The ease with which Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has been dealing with Nepal’s two all-important neighbors in recent times is indicative of two things. One, it suggests a level of diplomatic acumen and strategic vision that is rarely seen in a Nepali prime minister. Oli has been able to take both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping into confidence, a gargantuan achievement for the prime minister of a country that has always felt itself stretched in that age-old geopolitical tug-of-war. Part of this confidence must come from Oli’s command of a government with a two-thirds majority. Partly, it can be argued, one thing Oli has never lacked is confidence, which he has now carried over in his foreign policy dealings.
Two, PM Oli’s relatively smooth foreign policy ride is also reflective of the recent thawing of relations between India and China. Modi and Xi seems to have developed a rare camaraderie as they see the rationale for greater cooperation in light of the increasingly protectionist tendencies of the US. India is far from assured that the mercantilist America under Donald Trump can be relied on to safeguard its strategic interests, which in turn has brought it closer to China. Perhaps, then, India and China have agreed on greater cooperation in South Asia, including in Nepal?
On June 20, Chinese President Xi, in his meeting with PM Oli in Beijing, said he was confident the Chinese rail would soon come to Kathmandu. (The feasibility study for the Kathmandu-Kerung section of the proposed Nepal-China railway is to be completed by August.) On being invited by Oli to come visit Nepal, Xi accepted the invitation, saying that the exact dates would be decided on the basis of bilateral consultations. A host of other long-term bilateral agreements were also signed during Oli’s Beijing stay.
And yet the Indian media, which used to blow hot and cold over any kind of rapprochement between Nepal and China, has this time mostly chosen to stay quiet on Oli’s China visit. The Indian media seems to have internalized the not-so-subtle message from the South Block that the old anti-China bias be set aside for time being.
Perhaps PM Oli deems himself capable of extracting benefits from the recent thaw in India-China ties. He just might but he should tread carefully. Historically, in a battle among big powers for geopolitical supremacy, the interests of smaller countries are often ignored, or badly trampled upon. This has been as true in South Asia as it has been in the South China Sea.