Nepal’s recently elected prime minister, Khadga Prasad Oli, has stirred the pot in the country’s increasing strained bilateral relationship with India by opting to visit China for his first state visit. Nepali prime ministers have traditionally visited India on their first state visit abroad, in a nod to historically close ties between the two South Asian neighbors. (One notable recent exception was Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Nepal’s 33rd prime minister and chairman of the country’s major Maoist party, who chose to visit Beijing before New Delhi.)
Confirmation of Oli’s trip to China in early 2016 comes shortly after the Nepali government acquiesced to demands by ethnic Madhesi, Tharu, and other protesters for a range of reforms to the country’s recently promulgated constitution. Nepal has been gripped by a national crisis stemming from widespread perceptions that the country’s new constitution purposefully marginalizes the interests of historically disadvantaged groups.
“PM Oli will visit China in the beginning of the New Year 2016 during which many agreements will be signed,” Nepal’s deputy prime minister, Kamal Thapa, confirmed. Thapa made the announcement after returning from a week-long visit to China. The announcement sends a strong signal to India and has been read nearly universally in the Indian press as a sign that Kathmandu may be irreversibly drifting away from New Delhi. Though the constitutional crisis has strained the bilateral relationship—particularly given the cultural closeness between India and the protesters in the southern Nepalese plains, known as the Terai—India and Nepal continue to maintain open diplomatic channels.
Oli’s choice of Beijing has been presaged by a range of events over the past year. In fact, his choice to go to Beijing is not only a product of India’s heavy-handed involvement in the country’s constitutional crisis, but also a result of China’s outreach. Beijing additionally played a major role in rescue efforts after a devastating earthquake struck Nepal in April. Within a day of the earthquake, China had rushed People’s Liberation Army soldiers, rescue dogs, medical workers, and seismic experts to the ground in Nepal. India also played a major role, launching a broader aid operation entitled “Operation Maitri” (Maitri meaning friendship)—the goodwill from that operation was soon overtaken by the acrimony arising from the constitutional crisis.
In recent months, given an unofficial blockade of a land border with India, which revealed the Nepali economy’s singular dependence on trade to the south, Kathmandu has signed a range of memorandums and agreements with Beijing to reduce its dependence on India. For instance, as NDTV reports, Nepal signed a memorandum of understanding with Petro China to import fuel to the country—the agreement puts an end to Indian Oil Corporation’s monopolistic market power in Nepal. That development comes not long after China began supplying fuel to Nepal for the first time ever. Earlier this year, Nepal signed up to become a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as well.