Ever since KP Oli’s blockade-time ascendency to the prime minister’s post in October 2015, Nepal’s foreign policy has been all about diversifying away from India and cultivating closer links with China. There is now little doubt that the mighty Nepal Communist Party (NCP) under Messrs Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal is looking to emulate the even mightier Communist Party of China (CPC): both its organization and development path for China. The clearest indications of this came in 2019, a year which will be remembered as a watershed in Nepal-China ties. A year many Nepalis felt their country’s palpable tilt to China.
Back in April, President Bidya Bhandari visited China and signed the protocol to the bilateral trade and transit treaty that Oli had concluded in 2016. This opened up new routes of international trade for Nepal via China, in what the government touted as Nepal’s first major step toward changing itself from a ‘land-locked’ to a ‘land-linked’ country. During that visit, Bhandari formally invited her Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to visit Nepal. For most of the next six months, there were constant rumors about Xi coming to Kathmandu—and all its geopolitical ramifications. Xi came, in October, to a rousing reception, breaking a 23-year hiatus since the last Nepal visit of a Chinese president.
In terms of agreements, the Xi visit under-delivered. Yet there were still some crucial ones, like the 50-km Kathmandu-Keyrung tunnel road and the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance on Criminal Matters. The much-discussed cross-border railway line still seems some way off. By stepping on the legal assistance treaty, hundreds of Chinese accused of involvement in criminal activities are now being deported to China. In an extraordinary event, members of the Chinese intelligence and police were in Nepal to help Nepal Police with the arrests.
The Oli government can be seen as reaching out to countries big and small around the world to enhance Nepal’s diplomatic clout. Yet make no mistake. For better or worse, there has never been a more China-friendly government in Nepal. Perhaps few other countries have embraced the BRI as enthusiastically. In 2019 the communist government gave the clearest signal yet of its readiness to forge the strongest possible ties with China. A year of unprecedented increase in Chinese business and political interests in Nepal—not least because of growing US activism under the IPS—2019 will long be remembered as the year when Sino-Nepal ties for the first time overshadowed Indo-Nepal relations in popular imagination.