Kathmandu: The Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi has wrapped up his Nepal visit and returned to Beijing. Wang Yi arrived in Nepal on Friday on a three-day visit, the first high-level visit from Beijing after President Xi Jinping’s visit in October 2019.
In Kathmandu, the visit was seen as an opportunity for Nepal to push BRI projects and sort out other issues that have surfaced in relations between the two countries over the past three years.
BRI was a high expectation point and Nepali leaders, as well as intellectuals, had thought that some deals would be signed during the visit.
There were three major points expected to be discussed during the visit—the BRI, resumption of regular trade between the two countries via land routes, border issues, facilitation of studies of Nepali students who have not been able to return to the Chinese universities after they returned home following the onset of Covid-19 in 2020 and dispelling Chinese concerns regarding ratification of MCC Compact by parliament.
What was agreed on?
Available documents show not all of these issues were discussed during the bilateral meetings in Kathmandu.
The statement issued by Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 26 said that Wang Yi and his Nepali counterpart Narayan Khadka “discussed all important aspects of Nepal-China relations and cooperation.” Khadka reiterated Nepal’s commitment to the One-China policy and not to allow any activity against China in Nepali territory.
Foreign Minister Khadka was all praise of China for “consistently supporting Nepal’s development endeavors” with Wang Yi assuring in return that “China will be providing development assistance committed to Nepal by President Xi Jinping during his State Visit to Nepal in October 2019.” Khadka thanked China for the support during the fight against Covid-19 and Wang assured that China will be providing Covid-19 vaccines and other medical supplies as needed for Nepal.
Also, they agreed to fully operationalize the Tatopani and Kerung border ports for the two-way movement of goods between Nepal and China. Additionally, both sides agreed to resume the passenger air services suspended due to the pandemic. They also agreed to carry out a joint inspection of the Nepal-China boundary through mutual consultation. Also, there was an assurance from the Chinese side that it would facilitate “the return of Nepali students to China to continue their studies on a priority basis and agreed to start the process at the earliest.”
As many as nine agreements were signed. They include agreement on economic and technical cooperation, technical assistance scheme for China-Aid Feasibility Study of China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway Project, cooperation Agreement on the Feasibility Study of Nepal-China Power Grid Interconnection, protocol on the Safety and Health Conditions for the Export of Haylage from Nepal to China, exchange of letters on duty-free treatment to be provided by China to goods of Nepali origin covering 98 percent tariff lines, minutes of the Seventh Meeting between Nepal and China on Enhancing Cooperation in Railway Sector, among others. China also agreed to provide Nepal with a grant of RMB 600 million for the year 2020, to be utilized for the projects mutually agreed upon between the two governments.
Conflicting message on BRI
The projects to be built under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the top points of expectation in Kathmandu, do not seem to have been accorded a priority by the Nepal government side during Wang Yi’s visit.
According to reports, while BRI did not feature as a point of discussion during the meeting between Wang Yi and Narayan Khadka, Prime Minister Deuba and his foreign minister are reported to have clearly told the Chinese foreign minister that Nepal would not execute the BRI under the loan schemes.
On the other hand, the Chinese side appears to have raised the issue. According to Xinhua news, Wang is said to have committed support to Nepal “in furthering participation in the Belt and Road Initiative,” adding that “China and Nepal have made encouraging progress in jointly building the Belt and Road, which has significantly boosted Nepal’s national construction.”
If PM Deuba and Foreign Minister were reluctant about BRI, CPN (Maoist Center), which is a coalition partner in the government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba, and CPN (UML), the main opposition party, discussed BRI projects with the Chinese foreign minister with priority.
During his meeting with K P Oli, a vociferous advocate of the BRI projects when he was the PM, is learned to have asked the Chinese foreign minister to speed up the implementation of the BRI projects.
Maoist Center leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal also asked the Chinese government to speed up the implementation of BRI projects.
Observers have said if Nepal is not pursuing BRI from its side, it’s a serious matter. Commenting on his Twitter, Bipin Adhikari, a constitutional expert and political analyst, wrote that whether the government talked to the Chinese foreign minister about the BRI is not clear. “If the government has not talked about it, this is serious,” he wrote. “What happened to the MOU signed with China in 2017 in the backdrop of the infamous Indian blockade? Is it not on the agenda anymore?” he commented.
On security and MCC
While the Nepali side has not made the details public regarding whether the MCC and China’s security interests were discussed, some of the Chinese media have said that Wang Yi drew the attention of the government against possible attempts to make Nepal a launchpad of geopolitical games. According to Xinhua news report, Wang told his Nepali counterpart that the affairs of Nepal should be decided by its people and that “China opposes any attempt to undermine Nepal’s sovereignty and independence, interfere in its internal affairs and engage in geopolitical games in Nepal.” Whether the Nepali side, including the parties in the government, convinced the Chinese side about the need for Nepal to ratify the MCC Compact and accept the US grant is not clear as yet, but there was a near consensus among the political leaders that Nepal should offer clarification to the Chinese side about it. Speaking to Nepal Live Today on the eve of Wang Yi’s Nepal visit, leaders from Nepali Congress, UML and Maoist Center had said that MCC ratification will, in no way, change Nepal’s position on China and that Nepal should clearly tell the Chinese side that it is purely a development grant with no strategic component in it.