Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s week-long visit to China was expected to be as much about substantive agreements as about signalling and point-scoring. While the two purposes are not entirely distinct, the latter is certainly aimed at New Delhi — especially in the aftermath of Oli’s India trip last month that had, at best, mixed results. Among the big-ticket deals is the transit agreement, which will give Nepal transit rights to Chinese ports, ending — if the project is deemed economically viable and implementable — India’s monopoly on the transit of Nepal’s supplies through the Haldia port in West Bengal. Nepal has also asked China for an extension of its Tibetan railway into its territory as well as road connectivity, even as the much-anticipated deal on petroleum supplies remains pending.
The crisis caused by the five-month-long Madhesi blockade was a point of no return for Kathmandu. But Delhi must take stock of the developments and its own capacity for turning them to its advantage. While tiny Nepal, sandwiched between two giant neighbours, will inevitably play one against the other, it’s not in India’s interest to respond with panic or peevishness. China is going to loom over the subcontinent for the foreseeable future and Delhi can’t take issue with Nepal for desiring Chinese aid and investment. Instead, Delhi should capitalise on the potential connectivity boom and work with Beijing to build Nepal into its own bridge to Tibet and beyond. The problem, of course, is that Nepal may not see itself as that link, while Beijing, in practice, is unlikely to savour the prospect of opening up the Tibetan entry route to foreigners.
It’s time to re-imagine India’s deep and traditional ties with Nepal to answer the new political consciousness in the Himalayan state. China can be a help and not a hindrance, if Delhi plays its own cards right.