China’s Engagements in Nepal

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November Analysis

Chinese State Councilor and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe made a short visit to Nepal on Sunday

November 29. There were discussions about whether Chinese Defense Minister’s visit to Nepal was a counter to increased Indian diplomatic initiatives or a regular scheduled visit. Reports in Nepali and Indian media claimed that his visit was quickly arranged in mid-November. Chinese media portrayed the visit as “a normal part of China-Nepal bilateral interaction,” which had been put under “spotlight” by Indian “sensationalist” media.[1] However, knowledgeable sources said that although the Defence Minister had a standing invitation, the Chinese approached Nepal about Fenghe’s visit only around November 9, after which the visit was arranged through the Foreign Ministry and not the Defense Ministry. Because of the absence of a dedicated Defence Minister, the visit had to face some protocol issues,[2] which was not to the satisfaction of the Chinese side.

Several contextual factors make his visit significant. His visit coincides with internal differences in the ruling party, increased Indian diplomatic initiatives, and a slowing down of Nepal’s cooperation with China. Tussle over China and India in recent years has created rifts in political parties, slowed down implementation of development assistance, heightened diplomatic competition, resulted in public relations exercise aimed at tarnishing each other’s role in Nepal, and invited intrusions in government policies and practices.

China has consistently sought to enable Nepal to become independent of Indian influence and military assistance is viewed as one area through which such independence can be achieved. Historically, India used to see Nepal as falling within its security umbrella and under the special relationship wanted Nepal to buy arms and military supplies from India. It is not surprising, therefore, for Wei to mention during his visit that “China would resolutely support Nepal to safeguard its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”[3] In Chinese view, maintaining an “independent” diplomacy and deepening military ties with China will help Nepal prevent Indian interference. According to a Chinese scholar,[4] Chinese military assistance—like the USD 22.8 million aid signed during Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel’s visit to China in October—is intended to fulfil these two objectives. Liu describes the Madhes population and Nepalis troops receiving training in India as “unfavourable factors for Nepal’s national stability.”

China wants to implement strategic alliance with Nepal not only in principle but also in practice. According to Wei, during Xi Jinping’s visit, Nepal-China relations were “upgraded to a strategic partnership of cooperation.”[5] In recent years, China is experiencing delays from Nepal’s part on implementing the agreements signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal. After Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal in October 2019, China will not want to cede the space it has gained in Nepal to India or the West.

By working with Nepal’s political and security apparatus, China wants to ensure security of Chinese border and stability of Tibet. In China’s view, Nepal is no longer a “transfer stop and refuge for secessionist Tibetans in exile.” Strengthened military and security cooperation with Nepal has helped secure China’s border security and stability in Tibet. However, China feels that India and the US might foment anti-Chinese activities in the future and it wants to make security cooperation more intensive. In October 2019, during Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel’s visit to China, he signed an agreement where China promised another Rs 2.5 billion worth of military assistance. A year before, China had promised Rs 2.53 billion worth of non-lethal military aid to be provided over a period of five years.[6]

For example, there were disputes over whether China has encroached into Nepali territory. Chinese claim that such disputes have been raised at the behest of Indian political forces, which see “both Nepal and Bhutan as its protectorates.”[7] In recent months, Chinese government media outlets are labelling anyone speaking for Nepal’s national interests that conflict with China as pro-US or pro-India. China has shown resentment to Nepali Congress and its representatives for claiming China has encroached Nepali territory[8] while members of NCP are supporting China’s position.

Although the exact nature of the political leverage and influence of China and India in Nepal are not clear, there are grounds to believe that geo-political rivalry between China and India is inviting counterbalancing intrusions in Nepal. Indian analysts, meanwhile, suggest that China could use its influence in “Nepal’s politics and economy” to spoil New Delhi’s attempts to restore ties and maintain leverage in Nepal. They worry that India could cede the space to China,[9] which is using the political differences with the ruling Nepal Communist Party as an opportunity to intervene.

One of China’s major concerns is to maintain political stability in Nepal and maintain the NCP in power. In November 2020, as the political infighting in the ruling Nepal Communist Party reached a breaking point, China’s Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi made a late night dash to the Prime Minister’s residence and, according to newspaper reports, requested PM K P Oli to ensure political stability and prevent party split at any cost. After the late night tryst with the Chinese ambassador, PM Oli rushed to meet President Bidya Devi Bhandari. Ambassador Yanqi’s meeting with top party leaders of NCP, in May and July 2020, has mostly coincided with disputes in the party generating questions about her role.[10] Although the party spokesperson provided a perfunctory denial, his choice of words indicated something else. “This is not an interference,” Narayan Kaji Shrestha said. “We do not accept foreign interference. If we don’t accept (it), then it is not an interference.”[11]

In November, PM Oli visited Kimathanka border point to observe progress on the Koshi Highway, one of the projects prioritised by Nepal and China.[12] Nepal Army is opening the track at Kimathanka, and both Nepalese and Chinese sides see the 362 km highway as the primary road link between China and India. A 14 km track from Sankhuwasabha to Kimathanka was assigned to the Nepal Army by Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel and is scheduled to be completed in the spring 2021.

Along with China’s Defence Ministry, its foreign policy establishment has also been active in recent months. Nepal participated in a five-party ministerial level Covid-19 meeting with China along with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka on November 10. Chinese foreign ministry has been intensifying diplomatic consultation with Nepal and, in recent months, China has been using the Covid platform to bolster its position. The meeting reached a consensus on three issues: containing COVID-19, promoting economic recovery, and coping with non-traditional security issues. China is using the platform to promote BRI, maintain stability of industrial and supply chains, and cooperation in the international arena.[13]


[1] https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1208416.shtml

[2] Based on information provided by individuals with first-hand knowledge.

[3] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3111971/china-india-relations-chinese-defence-minister-declares

[4] Liu Zongyi. “With hegemonic mentality, India is wary of China meeting in Nepal.” Global Times.

https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1208416.shtml. Zongyi is the secretary-general of the Research Center for China-South Asia Cooperation at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

[5] http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-11/30/c_139552296.htm

[6] https://cn.nepalembassy.gov.np/?p=246

[7] https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1207952.shtml

[8] https://thehimalayantimes.com/nepal/main-opposition-nc-reiterates-china-has-encroached-nepali-territory/

[9] Shishir Gupta. “Nepal ties with India are warming up. China could complicate the situation.”

https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/nepal-signals-ties-with-india-are-warming-up-but-china-keeps-them-on-the-edge/story-aHG7Qabnim5cqjW6cUTU4K.html

[10] https://kathmandupost.com/national/2020/07/06/chinese-ambassador-making-the-rounds-at-a-time-of-internal-crisis-invites-much-criticism

[11] https://www.nayapatrikadaily.com/news-details/54976/2020-11-18 (accessed November 20, 2020)

[12] https://myrepublica.nagariknetwork.com/news/koshi-highway-connecting-nepal-china-and-india-soon-pm-oli/

[13] https://www.mfa.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/t1832096.shtml

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