Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal has helped forge a new strategic partnership between Nepal and China. The strategic partnership is based on Xi’s blueprint for bilateral relations and has significant implications for Nepal’s democracy, development, governance and foreign policy.
In a signed article published on October 11 in three Nepali newspapers, Xi Jinping outlined “a new blueprint for our bilateral ties,” which he hoped the two countries could “together draw up.” We can infer from Xi’s signed article that China’s main concern in Nepal is to promote one-China policy and to make sure that “anti-Chinese” forces cannot conduct any activity in Nepal. Similarly, China understands Nepal’s major concern to be independence from India’s influence and “pursuing a development path tailored to its national reality.” What may be more significant is the blueprint, which outlines four key elements of the strategic relationship: deepening strategic communication, broadening practical cooperation, expanding people-to-people exchanges, and enhancing security cooperation.
Xi Jinping’s blueprint was reflected in the agreements and understandings during his visit to Nepal on October 12-13, which was framed as “the beginning of a new era in Nepal-China relations.”
On October 12, President Bidya Devi Bhandari and Xi announced they would elevate the “Nepal-China Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship to Strategic Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship forDevelopment and Prosperity.” The terminology “strategic” generated a level of public debate but there was not much clarity about what it really meant. However, the statement indicates that Nepal and China have provided thrust to the four-point blueprint outlined by Xi, and tries to firmly integrate China’s partnership in Nepal’s politics, governance, foreign policy, security, and economic development.
Strategic communication focuses on high-level exchanges, political mutual trust, mutual support on each other’s core interests, and transmission of ideas and expertise about governance and development. This includes aligning “development strategies” and “strengthening policy exchanges.” The Chinese side has been interacting with the Nepali government on “the experience of governance,” particularly in relation to “political stability, social harmony and rapid economic development.” During informal conversation, the Chinese perceive Nepal’s bureaucracy as a hurdle in promoting China’s development partnership with Nepal. So, in addition to political actors and institutions, China is now seeking to intensify “exchanges and cooperation” between government ministries and departments as well.
The latter component indicates that China may be interested in shaping Nepal’s governance and development process, which has multiple implications. China’s strategic impulses reflected by this strategy has several implications. First, becoming close with China at a strategic level may generate a security dilemma; it may be perceived by other countries as harming their strategic interests. Second, as other forces try to limit China’s growing influence on Nepal, or as domestic actors contest with each other in Nepal’s relations with China, it may generate differences within Nepal’s domestic politics, including conflict and instability. Third, it may affect Nepal’s independence and strategic autonomy. While adopting Chinese models of good governance and development may deliver certain results, it may also affect Nepal’s strategic autonomy and independence as well as the freedoms enjoyed by the people.
Broadening practical cooperation emphasizes a Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network and China’s support for business investment “in the four priority cooperation areas of trade and investment, post-disaster reconstruction, energy, and tourism.” Nepal’s development cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative emphasizes “vital components as ports, roads, railways, aviation and communications” within the framework of the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network (THMDCN).
Although the Trans-Himalayan connectivity network is mentioned as part of the four-point blueprint for Nepal-China relations, it goes beyond the strategy for bilateral relations. According to Xi, the network “will serve not just our two countries but also the region as a whole.” This means that the Trans-Himalayan connectivity network is intended to connect the region as a whole, which would require India’s partnership and cooperation.
Similarly, the strategic blueprint does not adequately address Nepal’s concerns about trade relations. Two-way trade between Nepal and China reached USD 1.1 billion and Chinese investments in Nepal exceeded USD 300 million in 2018-19. Although trade between Nepal and China is growing, the trade imbalance is also growing, especially after enhanced connectivity with China through Rasuwa. China is offering Nepal an opportunity to export specialty products—by participating in the second China International Import Expo. However, the extent to which Nepal can boost exports to China is questionable.
Expanding people-to-people exchanges focus on areas like education, youth and tourism, and direct flights between China and Nepal. China’s emphasis on youth, students, professionals, and tourists appears to be a convenient and effective strategy to develop long-term relations. The youth, students, and professionals are likely to be linked to developing partnerships between China and Nepal.
Tourism remains a potential area for Nepal to reduce the trade imbalance. Currently, over 300,000 mutual visits take place between Nepal and China. However, while Chinese airplanes operate around 98 flights per week to Nepal, Nepal Airlines, as of now, does not have a single slot.
Perhaps the most significant area of Nepal-China cooperation is enhancing security cooperation focusing on both law-enforcement mechanisms and the military. In addition to building law-enforcement capacity, China wants to “scale up border defense contacts,” strengthen military exchanges, training, technologies, and equipment. Such security cooperation will not only ensure China’s security but also enhance its global standing in strategic affairs.
President Xi Jinping’s visit has also cemented partnership between Nepal and China on international affairs. During his meeting with Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, President Xi Jinping emphasized multilateral coordination to jointly support “multilateralism and the free trade system, and safeguard the development rights of the two countries.” This propels Nepal closer to China-led global initiatives and policy platforms and has the potential to drive Nepal’s foreign policy on a course that may conflict with that of some nations who see threat from China’s growing global influence.
Author: Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
 Xi Jinping. 2019. Toward Greater Progress of China-Nepal Friendship across the Himalayas. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201910/11/WS5da026bba310cf3e3556ff60.html
 These four areas are discussed in greater detail in the relevant chapters.
 The four points are: high-level contacts, connectivity network to drive Nepal’s development, people-to-people exchanges, and strategic cooperation extending to the UN and multilateral fora. For details see Xi Jinping. 2019. Toward Greater Progress of China-Nepal Friendship across the Himalayas. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201910/11/WS5da026bba310cf3e3556ff60.html