High-level visits between Nepal and China have grown in frequency recently. In the last few months, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha, Minister for Commerce and Industry Ramesh Rijal, Chairman of National Assembly Ganesh Timalsina, and former Speaker Agni Prasad Sapkota have visited China. Meanwhile, delegations led by the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s Sichuan Province Secretary Wang Xiaohui and the International Department Liaison Office’s Du Wenlong CPC visited Nepal.
The visits represent a natural increase in foreign visits to or from China, after Beijing lifted its COVID-19 restrictions. The visits are also vital to prepare for Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s upcoming visit to Beijing. Additionally, the visits, especially by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC) leaders, are meant to signal to China that the government led by Dahal prioritizes China too, even as he has been busy engaging the Southern neighbor, India, and visiting New Delhi earlier last month.
The visits reflect increasing Chinese political, economic, and strategic engagement in Nepal and Nepal’s attempt to establish closer working relations with China at government-to-government and party-to-party levels.
Despite repeated assurances from Nepal that the country will not do anything against the legitimate interests of its neighbors or allow its territory to be used against the neighbors, China is insecure and has a trust deficit in Nepali leadership to protect Chinese interests in Nepal.
First, Beijing invited Dahal to visit China at the end of March to attend the Boao Forum, an annual international conference. However, Dahal declined the invitation because he wanted to make New Delhi his first foreign visit destination. Although there was a rationale behind Dahal’s decision, Beijing felt slighted. After his Delhi visit, when Dahal expressed interest in visiting Beijing as soon as possible, the latter responded unenthusiastically. The visit is expected to happen at the end of August or early September.
Second, Beijing is increasingly concerned that Nepal could be used by a third country (such as the United States) against Chinese interests. The Global Times claimed that “some extraterritorial forces, particularly the US, have exerted extensive and multifaceted interference and infiltration in Nepal in an attempt to manipulate and control the political situation in the country.”
Two major attempts by the U.S. have fueled Chinese suspicion. China viewed the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, a $500 million aid from the U.S. to Nepal for infrastructure development, as a Pandora’s Box, that would lead to American security presence in Nepal. It even insinuated that Nepal signed the agreement because of American coercion. Additionally, Nepal’s ill-fated flirting with the U.S. State Partnership Program (SPP), an exchange program between the American state’s national guards and a foreign military, heightened Chinese suspicions that the U.S. has strategic interests against China in Nepal. China has advanced a narrative that Nepal should look at China from Nepali eyes, suggesting that Nepal should not buy into or be influenced by the American narrative of China.
Third, Beijing has expressed frustration at Nepal’s lack of progress in advancing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Nepal and China signed the agreement in 2017 but have little to show. Despite Nepal’s enthusiasm, which led China to include the Trans-Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity Network in BRI, not a single project under the initiative has taken off. Every Chinese leader and delegation has sought to accelerate President Xi Jinping’s flagship initiative. The Chinese embassy in Nepal has claimed that the Pokhara International Airport, built with a loan provided by China’s Exim Bank, is a part of the BRI. It shows China’s desperation to show that BRI in Nepal is progressing. It has led to some friction with Nepal, whose foreign minister clarified that BRI projects are still under consideration and not a single project has been executed.
Fourth, China’s insecurity is reflected in its attempt to draw Nepal into the Global Security Initiative (GSI), Xi’s other global initiative which aims to “eliminate root causes of international conflict.” Nepal has clarified that it will not join any “security” alliance and maintains a non-aligned and independent foreign policy. However, it has not stopped China from inviting Nepal to join the initiative thrice. Nepal is also considering whether or not to join the Global Civilizational Initiative (GCI). It has, however, joined Global Development Initiative (GDI).
Finally, Beijing’s insecurity stems from its inability to mold Nepali politics in its image. Beijing was instrumental in the formation of a unified Nepal Communist Party (NCP) in 2018, which brought together the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and CPN-MC. China put in strong efforts to prevent the NCP’s split, which did not bear results. China also threw everything in its unsuccessful attempt to prevent Nepal from ratifying the MCC in 2022. These episodes remind China that it has a long way to go to “understand” Nepali politics before attempting to shape it.
In such a context where Nepal and China’s understanding of each other is limited and shallow, further high-level meetings are critical. Either country would like to avoid second-guessing each other’s intentions when dealing with each other or other powers. It should be supplemented with further people-to-people connectivity and collaborative work among researchers of the two countries. Therefore, Dahal’s visit to China is hugely awaited.