Nepal has only two neighbors and yet struggles mighty hard to balance them. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba leaves for India shortly after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Kathmandu sojourn. Wang’s visit was not very fruitful: the very basis of Nepal-China cooperation in recent times, the BRI, did not even find a mention in the subsequent foreign ministry statement. With no substantial achievement, the two sides tried to salvage the trip by announcing a slew of what are essentially meaningless agreements.
China is highly suspicious of the Deuba government, which it sees as pro-US. The Chinese also believe that the Americans are increasingly in cahoots with India to curtail China’s influence in South Asia and beyond. So Deuba’s trip south will be closely watched in Beijing. China understands that Nepal cannot afford to have bad relations with India. What it does not want is for Nepal to enter what it labels the ‘US-India nexus’ and thereby compromise Chinese security interests. Nepalis otherwise expect little from Deuba’s trip south.
New Delhi knows that with elections around the corner, Deuba could soon be out of its Nepal picture. Deuba for his part is unsure about what to discuss this time with India. Progress on some connectivity projects are still expected, including joint inauguration of the Kurtha-Jayanagar cross-border railway. But progress on long-pending projects like Pancheswar are unlikely.
Nepali prime ministers have traditionally made New Delhi their first foreign stopover after assuming office. The pandemic had delayed Deuba’s customary visit. Routines are important, especially in the case of India and Nepal that share extensive links. But precisely for the same reason there is also much expectation when the two leaders meet.
India still emphasizes the age-old ‘roti beti’ and civilizational links. But it has been reluctant to cover even the basics to improve ties, for instance by allowing more Nepali products into its markets, something that would enormously help Nepal as it struggles to balance its books. The EPG report has long been pending. Vital bilateral projects remain stalled. Nepal-China ties have suffered during Deuba’s latest tenure. But Nepal-India ties have not fared much better as well. Tragically, maintenance of the status quo will have to be seen as an ‘achievement’ of Deuba’s visit.