What is behind China’s growing post-Covid engagements with Nepal?

The Chinese side is worried third parties may derail bilateral relations, according to leaders and experts.

Anil Giri

Anil Giri

The Kathmandu Post


Former Speaker Agni Sapkota (right) with a senior Chinese leader during his recent China visit. Photo obtained by the Post

June 21, 2023

KATHMANDU – With the northern neighbour fully relaxing its Covid restrictions, the frequency of bilateral engagements between Nepal and China has grown over the past few months.

China has resumed all kinds of visits, junkets and trips while it is also sending politicians of various ranks to Kathmandu to assess the ground situation as the Communist Party of China (CPC) wants to renew its ties with the CPN-UML, the CPN (Maoist Centre), and with the upcoming Socialist Front, according to leaders. The front is a grouping of leftist and communist parties (minus the UML) set to be announced this week.

While a Cabinet minister is heading for China on Monday and the National Assembly chairman has been in China since last week, a Chinese delegation from the International Department of the Central Committee of the CPC landed in Kathmandu on Friday and met top leaders.

Minister for Industry, Commerce and Supplies Ramesh Rijal is heading for China on Monday to participate in a trade fair there while Assembly Chairman Ganesh Prasad Timilsina has been touring China and visiting leaders since June 11. Timilsina is scheduled to return home on the 21st.

The visiting Chinese team has met top Nepali leaders including Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, UML chair KP Sharma Oli and Socialist Party Nepal chair Baburam Bhattarai. The team also held talks with Suresh Chalise, foreign relations adviser to President Ramchandra Paudel, and a team from the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, among others, to understand Kathmandu’s ground realities and future political scenarios, according to multiple leaders who participated in the meetings.

Interestingly, no official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was present in any of the meetings.

The four-member Chinese delegation has met all top leaders who will be part of the soon-to-be-announced Socialist Front.

The CPN (Maoist Centre), the CPN (Unified Socialist), the Janata Samajbadi Party, and the Communist Party of Nepal led by Netra Bikram Chand will be part of the front. The Bhattarai-led Socialist Party Nepal is still undecided whether it will join the front as of Sunday evening.

“The Chinese were inquisitive about the new socialist front and wanted to know how it will evolve and what implications it will have on Nepali politics,” a leader who met the Chinese delegation told the Post.

“Had a very cordial and fruitful talk with the delegation of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC),” former prime minister Bhattarai tweeted after the meeting on Saturday. “Wide range of issues of mutual interests of Nepal and China, changing geo-political dynamics in the region and mutual cooperation between Socialist Party of Nepal (SPN) and CPC were discussed.”

Besides assessing the ground situation, the CPC delegation told the Nepali leaders that “some external elements are trying to derail the Nepal-China relations, so Nepali leaders should be cautious about it.”

“Some elements are trying to derail and disturb the Nepal-China relations, which worries us. We see the hand of a third party, but this should not happen. We want to develop good relations with Nepal and the state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019 gave a new direction to the Nepal-China ties,” two Nepali leaders quoted the Chinese delegation members as saying during one of the meetings in Kathmandu.

As Bhattarai indicated, upper house chair Timilsina, during a recent interview with the BBC Nepali service, said that Chinese leaders had cautioned him that India and the US might be involved in anti-China activities in Nepal and thus Nepal should remain vigilant.

“…Their [Chinese] concern was India and the US might carry out the anti-China activities in Nepal and such activities could cause threat to China while urging us to be vigilant against such activities,” Timilsina said in the recent interview while discussing his China trip.

Before Timilsina, on May 19, former Speaker Agni Prasad Sapkota also visited China as the head of a 20-member CPN (Maoist Centre) delegation.

According to the leaders, besides expressing concerns about the possibility of a third party derailing Nepal-China relations, Chinese leaders queried about the BRI projects in Nepal. “But we clearly told them that Nepal’s current economic condition does not allow for the implementation of more BRI projects on loan,” a leader in the Sapkota-led delegation told the Post.

Soon after Sapkota’s return from China and ahead of Prime Minister Dahal’s visit to India, Wang Xiaohui, the Sichuan province secretary of the CPC, arrived in Kathmandu on May 30 and held high-level meetings.

Foreign secretary Bharat Raj Paudyal also visited China in the first week of April and discussed bilateral issues with his Chinese counterpart.

The visiting Chinese delegation will fly to Pokhara to attend the Dragon Boat Race Festival, which is scheduled for June 21-24. The Chinese Embassy called it a part of the Global Civilization Initiative, a new concept announced by Chinese President Xi in March. Chinese Ambassador Chen Song has invited all heads of the Kathmandu-based diplomatic missions and international organisations to participate in the boat festival.

Prime Minister Dahal is likely to inaugurate the function on June 23. Besides the boat race in the Phewa Lake in Pokhara, the first international flight will land in the new Pokhara International Airport from Sichuan, and the Chinese digital wallet WeChat Pay will also be launched in Nepal during the festival, according to the schedule of the festival seen by the Post.

On March 15, Chinese President Xi during the ‘CPC in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting’ in Beijing pitched the GCI concept while expressing the CPC’s “sincere readiness to work with political parties of all countries to advance modernization with distinct national features, promote inter-civilization exchanges and mutual learning around the world and build a community with a shared future for mankind,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Prime Minister Dahal is also visiting China in a few months.

Officials said Dahal could visit the northern neighbour at the end of August or in September.

“It may take another one or two months for the prime minister to visit China,” Foreign Minister NP Saud told the Post, adding, “nothing has been finalised yet.”

Officials said that before Dahal’s visit, they are also working to schedule Saud’s visit to China, and then Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s return visit to Kathmandu.

Besides high-level exchanges and expressing renewed concerns, what else could be behind these bilateral visits?

Chandra Dev Bhatta, who writes on geopolitical issues, says the visits could be useful in “recultivating working relations at the government-level and with like-minded political parties, which have deteriorated to some extent in recent years. These visits could also help prepare the ground for taking forward the stalled BRI projects.”

Bhatta added, “Moreover, these visits would help set the agenda for Dahal’s China visit. His recent visit to India and agreements signed on the occasion might have alarmed the Chinese. Also, as parties are planning to launch a socialist front by keeping the CPN-UML out, the Chinese might be interested in gaining insights into the future of the leftist movement in Nepal.”

Another set of experts say Chinese engagement will increase in Nepal in the days to come. “We cannot ignore China and Chinese concerns and cannot leave bilateral projects unattended,” said Sundar Nath Bhattarai, executive chairman of the China Study Center, a Kathmandu-based think-tank. “They want to assess the evolving political situation here and feel the Dahal government’s pulse.”

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