“The two leaders also agreed to expand ‘China-India Plus’ cooperation, push forward facilitation of regional inter-connectivity, and work with other related parties to strike the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement as early as possible.”
This is part of a statement provided by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on October 13. The two leaders in the statement refer to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But there has been no official response to Yi’s claim that the two leaders agreed to expand China-India Plus cooperation.
But what is the ‘China-India Plus’ concept anyway? No publicly available official document explains it in detail. It came to the fore after the first Xi-Modi informal summit in April 2018 in Wuhan, the capital of the Chinese province of Hubei. The summit had taken place against the backdrop of a 73-day-long standoff between India and China over Doklam, which, strictly speaking, was a bilateral issue between China and Bhutan. India had still deployed its army there on Bhutan’s behalf, stating that any changes in Doklam’s status would affect its security.
In the aftermath of the standoff, China proposed the China-India Plus cooperation in order to minimize the conflict between the two countries over smaller South Asian states. It was also an acknowledgement by the Chinese that India is the dominant power in South Asia, so they need to take the Indians into confidence while pursuing vital infrastructure projects and entering into military and other cooperation in the region. In other words, India is always an important consideration in China’s relations with South Asian countries.
Again, the Doklam issue seems to be the trigger for the China-India Plus concept, which envisions that India and China will be mindful of each other’s sensitivities and security interests in South Asia. During the Wuhan Summit, Xi and Modi agreed to implement joint economic projects in Afghanistan. Last year, they together launched a training program for Afghan diplomats in New Delhi.
Nepal’s situation cannot be compared with that of Afghanistan, but India is obviously concerned about the growing Chinese influence here, particularly about big Chinese infrastructure projects. China thus wants to implement the Plus concept in Nepal in order to minimize the risk of confrontation with India over development projects here. Many reckon Xi’s decision to fly to Nepal from India—as opposed to coming here from China directly—indicates Beijing’s desire to execute this concept.
During Prime Minister KP Oli’s visit to China, Xi briefly shared with him the discussions he had had with Modi about the Plus concept. Xi and Modi also discussed it during their second informal summit in Mamallapuram, a coastal town in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and Xi then shared it with Nepali leaders in Kathmandu. In return, Oli reportedly told Xi that Nepal is in favor of trilateral cooperation, but not the ‘two-plus one’ model. The Chinese side, however, is pushing for it.
PM Oli has rejected this proposition. In an interview with Kantipur, a Nepali daily, he argued that partnerships should be formed on the basis of equality. Experts also think Nepal should not accept this proposal, as it weakens the county's bargaining power with its two giant neighbors, and affects its sovereignty in that it undermines Nepal’s ability to deal independently with India and China on vital infrastructure and development projects. China is keen on the ‘two-plus one’ model as it wants to launch key projects in Nepal, such as the construction of a railway line, by taking India on board. China is also eager to invest in hydropower plants in Nepal and export energy to the Indian market.
Security over economy?
What about trilateral cooperation though? The idea of India and China collaborating on Nepal’s development is not new. Trilateral cooperation has been under discussion for about a decade; co-chairman of the ruling Nepal Communist Party Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been speaking about it since 2010. But how does it differ from the China-India Plus cooperation?
“China-India Plus cooperation entails the two countries taking each other into confidence while developing any projects in Nepal. The goal is to address each other’s concerns in Nepal,” says Pramod Jaiswal, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a Delhi-based think tank. “Although China-India Plus sounds similar to trilateral cooperation, the two are different. Trilateralism suggests equal share of all three countries and is more economic in nature, whereas the Plus concept is primarily security-driven,” says Jaiswal who has penned a book on trilateral cooperation.
“Genuine cooperation between China and India in Nepal is relatively easy to achieve, and there are multiple ways to do so, one example being a railway line connecting the three countries,” says Bhaskar Koirala, Director at the Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies. “The main argument here from a Nepali perspective is that sustained cooperation between its two neighbors in Nepal would almost certainly constitute the key ingredient for the country’s long-term stability and prosperity,” Koirala says. He adds that trilateral cooperation is not a concept proposed by the Chinese, but one that originated in Nepal, so the Nepali side should take its ownership. “I definitely agree that trilateral cooperation is much better for Nepal than the China-India Plus concept,” he says.
Hope and reality
Indian foreign policy experts and commentators, however, claim there is no possibility of India joining hands with China in Nepal. At a summit in Goa, India in 2016, then Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal had met with Modi and Xi together. Dahal had projected the meeting as a manifestation of trilateral cooperation.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs quickly batted down any notion that it was a trilateral meeting, saying it was only a coincidence that the three leaders happened to share the same space. This clearly indicates India’s lack of interest in trilateral cooperation—and it will not materialize without India’s buy-in.
China, however, seems open to both the Plus concept and trilateral ideas. “China can invite India to join China-Nepal cooperation projects and develop China-Nepal-India trilateral cooperation. This will not only enhance trust, but also increase the economic value of the cooperation projects,” wrote Long Xingchun, Director of the Center for Indian Studies at China West Normal University, in an article published in the Global Times on October 13.
“For example, if the three countries can cooperate in hydropower generation, Nepal’s resources, China’s funds and technology and India’s huge market can be leveraged together.” As China-India strategic trust has increased, Nepal, he further argues, can use Chinese and Indian resources to promote its own development and act as a bridge linking the two nations.