Besides the geological challenges, there are also geopolitical hurdles. India has been suspicious about the China-Nepal railway. Unlike Nepal, India is not a BRI signatory, and Sino-Indian relations are strained over their border disputes.
Former ambassador Qiu wrote in 2020: ‘It is both China and Nepal’s responsibility to convince India on the railway’s importance to link India and China and its mutual benefit for the region as Nepal is .. links mainland China and the South Asian subcontinent. So, if we can connect China’s railway network with India’s railway network then this could be an important transit point for the region.’
In recent weeks, the cross-border railway project has been covered by Chinese media and elicited responses on Weibo. It has been cited as an important geopolitical project for China.
A commentary piece published by Caijing Magazine’s WeChat channel suggested that a rail link through Nepal to India could both ‘enhance China-India economic bonds when geopolitical tensions are at ease … and increase China’s strategic manoeuvring space when tensions are on the rise’.
Speaking at a recent webinar organised by the New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies. Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy and security expert at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress think tank said: “Greater Chinese influence in Nepal is not a bilateral or regional issue but a global one. India should be able to calculate its relations with global powers rather than just looking to Nepal-China relations or China’s presence in Nepal.”
The ecological impact of the proposed rail line is not being discussed in Nepal, and nothing has been said about what China’s 2021 green development guidelines might mean for the project. Some experts say this is due to the Nepal government’s inability to work with the Chinese team.
“Any trans-Himalayan project of this scale will have serious environmental impact and there should be more concern around the fragile geology of the region,” said Basanta Raj Adhikari at the Centre for Disaster Studies at the Institute of Engineering, Tribhuvan University.
He says the project also needs to factor in seismic risk since the track will pass through the main central thrust – a geologically weak zone in the Himalayas.
“It is important to use technical knowledge of geologists and other experts to minimise its environmental impact, but no efforts towards this have been made,” Adhikari added.
In fact, there have been some concerns in China over the ecological impact of the railway. Says one comment on Caijing Magazine’s WeChat channel: ‘At a time when we are enduring extreme heat, many are concerned with the railway’s ecological impact on the world’s water tower. Railway maintenance is going to be very challenging in the Himalayan region. International relationships also depend on how we choose to act. Be cautious.”
Nepal has a huge trade deficit with China, and Beijing is encouraging Nepal to export more to China. From 1 September, 98% of Nepali products were eligible for zero-tariff exports to China.
‘This will support the Nepalese side to make good use of this policy dividend to expand exports to China,’ stated a communique after the meeting of the two foreign ministers in Qingdao last August.
Nepal imported goods worth $1.7 billion from China between mid-July 2021 and mid-April 2022, but Nepal’s exports to China were worth just $5 million in this period.
“The cross-border railway project, if eventually built, would surely augur well for Nepal’s economy, as the landlocked country’s transport connectivity with China currently relies on a few land ports that can’t operate amid heavy snow or geological disasters,” Long Xingchun, president of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs, told the Global Times.
The only functional Nepal-China cross-border road crossing in Rasuwa Gadi, northwest of Kathmandu, had been closed since the Covid-19 pandemic, and was only partially opened last week after the visit to Nepal by Li Zhanshu, Chair of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China.
This piece was originally published on The Third Pole under the Creative Commons license, and was written by Ramesh Bhushal, Nepal Editor at The Third Pole.
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