On ChinaMajor takeaway of Oli’s visit is Nepal needs deft diplomacy to gain from China’s growth
Prime Minister Oli has been keen to play up what he thinks are the achievements of his visit to China. He devoted his speech at the parliamentary session on Tuesday to their explication. As already noted by the media, most of these achievements are in the realm of transport and connectivity. The most attention has been focussed on a railway that will connect Kerung in Tibet to Kathmandu, to which both sides appeared to have pledged commitment in principle.
Oli also said that the Chinese leadership was ready to assist in Nepal’s infrastructure and energy projects and communication development. The Tatopani border point, shut since the 2015 earthquake, is supposed to resume by next year since China has agreed to rebuild the Miteri Bridge soon. Furthermore, the Prime Minister said that officials from Nepal and China would sit together to sign a protocol to the Transit and Transport Agreement next month. And there will be an agreement on the protocols that will make the 10 framework agreements on trade and transit operational.
All these developments demonstrate that Oli’s visit to China, which is a global economic powerhouse, was productive indeed. For a prime minister who has put such high stakes on prosperity, it is important to be seen that he is on track to extract economic dividends from the China visit. Oli was also responsible for signing ground-breaking trade and transit agreements when he last visited Beijing in 2016 as prime minister.
Still, there are some potential problems that lie in the pursuit of these agreements, especially the railway line. The government would do well to keep these problems in sight and help find solutions to them in time.
First, there are some technical problems. The area connecting Kerung and Kathmandu is at high altitude and fragile from a geological perspective. Chinese engineers have indicated that building the line will be an extremely complex task. Furthermore, the 2015 earthquakes, which created a rift between the Indian and Tibetan tectonic plates, pose additional impediment. The consequences of future earthquakes on the railway line and ways to mitigate their effects need to be studied and implemented on time. Chinese geologists have been conducting close surveys of the area, and their Nepali counterparts should keep a close eye on the issue as well.
Second, Oli’s recent visit to Beijing offered the opportunity to understand China’s perspective regarding the Kerung-Kathmandu railway, as well as other projects in detail. While some in Nepal view greater engagement with China as a way of balancing India, it does not appear that China has the intention of antagonising India in Nepal. As an aspiring great power, China wishes to take India along as it rises in the world, and not push it towards power blocs that include the US. That, however, doesn’t mean China will not consolidate independent ties with other countries in South Asia. If the Nepal government is to effectively manage its ties with its two giant neighbours, it will have to take steps to secure cooperation from both. Deliberately or inadvertently antagonising one or the other while expanding its larger agenda for economic gains wouldn’t be a wise strategy. Lately, the Indian establishment has been more open in expressing the view that it understands that Nepal would want to engage with China—given the obvious benefits of its economic and political ties with China.
Like Singapore, a tiny city-state which has developed outstanding diplomatic capability, Nepal could invest heavily on its diplomacy. For it is the comparatively smaller countries that need strong diplomacy to get the best out of its foreign policy.