Nepal's Maoist leader visits China

Prime Minister Dahal's visit to Beijing comes at a time when Nepal is the most fragile and fungible it has ever been


Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s visit to China comes as the season here in Beijing begins to shift from the summer to autumn. 

As the Prime Minister alights from his aircraft at the Beijing Capital International Airport being greeted by still balmy conditions, he may very well wonder why his flight could not have touched down at the other (newer) colossal international airport in Beijing, Daxing International, designed by the award winning British architectural firm Zaha Hadid Architects.

That facility is not just a piece of art but is the world’s largest single-building airport occupying more than 7.5 million sq feet of ground space. Although by land-area, Daxing International is still significantly smaller than King Fahd International or even Denver International or Washington Dulles, the way in which the airport evokes, in combination, a sense of power, networks and a futuristic vision is inescapable. 

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This is not surprising at all because the People’s Republic of China is probably at this juncture of history the example par excellence of a Eurasian power vigorously straddling the super continent in almost every sense of the word: political, economic, cultural and certainly in respect to hard infrastructure systems. 

It is also no surprise that it is exactly due to this position China currently occupies as a preeminent Eurasian power that it is bumping up with such great and increasing friction against not just the United States but other leading powers in the system such as India and so on. 

The state of progressively intense upheavals that is consequently being generated within the international system is something that smaller powers such as Nepal will find almost impossible to circumvent let alone easily maneuver around. 

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It is within this broad lay of the land that Dahal's September sojourn to China must be viewed and analysed. Sino-Nepal relations do not exist in a vacuum, they are part of larger (and ever shifting) structural, geopolitical forces at play that can potentially pull Nepal against gravitational force into spaces not easily comprehensible, much less simple to navigate. 

This comes back to the question as to what is the natural direction of Nepal’s foreign policy, where does the gravity of Nepal’s foreign policy lie, because it is against this question too that better inferences and assessments of the prime minister’s China visit can be brought to bear. 

At any given point in history, the state of Sino-Nepal relations will be dictated as well by the overall nature and tenor of Sino-US, Sino-Indian as well as Sino-Russian relations and different combinations of those bilateral relationships. 

Nepal’s relationship with India and then the United States exerts a profound impact on its foreign policy towards China, and this is exponentially the case in contemporary times as larger and larger diaspora communities in those countries become more entrenched and organised, giving rise to push and pull factors that reverberate back into the corridors of power in Kathmandu. 

It must not be forgotten as well that the Maoist party Prime Minister Dahal's visit to China takes place at a time in Nepal's history when its governmental and administrative apparatus is perhaps the most fragile and fungible they have ever been, and therefore prone to being malleable in general or definitely within certain distinct pockets. 

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There are certain strong domestic lobbies in favour of China within Nepal’s political ecosystem, but it is hard to establish the extent to which these have the ability to triumph in forging real diplomatic success in Sino-Nepal relations

Surely in terms of big-ticket items in the bilateral relationship such as expansion of BRI and an elevated position for China in harvesting the green energy market in Nepal, it appears that Nepal’s position is currently circumscribed to a large extent by structural factors and that Kathmandu would need to approach cooperation with China with greater creativity encompassing an international approach. 

For example, harnessing Nepal’s substantial hydropower potential is a key objective of policy makers in the country but due to the divergent and fragmented geopolitical environment Nepal faces externally, it becomes challenging for any one of the great powers alone to plan and actually execute large scale infrastructure projects without inciting adverse pushback. 

So would it be feasible for Kathmandu to think along the lines of gradually proposing and nurturing international consortia (by including within a single basket China, India and the United States, for instance) to address the development of hydropower in Nepal or other large scale infrastructure initiatives? 

It is unlikely that such an approach can be made to happen, but it is certainly worth the effort by the prime minister to explore during his high-level engagements with leaders in China. Sticking to a strictly bilateral approach on this visit to China will be a safe bet for the Prime Minister Dahal and will not ruffle any feathers.

But if one can think out of the box as a means to inject more momentum from Nepal towards much needed regional economic growth, then why not at least try?

Bhaskar Koirala is an independent analyst with Peking University. Views here are the author's own.