Nepal has failed to reap benefits from China because of its inability to select development priorities

Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is paying a three-day visit to Nepal from Friday in three years following the official visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in October 2019. Wang is the first highest foreign dignitary to visit Nepal after Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba took office on July 12 last year. Wang is visiting Nepal one month after Nepal's Federal Parliament endorsed the $500 million U.S. grant under the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) compact on February 27. China had taken 'note' of the MCC deal and also had earlier termed the U.S. overtures as 'coercive diplomacy' on Nepal. According to officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang's visit will particularly focus on implementing various development projects in Nepal, including the Trans-Himalayan Railways project, under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Nepal had signed in 2017. But no progress has been made so far on even a single project under the BRI as Nepal has not been able to prioritise those projects it wants to expedite. Nepal and China reached agreements on more than 50 areas of cooperation when then Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli had paid a visit to the northern neighbour in 2016 when Nepal faced an economic blockade imposed by India.

During Wang's visit, he and his Nepali counterpart Narayan Khadka will sign deals on important projects of mutual cooperation on Saturday. Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu is also learnt to have sent a message to Nepal's Foreign Ministry that it would be difficult to push ahead with the BRI in Nepal unless an implementation agreement plan was reached at the earliest.

Should Nepal's highest leadership approve, Nepal and China will reach an agreement to implement the BRI during Wang's visit. Initially Nepal had proposed as many as 35 projects to be developed under the BRI. However, the Chinese sides asked Nepal to downsize them to a single digit, hence, Nepal has now proposed nine projects.

During Wang's visit, Foreign Ministry will mainly propose carrying out a feasibility study of the trans-Himalayan Railway, opening of yet another border point (Korala in Mustang) apart from upgrading the Tatopani and Rasuwagdhi customs points, constructing the proposed 400 Kv transmission line from Galchhi to Rasuwagadhi and bringing the protocol to an Agreement on Transit Transport, reached during President Bidhya Devi Bhandari's visit to China in April 2019, into full operation. Nepal is also expected to request the Chinese side to resume flights and address the problem faced by Nepali students who returned home following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. China is also expected to provide additional grant under technical and economic assistance. Despite the fact that Nepal and China enjoy age-old friendship without any friction, Nepal has failed to reap benefits from the economic progress China has achieved over the decades, largely because of Nepal's inability to select its development priorities and follow-ups of the agreements reached in the past. Nepal could have benefitted immensely from the Transit Transport deal, had it taken the initiative to make it fully operational. This time, Nepal should not miss the opportunity to identify its priority projects to be built under the BRI.

Action needed

As a mountainous country, sustainable mountain development is Nepal's priority, but it is becoming more and more difficult to achieve it due to climate change. Already disadvantaged by the rugged terrain that makes building even the most basic infrastructure difficult, the people living in the mountains face poverty, food insecurity, environmental degradation and risks of disasters. Although their contribution to global warming is negligible, yet they continue to be unjust victims of the phenomenon.

Actually, the mountains are warming twice as fast as the global average, resulting in extreme weather conditions that spawn droughts, erratic rainfall, floods, snow melt and glacier retreat.

But mainstreaming mountain agenda in climate deal has a long way to go, as PM Sher Bahadur Deuba noted at the Regional Policy Dialogue on Sustainable Mountain Solutions the other day. In view of the unfolding crisis that has great impact on the future of humanity, it is necessary to promote meaningful international cooperation and not be bogged down in rhetoric. Nepal, thus, seeks the support of the international community to mitigate the challenges faced by the mountainous region before it is too late.

A version of this article appears in the print on March 25, 2022, of The Himalayan Times.