Nepal formally signed the One Belt One Road framework agreement Friday, leaving India the only country in South Asia not involved in China’s ambitious economic strategy. Following the announcement on Nepal’s entry, foreign policy experts in China said this will force India to follow suit in the near future or face isolation.
The framework agreement was signed in Kathmandu, 48 hours before the two-day Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Nepal Foreign Secretary Shankar Das Bairagi and China’s Ambassador Yu Hong signed the MoU in the presence of Deputy Prime Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara and Minister for Foreign Affairs Prakash Sharan Mahat. Nepal officials said this will open new vistas for enhanced Chinese investment in the country. Mahat said joining the OBOR initiative will also reduce Nepal’s trade deficit. Mahara later left for the Beijing forum at the head of a delegation that included ministers Surendra Karki and Ramesh Lekhak.
Officials said Nepal’s formal entry into the OBOR network will allow collaboration in construction of cross-border railways and highways, transmission grids, parks, special economic zones, airports and dry ports, and funds will be provided by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as well as the Silk Road Fund.
Nepal is the last country in South Asia to sign into OBOR with the exception of Bhutan which has no diplomatic ties with China. Heads of state of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar will attend the forum as will high-level delegations from Bangladesh and Nepal. India is yet to finalise its attendance at the forum and is reticent about the initiative, citing sovereignty issues over China’s involvement in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Asked whether India had confirmed its participation in the forum, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said, “As far as I know, there are Indian scholars participating in relevant activities during the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.” Experts in China warned that India may be isolated in the region, despite its considerable influence, in the years ahead, if its stance on ties with China continued.
Hu Shisheng, Director of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said: “If India does not participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, something all her neighbours are positive about, then the neighbours will have cause to complain. This is not constructive for India and will reduce its appeal in the region. The neighbours may ask questions like why is India not involved?”
With the framework agreement in place, China also envisions a larger role for Nepal in bridging ties between China and India. “Nepal has a big role to play in bringing China and India together. If the projects between Nepal and China are carried forward… If road connectivity between Nepal and China becomes more realistic, I don’t think India can stop the momentum,” Hu said.
Hu also believes India’s northern states would benefit from the Nepal-China agreement, which may even compel the Indian government to reconsider its stance on OBOR. Wang Dehua, Director, Institute for South and Central Asia Studies in Shanghai, said India’s neighbours were heavily invested in the Belt and Road Initiative. “The CPEC is a flagship project, but all countries in South Asia have now confirmed participation in the BRF and are making use of the initiative,”
Recent reports released in China show Pakistan has received more than $46 billion worth investments after the launching of CPEC. CPEC refers to a several infrastructure projects underway in Pakistan including Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), which India has protested against.
But Pakistan is not alone in its association with China. According to Wang, Sri Lanka has benefited to the tune of $1.5 billion, while Bangladesh has signed more than 20 agreements totalling approximately $24 billion. “Myanmar too will have quite a lot of projects as will Maldives and Nepal,” he said. Chinese developmental projects in Myanmar include the Letpadaung copper mine, Kyaukpyu port and oil and gas pipelines, while infrastructure projects in Maldives include the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge and a new airport runway in Male to boost tourism.