One of the chief goals of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s recent China trip was to reassure the Chinese that Nepal is fully committed to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese side, it appeared, was not fully convinced, for various reasons, one of which is slow progress of China-supported projects in Nepal. In this context, Mahara’s high-level talks in China, including with Prime Minister Li Keqiang and State Councilor Yang Jiechi, have been rather encouraging. For instance when Mahara inquired about extension of the Lhasa-Shigatse-Keyrung railway to Kathmandu, Pokhara and Lumbini, Prime Minister Li replied that China is already assessing the geological feasibility of the project, which is just as well, as the railway will have to traverse seismically active zones. As importantly, the two sides agreed to “implement the agreements and understandings reached in the past” through various bilateral mechanisms, which means that the historic trade and transit agreements Prime Minister KP Oli signed during his 2016 state visit to China could finally be made operational.
There have also been agreements on joint development of hydropower and building cross-border power transmission lines and inter-grid connections. Nepal, for its part, reiterated its commitment to ‘One China’ and expressed its wish to fully benefit from China’s BRI initiative. Interestingly, Foreign Minister Mahara informed PM Li that he had been able to establish “consensus among major political leaders in the government and in the opposition to carry forward railway connectivity”. If indeed Mahara has been able to secure such pledge from at least the three big political parties in Nepal, it will solve one of Beijing’s oldest gripes with Kathmandu: that the constantly changing cast of characters in Singha Durbar, who often have competing interests, makes it impossible to carry out any long-term bilateral project in Nepal. We have long maintained that when it comes to our key foreign policy issues, at least our major political actors should see eye to eye. Otherwise, with the electoral system we have, there will continue to be unstable coalitions at the center far into the future, and which in turn could hamper our foreign relations. We thus hope that the consensus on rail connectivity with China can be carried over into our other foreign policy priorities.
With the end of the prolonged standoff between India and China over the Doklam plateau, and with the two countries showing renewed interest to further enhance their trade relations, the prospect of trilateral cooperation between Nepal, India and China is once again on the table. One of the goals behind China extending the railway into Nepal is to further extend it to the vast markets of north India and beyond. Both President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi seem to realize that the two countries have much to gain by cooperating on economic front, and everything to lose by fighting needless wars. Now if we can make a credible offer on Nepal’s development as a vibrant economic bridge between India and China to these two business-minded leaders, they might just accept it, in the process helping realize Nepal’s age-old dream. Yet even if such trilateral cooperation does not materialize, recent signs suggest Nepal-China relations are headed in the right direction.