When Prime Minister Narendra Modi lands in Kathmandu on Sunday on a two-day visit, it will be the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 17 years. The last official visit was by Inder Kumar Gujral in 1997. In 2002, Atal Behari Vajpayee did come here, but it was only for the SAARC summit, and is remembered more for his photo-op with Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf.
In the years since Gujral’s visit, a Maoist insurgency plunged Nepal into turmoil for a decade, toppled the monarchy and ushered in a period of political instability as the new republic’s parties fought for power. No Indian Prime Minister came calling, not Vajpayee, nor his successor Manmohan Singh.
But in the period India stayed away, relying more on back channels and meetings in New Delhi with Nepal’s new leaders, the Chinese moved in, pushing interests, infrastructure south of Tibet and Xinjiang. Around the time the infrastructure on the Indo-Nepal border collapsed, China’s rapid economic growth headed to newer pastures, along the 1400-km border with Nepal.
Consider this list of official exchange of visits by heads of state and Prime Ministers of Nepal and China in the 17 years since Gujral’s visit:
1998: Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba travelled to China on the invitation of the China Association for International Friendly Contact. He was there from September 5 to September 12.
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2001: King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya were in Beijing, Hainan and Shanghai from February 26 to March 4.
2001: Premier Zhu Rongji travelled to Nepal on an official visit. He was there from May 14 to May 16.
2002: King Gyanendra and Queen Komal visited Beijing, Dalian, Yichang, Shanghai, Hong Kong between July 9 and July 18.
2005: King Gyanendra and Queen Komal attended the annual conference of the Boao Forum for Asia from April 23 to April 26.
2008: Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ was in Beijing from August 23 to August 27 for the closing ceremony of the 2008 Olympics.
2009: Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal was in China from December 26 to December 31 on an official visit.
2010: President Ram Baran Yadav was in China from October 26 to November 1 for the closing ceremony of the Shanghai World Expo.
2012: On January 14, Premier Wen Jiabao paid an official visit to Nepal.
2013: Vice President Parmanand Jha travelled to China on June 4 in connection with the China-South Asia Exposition inaqugural in Kunming. He was there till June 9.
2014: Prime Minister Sushil Koirala was in Kunming on June 5-6 to attend the inauguration of the 2nd China-South AsiaExposition and 22nd China Kunming Import and Export Commodities meet.
These 11 visits apart, the two countries have exchanged 10 visits — seven by Nepal and three by China — at the level of the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister since 1997.
According to Nepal’s Foreign Ministry, the volume of Nepal-China trade is growing but so is the trade imbalance. To reduce the trade deficit, Nepal has suggested duty-free access to markets in China for Nepalese goods.
China’s growing interest in Nepal is also bringing in more tourists. From 32,272 Chinese tourists in 2009, the numbers swelled to 89,509 in 2013.
To improve road connectivity and boost trade via Tibet, China will open a new bridge at the Rasuwagadi-Kerung border this October. Until now, the Tatopani-Khasa border point was Nepal’s only gateway to China. The Kerung bridge will be a significant upgrade because this is where the Chinese are expanding their infrastructure, including railway tracks.