Prachanda in China with a Wish list

4 Min
Prachanda in China with a Wish list

Ratan Saldi*

Prachanda (the furious) as he is popularly known, Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, is visiting China from today at the invitation of Premier Li Qiang.   He will meet China’s reigning helmsman, Xi Jinping in Hangzhou   and will hold talks with another strongman, Zhao Leji, who heads the powerful Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, in Beijing.

Dahal’s engagements will take him to Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region, where he will discuss the opening of more trading points between Nepal and China, according to an official statement on the keenly observed visit.  The Tibetan officials have just opened the Lizi Port in order to hold bilateral trade with Nepal.  

Several agreements, and some memoranda of understanding will be signed before he returns home on Saturday, Sept 30 via Chengdu. A hop to Mansarovar is on the cards on September 28, but it all depends on the weather.

This is not Prime Minister Prachanda’s first visit to China. He visited Beijing many times, as the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning noted while giving his itinerary. She described the visit as an ‘opportunity to deepen strategic mutual trust, expand practical cooperation, jointly build the Belt and Road with high quality, and push Nepal-China strategic partnership to a new level’.  What Mao Ning left unsaid is the fact that the BRI ventures in Nepal are stagnating.

Nepal had identified quite a sizable number of connectivity and infrastructure projects for taking up under BRI. These were later pruned to nine more than six years ago during KP Sarma Oli regime. According to the Kathmandu Post, it is yet not clear whether the same old nine projects will be pushed or new projects will be proposed by Dahal.  But the fact remains that not a single project has taken off the drawing board so far.  Bilateral discord is as much responsible for this as the down turn in the Chinese economy post -Covid pandemic, which made Beijing’s flagship programme lose momentum globally.  

Implementation of already identified BRI projects is likely to figure prominently during Dahal’s talks in Beijing.  His party colleague, Agni Sapkota, who is CPN (Maoist Centre) Vice-Chair, recently visited China and discussed the issue in some detail primarily focusing on concessional loans and grant assistance component. And broadly hinted that ‘fine tuning’, which is a euphemism for agreement, will take place during the Prime Minister’s visit.

Kathmandu-Kerung railway line is a key BRI venture, Nepal is interested in for obvious reasons. Chinese experts have made pre-feasibility studies on the 170-kilometer-long link through the world’s most difficult mountainous terrain. But work on a detailed project report is yet to begin.

There are many reasons for the Chinese lackadaisical approach to BRI projects in Nepal. Firstly, there is no clarity about funding modalities. Secondly, Nepal, being a Least Developed Country, LDC, does not have money for capital-intensive projects. Thirdly and most importantly, Nepal lacks the wherewithal and technical know-how even for preparing and finalising a detailed project report for such ventures.

For these reasons action could not be initiated on Kathmandu-Kerung railway line.  It is nevertheless a dream project for Nepal with the nationalist rhetoric tantalizing the rail link as the much-needed nirvana to give up dependence on India for trade and transit.

CPN (UML) made it a big-ticket nationalist issue in November 2017 parliamentary and assembly elections, even though pre-feasibility study was not even undertaken by then.  

Economists and experts of all hues in Nepal believe that Kathmandu-Kerung connectivity is a far stretched idea which may cost about five billion dollars for constructing the Nepal stretch alone.  They aver that as coffers are empty, it would be difficult for Kathmandu to make provision for such a large investment. They want China to come forward with a soft loan, and some grant but at the same time, they are fearful of a debt trap that such loans have resulted in for Sri Lanka and some African nations.

From what is in public domain, Beijing has clearly fallen short of Kathmandu’s expectations.   And the identified BRI ventures are not being implemented in the spirit in which these were announced. Beijing is also worried about this aspect as it wants to keep the Himalayan nation geopolitically away from the influence of India, the US and the Western bloc.

Pertinent in this context is the general downslide BRI ventures are facing globally.  Malaysia has just cancelled one BRI project upset by delays. Italy also appears all set to bow out of BRI.  On the sidelines of G 20 summit in New Delhi, Prime Minister Georgia Meloni conveyed to Chinese premier, Li Qiang that Italy sees no advantage from BRI. “It appears to be more beneficial to China, not to us”, she reportedly told him.

As of now, President Xi Jinping seems to be concentrating on expanding economic cooperation with some South Asian nations, Nepal including to maintain China’s geographical dominance in the region and to keep American influence at bay.  So much so, the outcome of Dahal’s talks with his Chinese hosts is keenly awaited.

The official statement issued on the eve of Dahal’s visit spoke about the ‘excellent state’ of bilateral ties.    “Nepal and China”, the statement said, “enjoy an excellent state of bilateral relations as good friends, close neighbours and trusted partners”. It went on to say that the pedestal of “this strong relationship has been nurtured by many commonalities in culture, history, and geography”. And concluded: “This visit will bolster our age-old bilateral relations and expand the areas of cooperation in various fields of mutual interest.”

In the run up to the visit, the Nepalese Cabinet on Sept15 cleared “agreements, understanding, and some memoranda of understanding to be signed during the visit”. One of these accords relate to setting up of agro-industrial parks. Construction of north-south corridor roads and a cross-border transmission line are amongst the wish list besides Chinese investments in a big way.  It is said that there are as many as 30 items on Dahal’s agenda for talks with Chinese President Xi and Premier Li.  He will ask China to help develop rural electrification and solar grid infrastructure, Tokha-Chhahare Tunnel, dry port infrastructure and opening of new border points.    

The short point is expectations are high from Dahal’s sojourn through China. “Prime Minister Prachanda [Dahal] has visited China many times and made important contributions to promoting the development of China-Nepal relations”, as the Chinese spokesperson Mao Ning said but reality check puts a question mark on whether the latest Dahal visit will push the 68-year-old China-Nepal diplomatic relations to a new level in strategic partnership.    

—* The writer is a veteran broadcast journalist with a long stint in Kathmandu.