Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s visit to China last week was not quite the blockbuster it was made out to be, given his ideological leaning towards Beijing. Instead, it reflected the healthy realism that Nepal cannot build ties with China at the expense of India.
Among the agreements the two countries announced was a decision to extend China’s Tibet railway from the Tibetan city of Shigatse, north of Sikkim and 248 km to the west of Lhasa, to the Nepalese capital Kathmandu. In the first stage, a 564-km line would connect Shigatse to Kerung, 24 km from the China-Nepal border, while the second stage of the project entails developing a 174-km link to Kathmandu, across the Himalayas.
This opens up the dramatic possibility of the first trans-Himalayan rail link that could go all the way to India. Recall that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced in April, when Oli was visiting New Delhi, that India and Nepal would build a railway line connecting Kathmandu with India.
There are, of course, many obstacles in the way before these dream projects can be executed – the terrain, the danger of earthquakes and, not in the least, the way they will be financed. Nepal would ideally like outright grants, though neither China nor India would be inclined to agree. A more relevant question is whether a trans-Himalayan railway is economically viable. The volume of trans-Himalayan trade, current and potential, and the thinly populated Tibetan region do not suggest it is.
In 2016, following a four-month-long economic blockade along the Indian border that Kathmandu blamed on New Delhi, the angry Nepalese signed what were billed as “game changer” agreements with China, including a transit and trade memorandum of understanding designed to end Nepal’s dependence on India. Besides road and rail links, Nepal sought to develop new fibre optic links and a petroleum supply agreement with China to bypass India.
After the 2015 border blockade led to tensions with India, an angry Nepal had signed agreements with China to reduce its dependence on New Delhi. (Photo credit: AFP) After the 2015 border blockade led to tensions with India, an angry Nepal had signed agreements with China to reduce its dependence on New Delhi. (Photo credit: AFP)
Oli swept the 2017 general elections on a platform of opposing India. But bowing to reality, he decided to hit reset in his ties with India and ensured that his first visit abroad in April was to New Delhi. By then, Oli had realised that there was a geographical limit to the extent to which China could help Nepal reduce its dependence on India.