China Chases India by Courting Nepal
China’s ambassador to Kathmandu was recently pictured in a traditional Nepali cap and silk scarf, digging with a spade to symbolize the laying of the foundations of a new dry port near the Tibet border. The photo opportunity marked the latest in a series of major projects that underscore China’s growing economic influence in Nepal, where it is building roads and investing billions of dollars in hydropower and telecommunications.
Other Chinese projects in its impoverished, electricity-starved Himalayan neighbour include a USD 1.6 billion hydropower plant which is expected finally to end power outages which extend to 14 hours a day in winter. Meanwhile, China recently completed a 22km stretch of road in central Nepal connecting the country’s southern plains with the Tibetan county of Kyirong, to form the shortest motorable overland route between China and India.
Analysts have questioned whether Beijing’s largesse is a gesture to a neighbour in need, or the result of a foreign policy which increasingly sees Nepal’s roads and dry ports as a doorway to the huge markets of India.
“I am sure that these infrastructure projects will help win influence in Nepal but they will serve a dual purpose,” said Purna Basnet, a Nepalese political commentator who frequently writes on Chinese influence in Nepal.
“It will be easier for China to supply goods to India via Nepal. There is even a talk of connecting Kathmandu with their rail networks in Tibet.
“The Shigatse-Lhasa railway will be completed in a couple of years. From Shigatse, they have plans to connect Kathmandu through railways.”
Nepal has always been in the shadow of India, which has traditionally exerted huge political influence and is Kathmandu’s biggest trading partner and sole provider of fuel. Since the end of a bloody decade-long civil war in 2006 and the emergence of the Maoist rebels who fought the state as the largest political party, China has been gradually and literally making inroads as a counterweight to India.
Chinese ambassador Yang Houlan outlined his country’s vision of Kathmandu as a trade gateway to New Delhi in a recent op-ed article in Nepal’s English-language Republica newspaper.
“From an economic viewpoint, Nepal links China (with 1.3 billion people) with South Asia (with 1.5 billion). The huge common market provides great opportunities for both China and South Asia,” he wrote.
“China is pushing its ‘Develop West’ strategy, and South Asia represents one of the main overseas investment opportunities. Nepal could provide China the much-needed overland channel to South Asia.”
China’s commitment to Nepal is outlined by its construction of a further five dry ports in the Himalayan region where the treacherous terrain marks the 1,414km long border.
It has also offered to fund an international airport in the tourist hub of Pokhara. On top of infrastructure development, around two dozen Chinese companies have invested USD 100 million in housing, hotels, restaurants and other areas of tourism in Nepal.