Nepal’s India-China Balancing Act Put to the Test

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Nepal’s India-China Balancing Act Put to the Test

Prachanda’s recent outreach to China is his latest attempt to balance ties with both Nepal’s neighbors.

Nepal’s India-China Balancing Act Put to the Test

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Nepalese Prime Minister Prachanda (L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China (March 27, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Lintao Zhang

Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (commonly known as Prachanda) finally visited China eight months into his second stint in office.

Prachanda held bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 27. Speaking to the media after his meeting with Xi, Prachanda said that the Chinese president had stressed political stability and infrastructure development in Nepal. According to the Nepali prime minister, Xi also suggested that Prachanda build a good relationship with India.

Prachanda had visited India in September 2016, one month after assuming office, in his first foreign trip. Though he wanted to go Beijing soon after the India visit, it took nearly seven more months before he finally made the trip.

The chief purpose of Prachanda’s visit was attending the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2017, held in China’s Hainan province. Media reports suggest that China refused to treat his visit as state visit, citing lack of time and preparations.

The visit concluded without any substantial agreements between two countries. According to observers, China’s main purpose was to send the message that it continues to engage with Nepal. Prachanda, meanwhile, was also in a hurry to visit China to correct his “pro-India” image.

In Nepal’s domestic political landscape, Prachanda is facing charges of hewing close to India and giving less priority to China. Prachanda himself has confessed that there was some level of mistrust between Nepal and China, which his visit helped to dispel.

Soon after becoming prime minister, Prachanda, a former rebel, tried to maintain a balanced relationship with both India and China. Unfortunately, none of the prime ministers after 1990 have been successful in crafting a balanced foreign policy when it comes to dealing with these giant neighbors, which are competing to increase their influence in Nepal. Prachanda faced the same fate.

In an effort to secure a balanced approach, Prachanda dispatched two of his senior ministers as special envoys to Delhi and Beijing soon after taking office. The purpose of sending envoys was to give the impression that he wishes to build a balanced and cordial relationship with both countries. He also tried to assure China that he will implement the agreements reached between two countries under erstwhile Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli.

“Our government will honor the agreements made by the Oli-led government. Don’t forget we were a part of the Oli government too. I have in fact received a thank-you message from the Chinese leadership for my supportive role,” Prachanda said in an interview with the Kathmandu Post, a Nepali English daily, just before he became prime minister.

In his China visit, Prachanda repeated the same sentiment. “Last year, we signed [the] Agreement on Transit Transport. This is an agreement of paramount importance for making landlocked Nepal a land-linked nation. Early conclusion of [this] Protocol is in our priority,” Prachanda said while addressing a program at Beijing Foreign Studies University on March 26.

Similarly, Prachanda focused on conncetvity projects between two countries. He listed rail, road, web, and ideology connectivity with China as his main areas of focus. He also highlighted the need for cross-border electricity transmission lines to ease the electricity trade process. China’s main concern is increasing railway connectivity with Nepal as soon as possible, and Beijing has been expressing displeasure over the slow progress on this front.

Despite his repeated assurances, there are several indications from China that clearly shows their dissatisfaction with Prachanda. Several opinions pieces published in Chinese media, including in Global Times, give the message that China is not happy with him.

Local Nepali media reports say that Chinese President Xi Jinping was planning to visit Nepal in 2016 and was making preparations accordingly. But China canceled the visit, citing the lack of preparations on the Nepali side. According to media reports, Xi was planning to visit Nepal around the time of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) summit held in Goa, India in the second week of October. As part of that trip to South Asia, Xi visited Bangladesh on October 14, the first visit by a Chinese head of state since 1986 — but he skipped a visit to Nepal.

Instead, China sent a message that Xi would met Nepal’s prime minister on the sidelines of BRICS Summit, as the leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) countries were also invited. Xi and Prachanda did indeed hold a brief meeting in Goa, at which Prachanda extended an invitation to Xi to visit Nepal as soon as possible. The Chinese side had pressed Prachanda to sign some agreements in Goa, but Nepal insisted that agreements would be signed only on official visits.

In particular, China has been consistently pressing Nepal  to be a part of Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative. In principle, Nepal had expressed a commitment to joining the project during Oli’s visit to China. Of late, Chinese think tanks have been holding series of discussions and seminars in Nepal to highlight the benefits that the country would get after signing an OBOR agreement. Nepal, however, has not signed on the document, though Prachanda and Xi discussed cooperation on OBOR during their meeting.

Inking an official OBOR agreement with Nepal is at the top of China’s agenda during any high-level visit between two countries. During his visit to China, Prachanda assured Beijing that Nepal would soon sign the document, possibly before the international conference on OBOR that China is organizing in Beijing in May.

At the same time, Chinese interests in Nepal are reaching out to security agencies, mainly the Nepal Army. Last week, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan visited Nepal and assured that China would supply necessary military hardware to the Nepal Army. Nepal and China are also planning to organize their first-ever joint military exercise very soon. Whatever mistrust exists with the current government, China continues to expand its influence in Nepal’s internal political affairs.

To achieve prosperity, Nepal should maintain a balanced relationship with its two neighboring countries. Aside from addressing the genuine security and other interests of both India and China, Nepal needs to develop cordial relations with India and China to gain economic progress. But none of Nepal’s prime ministers have been successful in attempting to craft a balanced foreign policy. Prachanda, despite his best efforts, so far shows little sign of avoiding that trend.

Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Nepali journalist who writes on geopolitical issues. He has written a book about Nepal’s peace and constitution drafting process, titled Transition: From 12-Point Understanding to Constitution Promulgation.