Nepal : Nepal-China relations have been rather choppy of late, particularly after the Nepali parliament’s ratification of the MCC compact. China believes the current (election-bound) Sher Bahadur Deuba government does not prioritize ties with the northern neighbor. Members of the government, meanwhile, seem wary of recent Chinese assertiveness in Kathmandu.
When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Nepal in the third week of March, Beijing and Kathmandu were expected to mend fences and sign something concrete under the BRI. It was not meant to be.
China has become a bargaining tool for power
To understand China’s Nepal policy, it is imperative to delve into its larger South Asia policy. Beijing has prioritized South Asia with the view to developing its southern and western regions, particularly Tibet, which is comparatively less developed than other parts of China.
Xi Jinping is the first Chinese president to visit all South Asian countries, except Bhutan with which China does not have diplomatic relations. With Nepal, China is developing relations in trade, defense, and security. It is also engaging with Nepal at the political level. \
Scores of countries seem eager to enhance ties with China for their economic development, but we have been unable to do so. Even the countries that have hostile relations with Beijing are benefiting from China’s growth. But even as a neighbor, we haven’t been able to strengthen ties with China.
Whenever our politicians feel that their positions are under threat, they try to use China as a tool to stay in power. This happened during the Panchayat regime, and this is happening today. Even when the communist government led by KP Sharma Oli was in power, there wasn’t much progress in Nepal-China relations.
China will not engage with Nepal to the extent of offending India. What China rather wants in Nepal is a trustworthy and long-term partner to address its security and economic concerns. Before 2008, China was completely reliant on Nepali monarchy to pursue its interests here. Now, China is engaging with all political parties.
There has been much rhetoric about MCC and BRI, but what is our official stand on these issues? We never delve into the economic aspects of these issues, only seeing them through the narrow lens of nationalism. We lack the vision and willpower to benefit from China’s rise. It’s high time that our political leadership mended its ways.
China shares borders with 14 countries. But it wants to engage not just with its neighbors, but also with the world at large. Thus its greater presence in Nepal is to be expected. But it is crucial that Nepal adopts a balanced foreign policy with India and China. Both the neighbors are equally important to us.
But it seems the current five-party ruling alliance undervalues China. There is a perception that this government favors Western countries. China should be Nepal’s highest foreign policy priority. There have been some departures in our bilateral engagement with China under PM Deuba. First, you see a clear anti-China prejudice. For instance, soon after its formation, the incumbent government formed a panel to look after alleged Chinese encroachments of Nepali territories, even though the two previous governments had already concluded that there was no border dispute. Second, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Nepal, there were no talks on BRI projects.
I see the current government choosing one neighbor over another. Due to serious lapses in judgment of our political leadership, we find ourselves in a difficult geopolitical spot. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal in October 2019, he talked about turning Nepal from a landlocked country to a ‘land-linked’ country. This was a momentous announcement but there was then no follow-up from our side. We have never seen our relations with China through the lens of larger national interest.
There have been some mistakes from the Chinese side as well. For instance, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi’s running-around to save the Nepal Communist Party from imploding did not send a good message. Likewise, China could have resolved the problems at border points to smoothen the supply of goods. On the MCC compact, too, it would have been better had Beijing refrained from making any statement.