By Maila Baje
Cutting through the customary platitudes communicated by both sides, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day state visit to Nepal has been eventful in some novel ways.
Capacity, cordiality, connectivity, containment, and commitment stood out as some of the catchwords during public pronouncements, ostensibly broadening the scope and content of the bilateral discourse. Beijing’s aspirations in and expectations from Kathmandu found suave and discreet expressions in Xi’s public engagements. More substantive issues must have come up during private discussions, including ones both sides wished to keep secret.
What was most remarkable was the robust and candid discussions surrounding Nepal-China ties at the broader public level. Smashing the staid parameters of China being a vital counterweight to India’s traditional vexing preponderance, Nepal’s relations with its northern neighbor were finally being discussed on their own merits.
The Nepal Communist Party (NCP)-led government initially seemed tempted to portray Xi’s visit – the first by a Chinese President to Nepal in nearly two dozen years – as an ideological vindication of its existence, as if its massive popular mandate were not enough.
However, the government and the ruling party wisely acknowledged the imperative of shunning such parochialism in the interest of advancing Nepal-China relations at the broadest possible level. Technically a member of the ruling coalition, Baburam Bhattarai adroitly kept urging Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s government not to go overboard, as Nepal still needed to maintain strong and friendly relations with India and the United States. (One wonders whether he might have also been speaking from his own experience as prime minister in early 2012 when he hosted then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao).
Leading an increasingly vocal constituency, the opposition Nepali Congress consistently counseled careful deliberation before embarking on new projects, particularly under the Belt and Road Initiative, lest the country lurches headlong toward the quagmire of eternal indebtedness. It would be easy to fault the main opposition party for inopportunely espousing third-party talking points, but that would not diminish the validity of the underlying argument, especially amid its pronounced global expression.
On the Chinese railway to Nepal – that unmistakable emblem of the promise as well as the practicability of bilateral ties – the joint statement said a feasibility study would be commissioned. That’s not quite a snub to the Oli government, as the prime minister and his key cohorts ceased hyping the imminence of the project after Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi issued her not-so-subtle public admonition a few months ago.
To be sure, the train from China has embodied the notion of breaking the Himalayan barrier through technological prowess ever since Chairman Mao Zedong brought up the idea as distant promise in a meeting with King Birendra in Beijing in the early 1970s (in exchange for Kathmandu immediately acting against CIA-trained-and-backed Tibetan insurgents based in Mustang, one might add.)
That Beijing eventually developed the capability to bring that train to the rugged terrain of Tibet did not necessarily mean the tracks would cross the border immediately. It took a while for Nepalis to recognize that technical, commercial and strategic viability takes on a different meaning altogether for the Chinese – or anyone else, for that matter – when we are talking about another country. That we have done so should bode well for us and ultimately our relations with China.