What is Xi Jinping’s ‘Big Surprise’?
Nepali officials have prepared a wish-list of 11 projects for Chinese President Xi Jinping when he makes a state visit to Kathmandu this weekend, during which China is said to preparing to announce a ‘Big Surprise’.
Parts of Kathmandu which President Xi will travel through during his visit on 12-13 October have got a hurried face-lift with streets being painted and swept, ungainly overhead wires bundled, and sidewalks festooned with flags and portraits of the leaders of the two countries.
Nepal’s 11-point agenda for Xi Jinping include mainly infrastructure projects like new highways from Kathmandu to multiple points on the Chinese border, including to Rasuwa. But the surprise gift is expected to be an announcement on the extension of the Tibet Railway from Kerung to Kathmandu.
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Prime Minister KP Oli and Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali held a four-hour discussion with former prime ministers and officials in Baluwatar on Thursday during which they advised the government not to sell out the national interest to Beijing, and not to fall into a Chinese ‘debt trap’.
The spokesman of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) Narayan Kaji Shrestha later explained that the primary agenda of the visit will be ‘connectivity’ with new crossborder roads in Kimathanka in eastern Nepal, the Korala border point in Mustang, repairs of the Kodari and Rasuwa highways that were destroyed in the 2015 earthquake.
However, officials said the really important announcement during the visit was going to be the 70km extension of the Xigatse-Kerung railway line under the Himalaya through a series of tunnels to Kathmandu. The Chinese side is said to be prepared to offer 70% of the project cost, with Rs3 billion being Nepal’s share.
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The new railway and roads will fall under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is President Xi’s pet project to improve intercontinental land connectivity between China and Central Asia and on to Europe.
Shrestha revealed that the primary features of the draft agreement with China could include:
- Upgrading the Rasuwagadi checkpoint and road to Kathmandu.
- Repairs at the Tatopani checkpoint and road to Kathmandu.
- Construction of the Tokha-Chahare Tunnel.
- Setting up of the Madan Bhandari University.
- The Kosi Corridor highway to Kimathanka
- The Kali Gandaki Corridor to Korala
- Improvement in the Karnali Corridor to Hilsa
Although some of these proposals are not new, the whole package if approved will represent a dramatic increase in China’s involvement in infrastructure projects in Nepal. Prime Minister Oli has made Xi’s state visit a prestige issue, which he hopes will bolster his party’s sagging public support – even if some of the projects, like the railway, may still be decades away.
Chinese officials had taken part in the Nepal Investment Summit in April and studied proposals from the Nepali side for the road and railways. President Bidya Devi Bhandari had also broached the subjects of the trans-Himalayan railway during her visit to China earlier this year.
Chinese and Nepali engineers have already discussed a Detailed Project Report (DPR) on the railway alignment which is said to prefer a tunnel under Langtang National Park rather than following the Bhote Kosi river from the border.
The Americans have pointedly warned Nepal not to fall under the Chinese ‘debt trap’ like other countries in Africa and Sri Lanka. Washington has offered its own $500 million alternative connectivity project under the Millennium Challenge Corporation for highways and transmission lines, however this project is stuck because of US insistence that Nepal clear it with India first.
Nepal has been trying to steer a careful geo-political balance between China and the United States on the one hand, and with India on the other. Foreign Minister Gyawali has gone to great lengths after a meeting with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo last year to deny that Nepal is a member of the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
China has been pushing Nepal to sign an extradition treaty somewhat like the one India has signed with Nepal and like the one it tried to push in Hong Kong. Such an agreement would affect the estimate 15,000 Tibetan exiles and refugees in Nepal. NCP Spokesman Shrestha admitted the subject was on the agenda for bilateral talks during the Xi visit, but that it would not be passed this time.
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This is the first state visit by a Chinese President to Nepal after Jing Zemin’s visit in 1996, and the emphasis on ‘connectivity’ reflects Kathmandu’s desire to find alternative trans-Himalayan trade routes after India’s five-month blockade of its southern border in 2015 which wrecked the country’s economy.
India has also been increasing its investments in hydropower and other infrastructure in Nepal, and recently handed over a 36km oil pipeline from the border to Amlekhganj to facilitate petroleum imports from India.
Although Indian officials and media periodically voice suspicions about Chinese inroads into Nepal, Beijing is said to be averse to damaging its increasing trade ties with India over Nepal. Hence, even Xi Jinping’s itinerary this time to make his state visit to Kathmandu after his informal meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi near Chennai in southern India carries a message.