Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) receives Nepalese Prime Minister KP Oli (L) during a ceremonial reception in New Delhi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) receives Nepalese Prime Minister KP Oli (L) during a ceremonial reception in New Delhi
AFP PHOTO / Money SHARMA

Chinese president Xi Jinping came to India and had an “informal summit” (the second one after the Wuhan summit last year) with Prime Minister Narendra Modi down south in Mamallapuram (old Mahabalipuram) last Friday. Since it was an “informal” meeting, there was no agenda, no officials present, no minutes recorded and no joint statement issued after the summit. But the briefing given to the press by India’s External Affairs Ministry secretary gave the impression that the two leaders’ primary concern was the raging trade war waged by Donald Trump against China. Its fallout has affected many countries, India included.

As far as optics go, there was bonhomie all around. But where do the two countries stand with regard to more basic issues of relationship? Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Beijing just before Xi’s India visit. A China-Pakistan joint statement released by China’s foreign ministry had this significant paragraph:

“The Pakistan side briefed the Chinese side on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, including its concerns, position, and current urgent issues. The Chinese side responded that it was paying close attention to the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir and reiterated that the Kashmir issue is a dispute left from history, and should be resolved based on the UN charter, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and agreements. China opposes any unilateral actions that complicate the situation.”

“China opposes unilateral actions” – this was the limit to which diplomatic propriety would permit China to express its opposition to the unilateral abrogation by India of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution. The joint statement also refers to the Kashmir issue as a “dispute left from history.”

Can it be interpreted as China’s unqualified support for the Modi Government’s Kashmir policy? The Indian Prime Minister asserted that ”We have decided that we would prudently manage our differences and not let them become disputes”. No such sentiments were expressed by the Chinese side. Xi would go as far as to say that they had “heart-to-heart discussions”. Apparently, the heart-to-heart discussions did not iron out the differences. At best it was agreed upon to prevent them from becoming disputes. Even that is doubtful. The border issue is not just a difference, it is a dispute that has proved too intractable to be resolved over the decades.

From India, the Chinese president flew to the Nepali capital Kathmandu. It was an official visit and it was known beforehand that of the 11-point agenda Nepal had drawn up for the meeting, the principal issue that would figure prominently in the discussions is the modality of financing the $2.75 billion trans-Himalayan railway.

The Nepal press reported that days before the Xi Jinping visit, Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali had a four-hour long discussion with former prime ministers and senior officials about the proposed railway project. They advised the Oli Government “not to sell out national interests” to Beijing and not to fall into a Chinese “debt trap.” Washington has also given the same warning to Kathmandu, citing examples of several countries including Sri Lanka. The proposed railway line will provide connectivity from Kathmandu to Kyirong in Tibet.

It may be recalled that the extremely short-sighted blockade of Nepal that India resorted to during 2015-16 brought Nepal’s economy on the verge of collapse. Outwardly, the Indian Government had no role in the blockade but it was a public secret that the blockade which held up thousands of trucks carrying commodities to Nepal on the Indo-Nepal border had the tacit support of New Delhi. India was expressing her unhappiness with the just-adopted Nepali constitution which allegedly discriminated against the Madheshi or Indian-origin people of Nepal.

The blockade revealed to Nepal its vulnerability as a land-locked country and forced it to think of an alternative opening to the outside world. Beijing lost no time in extending the hand of cooperation and build a railway line, part of which will go through tunnels cut through the mountains, connecting Nepal with China (Tibet). Today, India is paying the price of its big-brotherly highhandedness in dealing with a small neighbour.

Prime Minister Sharma Oli is the co-chairman of the Nepal Communist Party which came into being on May 17, 2018, after the merger of two communist parties which were at one time at daggers drawn. The other co-chairman is Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as “Prachanda” who is also a former Prime Minister.

Sharma Oli’s equation with the Chinese leadership is enigmatic. As leader of the now dissolved Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), Oli was perceived to be pro-China and anti-India. But his first announcement on becoming prime minister was that he would follow a policy of friendship and cooperation with both the big neighbours and maintain a geopolitical balance between India and China. His attitude to India has softened a lot.

An editorial in The Nepali Times observed recently: “Oli is now seen in Beijing to be a bit fickle and erratic. Back home, Oli’s nationalist lustre has been somewhat tarnished–he is seen to have bent over backwards to please an India he once portrayed as a monstrous bully”.

However, at the end of Xi’s visit on Sunday, the Nepal Government and the Nepali press were eloquently silent over the “modality” of financing the 70 km rail link from Kathmandu to Tibet. What was announced was that China has agreed to extend financial “assistance” of $492 million and that 20 deals and MOUs for various projects were signed by the two sides. No doubt the silent diplomatic war between New Delhi and Beijing for gaining influence in Nepal will intensify in the coming days. If India could open a billion dollar credit line for development of the Russian Far East, there is no reason why it should be stingy with its immediate neighbour where much more is at stake.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Views are personal.

-By Barun Das Gupta

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