Analysis

China’s specter looms over Modi’s Nepal visit

Kiran Sharma and Deepak Adhikari

China’s shadow will be looming large over Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal this weekend to restore fragile ties between the two South Asian neighbors.

Modi will make the trip May 11-12, his third since assuming office four years ago. This visit will take place a little over a month after talks with his Nepalese counterpart K. P. Sharma Oli in India, and just weeks after his unprecedented informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

All lot of hopes rest on Modi’s visit: Nepal wants a good working India-China relationship from which it can benefit and it also wants to reduce reliance on New Delhi; Beijing is keen for a transit route via Nepal to access the Indian market; India wants to contain China’s influence over Nepal and also rein in a burgeoning trade deficit with the country.

Yet, apart from symbolic gestures, few believe that Modi can smooth out the complicated relationships and make concrete strides in the three-way relationship.

“Trilateral cooperation is not possible,” said Pankaj Jha, a professor of defense and strategic studies at the O. P. Jindal Global University in northern Indian state of Haryana. “Synergies required [for such cooperation] are missing between India and China. They are both playing the pure geopolitical game from their power perspective.”

Nepal stands to gain from the power struggle between China and India. It is an old ally of India with which it shares close historical, cultural and religious links. But those ties were damaged by India’s blockade of trade into Nepal for five months from late 2015, depriving the landlocked country of key staples and fuel and medical supplies.

Keen to reduce its over-dependence on India, Kathmandu is open to China’s influence. China and Nepal have said they are interested in the construction of a trans-Himalayan trilateral economic corridor. India, which already has concerns about its sovereignty in regard to Beijing’s expansive infrastructure projects, is not expected to join this plan, notwithstanding the Modi-Xi bonhomie shown during the Wuhan summit.

But during Oli’s recent New Delhi visit, both sides issued a joint statement on expanding rail links by connecting the Raxaul region in India’s Bihar state to Kathmandu. India also agreed to help Nepal gain access to the sea through inland waterways. Some analysts say that this progress was directly linked to China’s plans in the region.

Oli-Modi

Image credit: AP

“After learning that Nepal and China were in talks about extending [Qinghai-Tibet] railway to Kathmandu, Indians rushed to have a similar agreement with Nepal,” said Jhalak Subedi, a foreign affairs and political expert for Nepali language Naya Patrika newspaper in Kathmandu. “They want to be ahead in the game and given Nepal’s easy access and proximity with India, they have an upper hand.”

But Pramod Jaiswal, general secretary of the Center for Diplomacy and Development, a think tank in Kathmandu, seemed to suggest that Modi and Xi had developed an understanding at the Wuhan summit that India will continue to play a bigger role in Nepal and Bhutan, while China will remain strong in the Maldives.

“Another signal is that the Chinese investments will likely be confined to the northern region of Nepal and India will continue its investment along its border with Nepal’s southern plains,” Jaiswal said.

Whether India and China will stick to that understanding remains to be seen. For now, India has shown that it is willing to at least give some way. Modi’s government has been criticized lately for curbing some of the more strident anti-China public demonstrations and displays by resident Tibetan refugees. India has been visibly more careful in its handling of Tibet.

New Delhi has since last year encouraged Tibetans in exile to apply for Indian passports but in March, it banned Tibetans from holding a rally with the Dalai Lama, viewed as a dangerous separatist by China, to mark his 60 years in exile, a move that was seen to placate Beijing.

Modi may have big diplomatic hills to climb in the upcoming Nepal visit but analysts believe that he can at least score some political points back home.

Apart from Kathmandu, Modi will visit two Hindu religious sites — Janakpur and Muktinath — during the trip, which coincides with the May 12 elections in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Modi will offer prayers at temples, moves that are expected to go down well with voters in the state, where his Bharatiya Janata Party is aiming to form a government. If all goes well, it will in turn will bolster BJP’s prospects in the 2019 nationwide general elections.

Kanak Mani Dixit, a prominent Nepalese political commentator, tweeted on Tuesday that Modi “is exploiting the necessary graciousness of Nepal’s host government to ram through a travel agenda designed for his personal, political & geopolitical” interests.

This report was first published on asia.nikkei.com

Published on 10 May 2018

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