PM Oli’s China Trip Railway Dream Coming True!
Ritu Raj Subedi
Visibly, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli wrapped up his China trip on high note but his failure to finalise a protocol on the Trade and Transport has given ammunition to his detractors. The agreement on trade and transit, reached with China in 2016, is considered a landmark to ensure Nepal’s access to the sea, and the two sides were expected to ink it during PM Oli’s visit to China last week. No doubt, the finalisation of the protocol would have been the icing on the cake for his visit. Nonetheless, the signing of the deal on ‘Cooperation for Railway Connectivity’ has overcome this substantive deficit to some extent. In the joint statement, Nepal and China ‘underscored it as the most significant initiative in the history of bilateral cooperation and believed that it would herald a new era of cross-border connectivity between the two countries.’
The two nations had established their diplomatic relations in 1955 and they have forged cooperation in multiple areas since then but the accord on the cross-border railway connectivity has been seen as the most important event in their bilateral relations. It will not only take their bilateral bonhomie to a new high but also bears positive geopolitical and far-reaching economic implications for them. Once the railway networks between the two nations are established, the mighty Himalayas that straddle the border will no longer be an obstacle to the smooth movement of the people and goods between the two nations. The railway connectivity is the central component of the trade and transit deal. The two sides have agreed to make good use of the long-term communication mechanism on railway cooperation between government departments and promote railway cooperation. The Chinese side agreed to provide support in technology and personnel training, according to the joint 14-point statement.
However, the two nations are yet to finalise the financial modality to construct the much-talked about Kerung-Kathmandu railway. Nepal has asked the Chinese side to construct it in grants as the embodiment of Nepal-China friendship. There can be three modalities to arrange resources for its construction – grants, soft loans and composite financing, including natural resources exchange. But Nepal should also invest in the multi-billion dollar connectivity project to develop a sense of ownership of the project. Nepal should secure loans with minimum interest rates from the various lending agencies that were created to implement the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It will be good if both the Chinese grants and Nepal’s money are used in the railway project. This is necessary for boosting Nepal’s economic confidence that has just come out of decades of political chaos and transition.
Seemingly, the dream of Chinese rail is coming true for Nepalis after the Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his meeting with Nepal’s PM, expressed his optimism about it: “The railway that we constructed from Qinghai to Lhasa has arrived in Shigatse. It is moving ahead. I believe it will reach Kathmandu soon.” Thus, Xi’s endorsement of Nepal-China cross-border railway connectivity amply suggests that it will be no more a pipe dream. Connectivity forms the crucial part of BRI, a pet project of President Xi, who has been able to leave deep imprint on domestic and global politics with his dynamic and charismatic leadership. Xi himself has attached importance to the neighbourhood policy that stresses on cooperating with the neighbours and respecting their sovereignty and dignity no matter how small or big they are.
During the three-tier historic elections held last year, virtually all major political parties had made the Chinese rail as their common poll agenda. The left alliance, comprising the erstwhile CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Centre, had promised to the electorate that the would-be left government will bring Chinese rail to Nepal in order to reduce Nepal’s dependency on India for carrying out international trade and commerce. Even the Nepali Congress had committed to opening railway tracks from Kerung to Kathmandu as the idea of cross-border connectivity was catapulted into national development discourse in the wake of unofficial Indian blockade in 2015. There is a common consensus among the populace that Nepal must open international trade route via the Chinese territory to avoid future Indian embargos and spread the economic wing of Himalayan state.
The visit remained historic in the sense that it has greatly contributed to ‘promoting the China-Nepal comprehensive cooperative partnership featuring ever-lasting friendship. It has given momentum to the 10-point accord PM Oli had signed with the Chinese government during his first premiership. Altogether the two sides inked a total of 14 bilateral agreements, Memorandums of Understandings and Letters of Exchange, including MOU on energy co-operation, investment and co-operation on production capacity, strengthening co-operation between the two foreign ministries; establishment of mechanism for facilitation on the implementation of Nepal-China co-operation programmes and projects in Nepal between the two Foreign Ministries, economic and technical co-operation, the reconstruction of friendship bridge and Rasuwa Bridge, Protocol on the utilisation of highways in the Tibet Autonomous Region, China by Nepal for cargo transport and human resource development co-operation. These agreements will go a long way in cementing Nepal-China relations. Both the neighbours agreed to intensify implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation under the BRI to enhance connectivity that encompasses vital components such as ports, roads, railways, aviation and communications within the overarching framework of trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network. The Nepali side conveyed its readiness to facilitate more Chinese investment in infrastructure building and in other productive sectors and committed to simplifying the related approval procedures on applications related to land, taxes and visas in an efficient manner, and create a favourable investment climate and business environment for the Chinese enterprises.
There was an inkling running high whether the Oli-led government won’t pay serious attention to implementing the past landmark deals signed with China after it improved strained relations with India. Oli has proved his ability to execute independent foreign policies without compromising the national interest. While welcoming Nepal’s new political setup and elections to consolidate it, the Chinese side has also recognised his signature initiative “Samriddha Nepal, Sukhi Nepali” (‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’) and assured its full support to realise it. It is here worth remembering that this developmental motto has also got space in the joint statement issued during Oli’s visit to India sometime back. Indian PM Narendra Modi had even noted that his development vision of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas made a striking resemblance with that of Oli.
It is perhaps the first time Nepal and China discussed the matters related to SAARC, regionalism and India in their bilateral meeting. This shows growing confidence in Nepal to deal with geopolitical issues. Nepal and China concurred to strengthen the multilateral forums and institutions such as Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, World Trade Organisation and SAARC. The mutual understanding on these regional and international bodies is a clear indication that unilateral approach does not resolve the crisis facing the interdependently connected world.