The most notable recent events influencing the political situation in South Asia were Xi Jinping’s visits to India and Nepal. The Chinese leader visited the countries in the first half of October, during his overseas tour.
Previously, NEO has discussed various aspects of the second informal meeting between Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which took place on October 12 in the Indian resort town of Mamallapuram, located near the capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai.
Jingping’s subsequent, and now official, visit to Nepal immediately after that is also worth noting. The political and geographical position of this country can be described by the term ‘sandwich core’, which is often used in relation to Mongolia due to its placement between China and Russia. And although almost all other countries on the continent constantly maneuver in the field of forces formed by the leading Asian powers, this behavior is especially characteristic of such ‘sandwich cores.’
This is exactly what the leadership of Nepal does. It’s simply a small mountainous state with an area of 140,000 square kilometers and a population of just over 30 million people. It does not have transport and economic infrastructures in any contemporary meaning of the words and remains one of the poorest nations in the world with an annual GDP of just over 1,000 $ per capita.
The leadership of Nepal has to deal with this maneuvering in the conditions of a quite noticeable struggle between the two powerful ‘sandwich crusts’ that are India and China, which aim to make Nepal their respective sphere of influence. And, in line with the preferences of the current Nepal administration, the factor of cultural and religious similarity with India may be seen as less of an advantage than combination of ideological closeness and the economic power of the PRC. This is despite the fact that India continues to be Nepal’s leading trade partner. In addition, it is difficult to overestimate the significance of the opening of the long cross-border oil pipeline stretching 60 km in September – the first in the region of South Asia.
It is worth noting that with the fall of the monarchy in 2006, Nepal was formally declared a parliamentary republic. However, the first general elections after this took place only at the end of 2017, during which the ‘moderate’ communists led by KP Oli (who has taken the post of prime minister for the third time) came to power. Thus, the ideological closeness of the elites ruling in both countries strengthened the ties between China and Nepal.
But the deciding factor, perhaps, is determined by the scale of cooperation with China in order to solve the Nepal’s abovementioned problems, which were aggravated after a series of catastrophic earthquakes in spring of 2015.
And here, once more, it is necessary to briefly focus on the issue often discussed in Western expert circles. This is the issue of ‘debt pits’ which Third World countries often find themselves after pursuing relations with China (primarily within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative concepts) in order to solve pressing problems not only in their economies, but also issues in healthcare and education.
Such statements are not unfounded; however, these factors rarely discourage states from forming a partnership with the PRC. After all, cooperation with China helps solve urgent problems here and now, while issues of debt will arise someday in the future. It isn’t even certain that they will arise or be as pressing as they currently appear.
In any case, the Nepalese government under KP Oli has no doubts about striving to build comprehensive relations with the PRC. Six months after coming to power, Oli paid a state visit to Beijing at the end of June 2018. The priorities in bilateral cooperation were then indicated in the Joint Statement.
The focus in this document was on solving the key problem in the development of Sino-Nepalese relations which boils down to the lack of communication and transport infrastructures between the states, which are separated by the tallest mountain range in the world. Such an infrastructure will have to include railways, highways, air routes, as well as modern fiber optic cables.
The Trans-Himalayan railway between the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu and the city of Shigatse in the Tibet Autonomous Region of the PRC will become the central element of the infrastructure. It should be noted that Shigatse is the destination of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the world’s highest and most complex, which had been built in China in the span of over 30 years.
One would have to read the title ‘Trans-Himalayan Railway’ slowly and carefully in order to truly comprehend the place of modern China in the global world order, which is undergoing radical changes.
The matter of designing and building said railway became one of the priorities in the Joint Statement following the results of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal. Last year’s plans for the construction of a set of internal railways, highways, economic corridors and transshipment hubs for goods and passengers in various areas of Nepal were confirmed. China will assist in the creation of contemporary public health and youth education systems.
The Nepalese government connects the popular political slogan “Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepalis” to the implementation of all these projects, which is also expressed in the text of the document.
The parties emphasized that the entire planned system of bilateral cooperation will become an organic element of China’s aforementioned global project, the Belt and Road Initiative.
And finally, India was the third influential power next to (both figuratively and literally) the two High Parties which held negotiations in Kathmandu. The ‘literal’ meaning stems from the geographical location of Nepal, while the ‘figurative’ one is due to of India’s interest in the nature of the relations developing between China and its neighbor-states.
Note that Beijing undoubtedly takes into account both of these circumstances, trying to minimize (if only nominally) Delhi’s fears about potential threats to Indian interests, which may result from the development of relations between China and India’s neighbors. Especially since the meme ‘String of Pearls’, used by American political scientists to describe the Chinese strategy for India, became quite popular in the 2000s.
In this regard, the publication in China’s Official newspaper, Global Times, which appeared on the eve of Xi Jinping’s to Kathmandu, seems to be notable. The publication emphasizes that the development process of Sino-Nepalese relations remains open, meaning that other leading nations can join the collaboration, for example, India and even the US.
In the comments of Chinese experts this aspect of openness is considered a suitable reason for India to join in the construction of the China-Nepal transport corridor and assist in extending it further southward, to the coast of the Indian Ocean.
As we have already said more than once, Delhi remains reserved about such proposals. This also concerns the Sino-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or the now virtually frozen corridor project that is meant connect the southern provinces of China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India.
The situation in South Asia, both in general and within the countries of the region, will be further influenced by the state of relations between the two Asian giants. One can only hope that they remain as tolerant as possible towards each other.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.