China-Nepal-India Economic Corridor
If what Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said during a joint press conference with his Nepali counterpart Krishna Bahadur Mahara on September 7 in Beijing gets materialised, the China-Nepal-India economic corridor (CNIEC) will be the 7th economic corridor under the Belt and Road framework. Launched in 2013, the one belt one road (OBOR) which is now known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s multi-dimensional connectivity flagship project, vision, and a public good. BRI has already gained global recognition as evidenced by the fact that the heads of state or government of 29 countries participated in the first B&R forum for international cooperation held in May this year in Beijing while many other countries including the US sent their representatives for participation.
However, India boycotted it. Of the 65 countries along the Belt and Road, only India has taken exception to it. India’s refusal to join BRI is attributed to its reservation about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as the CPEC runs through Pakistan controlled Kashmir. On the other hand, Chinese railway is likely to arrive at Yadong of Chumbi valley in Tibet in a few years which is near from Nathu La pass and thus the railway can be extended to India. But, because of the long standing border dispute between China and India, such a development does not seem very likely for some years to come. Recent 73-day long faceoff between the Chinese and Indian armies at Dong Lang or Doklam has hinted that the dispute might flare up anytime.
As Nepal has expressed concern and recently China seems to have realised Nepal’s concern with regard to the over a decade long understanding between China and India to develop Lipulekh pass, which is Nepal’s territory occupied by India, as a new trading point, there is also a slim chance that this pass would be developed as agreed in near future. It is in this scenario that CNIEC has been envisioned and proposed.
Nepal has already joined the BRI. Nepal has also been making efforts to have railway connectivity since 2008 when former Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ chose China to embark on his maiden foreign trip by breaking the tradition to visit India first. As it had been only two years that Tibet was connected with mainland China by railway, Prachanda highlighted extending the railway to Nepal and thus make Nepal a dynamic bridge between the two neighbours, China and India. He also put forward the proposal about trilateral cooperation between Nepal, China and India. Since then, over the last nine years, there has been a lot of talks in Nepal about having a railway connectivity with China.
When former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli visited China in March 2016 and signed trade and transit and other agreements, including the one to conduct a feasibility study about cross-border railway between Nepal and China, hope ran high in Nepal. But no process to conduct feasibility study was initiated. Then, in May this year, Nepal signed a MoU on the China initiated BRI, with the same hope that Nepal can be linked with Chinese railway in a short period. In the last decade since Lhasa was connected with Qinghai-Lhasa railway in 2006, China has extended the railway to Xigatse, some 248 km away from Lhasa, and has been constructing the 540-km long Xigatse-Gyirong (known as Kerung in Nepal) railway lines with a plan to complete it by 2020. This Chinese railway is reaching near the Nepal-China border point. China has started construction of another separate railway to connect Tibet with mainland China, the 1,629-km long Lhasa-Chengdu railway. But not even survey or feasibility study has been carried out to take the rail line from Gyirong to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, let alone extending the railway to Pokhara and Lumbini from Kathmandu.
A situation of politically transitional period could be a factor for the delay in initiating the process. Similarly, Nepal’s inability to finance such a huge project could have been another. Similarly, China’s interest to involve India in the railway project so that it could even be extended to India via Nepal could be yet another factor. But now, situation has changed and all these barriers are either non-existent or can be overcome. With the successful conduction of first and second phase of local polls and the elections to the provincial and federal parliament slated for November last week and December first week, Nepal is sure to enter a period of political stability. With the AIIB, New Development Bank, SCO Bank, Silk Road Fund, financial barriers to the project can be tackled with. There is no point in waiting long for Indian response with regard to constructing the trans-Himalaya railway link between Nepal and China. Once India agrees to the project, its scope can be widened as the CNIEC. The only thing China should do with regard to project financing is consider the trade deficit Nepal has with China.
Sometimes questions are raised about technical feasibility as the railway should cross the Himalaya and there are a lot of elevation changes. But all such questions become outdated when engineering feat China has gained in making the Golmud-Lhasa section of the Qinghai-Tibet railway. Of the total length of 1,956 Km of Qinghai-Tibet railway, or of the 1,142 Km long section of Golmud-Lhasa, 80 per cent of the line, 960 km, is at an altitude of more than 4,000m above sea level and over half of the length of the railway is laid on permafrost. This railway has all the records such as world’s highest railway bridge, longest railway bridge, highest/longest plateau permafrost tunnel and the highest rail track (rail track in Fenghuoshan pass is at 5,072m above seas level).
For various reasons which range from trade diversification to attracting more tourists from China, the railway connectivity between China and Nepal is in Nepal’s interest. It may as well be in China’s interest for expanding trade. It is high time that the government initiated the process at the earliest and due seriousness to prove that all the political parties are one in this regard and they are ready to make it a national priority project as said by DPM and Foreign Minister Mahara in the joint press conference with his Chinese counterpart Wang.