A Kathmandu-Lhasa rail link can enhance China’s influence in Nepal, to India’s detriment

| Updated on October 18, 2019 Published on October 18, 2019

China's President Xi Jinping with Nepal's President Bidhya Devi Bhandari. Photo: Reuters   -  REUTERS

China sees itself as a global power and isn’t shy of muscling its way into what’s traditionally been India’s sphere of influence

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Nepal has been a nasty wake-up call for India. It was the first visit by a Chinese President in 23 years and it sent out a clear signal: India cannot dictate terms to its smaller, landlocked neighbour, nor take it for granted. Displaying a willingness to play an expanded role in the region, Xi declared China would always support Nepal in safeguarding the nation’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Xi also pointedly promised China would “help Nepal realise its dream of becoming a land-linked country from a landlocked one.” Driving that point home, China and Nepal signed a feasibility-study agreement for a 70-km rail link connecting Kathmandu and Shigatse in Tibet where it would join an existing railway line to Lhasa. Also on the cards are improved road links and slashing travel time from Kathmandu to the Tibetan border from five hours to two. In addition, China earlier offered Nepal use of four ports for shipment of goods. India hasn’t wanted to be left behind in the connectivity race and recently inaugurated a 69-km oil pipeline from Barauni in Bihar to Amlekhgunj that can carry two million tonnes of petroleum products annually. (Significantly, though, that project was first proposed in the 1990s). Also, construction’s underway on two rail links, one of which will eventually link Patna and Kathmandu.

From the day he took office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stressed that close ties with Nepal were crucial to India’s vision of South Asia. He’s been to Nepal thrice, and it was the first country he visited after taking office in 2014. But India-Nepal ties got derailed when Kathmandu drafted a new constitution which upset Nepal’s Madhesi ethnic minority. That led to a six-month blockade which crippled food, fuel and drug supplies entering Nepal, that only months before had been devastated by an earthquake. Nepal accused India of tacitly engineering the blockade. New Delhi denied this, but Kathmandu wasn’t convinced. In 2016, Nepal also found itself stuck with Indian currency notes after New Delhi’s shock demonetisation. However, geography and cultural links have always worked in India’s favour in Nepal. Plus, there’s the all-important fact that Nepalese citizens can work freely in India without visa restrictions. The remittances from India are crucial for Nepal’s economy.

But these days, China sees itself as a global power and isn’t shy of muscling its way into what’s traditionally been India’s sphere of influence. Also, the Chinese have technology and the construction skills to build railways and roads in difficult terrain. The rise of the Nepalese Communist Party has also given the Chinese an extra edge they didn’t enjoy earlier. India needs to rebuild links with the mountain nation.

Published on October 18, 2019
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