When India blockaded Nepal in 1989, King Birendra sent a delegation of two trusted aides, including the former Commerce Secretary, Durga Prakash Pandey, to Lhasa. There, a senior Chinese minister told them that Beijing could not even think of replacing New Delhi in Nepal for another three decades. The Nepalese delegation returned with a gift of 1,000 litres of low octane petrol.
In 2015, when relations between New Delhi and Kathmandu deteriorated following the Madhesi protests over the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution in September — leading to disruption in supplies to Nepal — China did not say that it wouldn’t be able to help Kathmandu. Instead, Beijing gave 1.3 million litres of petrol to Nepal as a grant, with the promise of following up after a commercial arrangement was signed between companies on the two sides.
China probably realises that it still can’t completely replace India in Nepal. The Chinese ambassador to Kathmandu, Wu Chuntai, reportedly told the speaker of Nepal’s Parliament, Onsari Gharti Magar, that “once India opens its routes, you won’t even look towards us”. That has, however, not stopped China from deepening its engagement with Nepal, across the social, political and economic spectrum.
The 16 Nepalese districts bordering China have received special concessions on grazing land and the supply of medicines, and special humanitarian and developmental aid from Beijing. In 2013, all Members of Parliament from these districts were invited to China. All parties in Nepal, including the Madhesi parties, regularly send delegations to the Chinese Communist Party.
Last month, a delegation of children affected by the April 2015 earthquake travelled to China — there was some controversy because among them were the grandchildren of Maoist leader and former Prime Minister Prachanda, and the children of Nepal’s Home Minister, Shakti Basnet.
The popularity of the Chinese language is on the rise in Nepal. In 2014, Kathmandu alone got 100 Chinese teachers to teach Mandarin in schools, and their numbers are expected to only rise. For many young people in Kathmandu seeking an education, Chinese universities are increasingly becoming the preferred destination.
If Indians were to be excluded, the Chinese now make up nearly a third of all foreign tourists to Nepal. Beijing has announced Nepal as an “official destination” for its nationals. The town of Pokhara became a hot attraction after Chinese online guidebooks described it as one of the top ten places “to see before you die”. Signboards in Mandarin are now a common sight in Pokhara. More than a dozen hotels in the town have Chinese owners.
Many observers in Kathmandu believe that the average Nepali has never been more pro-China than now, and that Beijing will reap the rewards a few years down the line. Others quip that China has got this goodwill without doing anything concrete for Nepal.
The signs of deepening Chinese relations with Nepal notwithstanding, most observers also contend that Beijing might never be able to take the place of New Delhi in their country. This is because of the deep linguistic, cultural, religious, historical and geographical connections between Nepal and India — which trade or economic ties with China alone cannot entirely overwhelm.
But if China cannot fully replace India, it is also because Beijing’s interests in Nepal are limited. Beijing is in favour of a stable Nepal because it does not want any trouble to spill over to the restive Tibet province, which borders Nepal. The Nepalese government is now so sensitive to Chinese concerns that no anti-China protests are allowed in Kathmandu. When some Madhesi protesters burnt the Chinese flag during the recent protests, Madhesi leaders Rajendra Mahato and Upendra Yadav promptly tendered an apology to China.
China-Nepal relations are also limited as of now by certain practical problems. Even if Nepal Oil Corporation and PetroChina Company Ltd were to sign an agreement, the issue of dual taxation in Tibet — which raises the cost of fuel — remains unresolved. While the Indian refinery of Barauni is only 374 km away, the nearest Chinese refinery is more than 2,000 km from Nepal. Assuming China sees no reason for a massive oil subsidy to Nepal, this distance alone will make Chinese fuel more expensive than Indian.
The major Nepal-China trading point at Tatopani has been unavailable since April 2015 because of a landslide on the Nepalese side. Kathmandu has not yet started work on opening this road to the Customs town of Khasa, even though it has recently announced that it would use 1.6 billion Nepali rupees received from China for the project.
Chinese goodwill has also touched the Nepalese army, which has historically had strong ties with the Indian Army. A Colonel from the Nepal army, who worked in earthquake rescue operations in Gongabu and Bhaktapur in April-May along with the Chinese army, says, “While we rescued more people, the Chinese rescued the more difficult ones. They had specialist equipment with them, and robots that could sense body heat and even heartbeats. They were also experienced in such rescue operations. But when they rescued someone, they were under clear instructions to give credit to us. We were so embarrassed.”
The Chinese subtlety in engaging Nepal stands out in contrast to the Indian approach which has not won many friends in Kathmandu in recent months. A far cry indeed from the time, between 1952 and 1969, when the Indian Army manned 18 military checkposts on Nepal’s northern border with China.