China on Wednesday stepped up its attack on the USD-500 million infrastructure aid being offered by the US to Nepal, saying political strings should not be attached to a gift and it should not come with an ultimatum.

Nepal’s political parties are sharply divided on whether to accept the US grant assistance under the Millennium Corporation Challenge (MCC) agreement. After hectic parleys between coalition leaders, the MCC programme was tabled in Nepal’s Parliament on Sunday for approval.

While US officials call the MCC grant “a gift from the American people and a partnership between the two countries that will bring jobs and infrastructure to Nepal and improve the lives of Nepalis”, China has stoutly criticised it.

On Wednesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, for the second time in a week, attacked the American grant.

“There should be no political strings attached, no coercive diplomacy and certainly no infringement of other countries’ sovereignty and interests for selfish gains,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a media briefing.

Earlier in the month, the US had reportedly asked Nepal to ratify the proposed grant assistance by February 28 or Washington would review its ties with the Himalayan nation and consider China’s interests behind the assistance not being accepted. The US is Nepal’s largest bilateral donor for decades now.

“The US embassy in Nepal described the MCC which is USD 500 million in worth as a gift from American people to the Nepalese… I wonder how a gift can be sent with an ultimatum. How can anyone accept such a gift? Is it a gift or a Pandora’s box? I am afraid it is like a Nepali saying ‘it looks good, but you will find the meat difficult to chew’,” Hua said.

China is wary of the US making forays into Nepal, where over the years it wielded influence among the influential Marxist parties. Currently, the Nepali Congress is leading the ruling Coalition in Kathmandu which includes major Left parties – CPN-Maoist Centre CPN-Unified Socialist.

China whose political influence as well as investments have grown in Nepal significantly, especially under the previous pro-Beijing Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s tenure, was mostly silent in recent months after Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba – an advocate of diplomatic balance foreign policy with close ties with India – took power last year.

“As a close neighbour and a development partner, China will continue to support Nepalese people to independently choose their own development path and give support and assistance for socio-economic development to the best of its abilities,” Hua said.

Nepal’s political sphere is polarised over the MCC grant. Last Sunday after it was tabled in Parliament, vociferous protests were led by Left supporters in the country, causing the police to use tear gas and water cannons.

The CPN-Maoist Centre and CPN-Unified Socialist had commented against the American grant assistance in the House. Deuba is said to be pressing for its ratification in Parliament.

Latest reports from Kathmandu say US Ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry on Tuesday met former prime Minister Oli – the leader of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Unified MarxistLeninist).

Oli later met Prime Minister Deuba and held talks over ratifying the MCC in Parliament overcoming their divisions, the Kathmandu Post reported.

Deuba can get the USD 500 million US grant ratified from the House comfortably if Oli’s party lends support. However, it has not given a concrete word to Deuba despite several negotiations, the Post report said.

Nepal and the United States signed the MCC agreement in 2017 – meant for building Nepal’s infrastructure such as electric transmission lines and improvement of national highways.

Nepal’s Leftist political parties have been opposing the pact, saying it was not in national interest and that it was meant for countering China.

Further, there are reports that China is behind spreading disinformation against the MCC pact.

The MCC is a bilateral United States foreign aid agency established by the US Congress in 2004. It is an independent agency separate from the State Department and USAID.