocks of Covid-19. Over 100 countries including Nepal have supported the initiative.
Political analysts say the Chinese have already shown their concerns after Nepal’s endorsement of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact about the possibility of India or the United States spoiling Chinese prospects in Nepal.
“I think it's China’s reconciliatory role to engage with Nepal to show that the former is cooperative,” said Lokraj Baral, a political analyst. “There is nothing more than some agreements.”
But for the Deuba government, which seemed to be failing on the foreign affairs front, Wang’s visit has created some momentum, according to Baral.
The prime minister is visiting India soon and a US official delegation is also coming to Nepal.
CPN-UML leader and former ambassador to China Mahendra Bahadur Pande criticised the government for failing to include the BRI on the agenda and to balance its foreign policy even among the two neighbours.
“I don’t know who the government was afraid of that it didn’t mention BRI in its official statement,” Pande told the Post.
Pande said Deuba government’s failure to balance foreign policy even in the immediate neighbourhood is strikingly clear from its dilly-dallying in sending its ambassador to China.
“The Chinese delegation has minutely observed the Nepali mood through our language and behaviour and they know how they should safeguard their interests,” Pande said.
“Diplomacy is about promoting national interests in a way not hampering the other side’s interests but I don’t think this government is doing so.”