Xi Jinping was reportedly humbled by the warm hospitality of his hosts. But he was also disappointed. The 14-point joint statement and the 20-point ‘List of agreements’ read more like a litany of missed opportunities than an expression of abiding faith between two close friends. Xi came with an open heart, even promising a ‘big surprise’ for Nepal. The surprise never materialized when Xi saw that there was zero preparation on Nepal’s part to finalize BRI projects, even after the announcement of his visit; it was as if the country had completely disregarded his central foreign policy agenda. The US and India will look upon with great satisfaction that what was being billed as a watershed moment in Nepal-China bilateral ties turned out to be a dud. Instead of the announcement of a new 1,000 MW project (the surprise?), there was a reiteration of two previously signed hydro deals. The much-vaunted cross-border railway is no closer to being realized. Nor is there anything substantial in the agreements about removing the scores of non-tariff barriers Nepali goods entering China face. The only widely acknowledged achievement of the visit was the 50-km Kathmandu-Keyrung tunnel road.
The signing of an extradition treaty could have put a big spoke in the diplomatic wheel of the US, which has been strongly lobbying for the rights of Tibetan refugees in Nepal. It did not materialize, thanks to the last-minute exertions of the American ambassador Randy Berry. Yet the mutual legal assistance treaty that we now have could still be enough to spy on and extradite Tibetans from Nepal to China.
The rivalry between the IPS and the BRI is the new game in town. Many thought Xi’s reference to “crushed bodies and shattered bones” referred to Hong Kong and what China sees as the American meddling there. Instead, what he was hinting at was the recent American lobbying on behalf of Tibetan refugees in Nepal that jinxed a ‘full blown’ extradition treaty.
Xi’s visit was all about minimizing the US presence in Nepal. Given Nepal’s lukewarm response to the BRI, there was no other conceivable reason for him to come here right now. Symbolically, being able to host one of the most powerful persons on the planet was a huge achievement for Nepal, no doubt. Sadly, there was no happy post-Mamallapuram surprise.
Indian analysts seem confident that Nepal can’t easily overcome the constraints of geography. Yet working out a viable role for India in the IPS, and its application in South Asia, is proving to be rather tricky. Indians have traditionally been loath to let westerners have a say in Nepal; yet they also realize that it will be hard to deal with an increasingly self-assured China without US help. In any case, we could see a more assertive Indian ambassador taking over the ever-jovial Manjeev Singh Puri who was sent to Nepal to smooth ruffled feathers post-blockade.
As the US-China rivalry in Nepal heats up, let me also hazard a guess at another likely development soon: the visit of American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (provided he is not roasted in the Trump impeachment inquiry).