Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Nepal on Saturday on a state visit for talks with Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and both sides are expected to sign a deal expanding a railway link between the Himalayan nation and Tibet, officials said.
Xi, the first Chinese president to visit Nepal in 22 years, arrived from India, where he held talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nepal, a natural buffer between India and China, has been trying to lessen its dependence on New Delhi.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari greeted Xi on arrival at the airport ringed by hills. Thousands of people stood along the flower festooned route to welcome the Chinese leader as he drove from the airport to the hotel.
The Chinese leader will meet Oli on Sunday and the two leaders are expected to witness their officials sign a slew of deals, including the planned extension of the rail link from remote, mountainous Tibet to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, officials said.
The link will be part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s signature project that Nepal joined in 2017.
Rajan Bhattarai, one of Oli’s top aides, said a feasibility study of the plan had been conducted by Chinese experts.
“An agreement for the preparation of a detailed project report for the railway link is expected to be signed after the prime minister’s meeting with President Xi on Sunday,” Bhattarai told Reuters.
The report will contain cost estimates, with financing and construction models to be decided, officials said.
Nepal sees the rail link with China as an alternative to its dependence on India. New Delhi accounts for nearly two-thirds of Nepal’s trade and is the sole source of its fuel supply.
A prolonged blockade of its border crossings with India in 2015 and 2016 left Nepal short of fuel and medicine for months.
Asian giants India and China have both sought to woo Nepal and have poured in aid and infrastructure investment.
Beijing has helped build or upgrade highways, airports and power plants in Nepal under the Belt and Road infrastructure drive – a string of ports, railways, roads, bridges and other investments tying China to Europe via central and southern Asia.
Not so confidential between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi
China’s President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have a freewheeling chat over as many issues of bilateral and international significance and personal interests as they wish over about 24-hour India tour of the Chinese leader spread over Friday and Saturday.
But expect no pre- or post-meeting official briefing from either President Xi or Prime Minister Modi though the ministry of external affairs may put out a press release without providing much detail of what transpires during the meeting. They did exactly the same after first informal summit held in April last year in Chinese city of Wuhan.
This is an informal meeting. It does not have an agenda and what they discuss and agree to depends on the chemistry Xi and Modi share as individuals. Expect confidentiality in this matter.
However, there are things, issues and subjects that are not so confidential.
President Xi and PM Modi are holding informal talks at a time when the world economy looks a little jittery over the fear of unknown as an impact of impending Brexit – the deadline is October 31, though there are talks that the European Union is willing to extend the deadline till June next year.
Brexit, if it takes place on the scheduled date with or without a deal between Britain and the European Union, it is expected to turn into a major disruption in the world economy. A lot of realignment of international business deals would take place altering the flow of economy.
China and India, being two of the top economies, are bound to face consequences of Brexit. President Xi and PM Modi cannot afford to skirt the issue when they hold informal and non-binding talks. Both leaders are known to give priority to economy over other matters except security.
Impact of intensifying West Asia crisis – with fresh attack by Turkey on Syria – on the global economy cannot be overstated. Both China and India have huge stakes in West Asia in terms of economic and strategic interests.
Besides, an increasingly inward looking United States is also a concern for both India and China. The US, under President Donald Trump, has been in a bitter trade war with China and trying to emulate a similar mode with India.
President Trump often complaints about the American employment going out to India and China, the two country, he has accused of adopting counter-US trade policies.
Both India and China have been focusing on strengthening domestic industries and businesses, which President Trump argues, go against the economic interests of the US. This aspect of international trade is bound to figure during talks between PM Modi and President Xi.
The boundary question
India and China have boundary disputes for decades. They began addressing their boundary dispute under an agreed mechanism in 1980s and several rounds of talks have happened. But the boundary question has not gone beyond the level of exchange of maps of certain areas of the border and conveying differing interpretations of the same. Both sides meet, agree that they have differences and then go back to come again.
India and China have boundary disputes in three sectors – eastern (Arunachal Pradesh), middle (Uttarakhand) and western (Jammu and Kashmir). China stakes claim on Arunachal Pradesh saying it was South Tibet, a region that it occupied in late 1940s and early 1950s.
In the middle sector, China claims certain areas in Uttarakhand while in western sector the main dispute is over Chinese possession of Aksai Chin, which it occupied in 1962 war in which India was humiliated on the borders.
In the Wuhan informal summit, PM Modi and President Xi had lent “their support for the work of the Special Representatives on the India China Boundary Question” and agreed “to intensify their efforts to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement”. Modi and Xi are likely to reach at the same agreement this time as well.
Though China does not vociferously join the bandwagon of the world leaders in condemning terrorism but it is as affected by terror as many others who are more vocal about it. Xinjiang, the largest province of China is worst affected by jihadi terrorism. Reports emerging from the region often suggest a repressive policy of China as it battles with terrorism in Xinjiang.
A Washington Post report in September said an estimated 10 lakh-30 lakh people were taken into custody by China in the past three years in Xinjiang as part of counter-terror mechanism. China says these detainees were sent to “vocational training schools” apparently for de-radicalisation.
The stand of China that terrorism should be dealt, in practice, by individual countries is unlikely to change during Xi-Modi meeting at Mamallapuram near Chennai. But the two leaders are likely to discuss the issue where PM Modi may point fingers at Pakistani hand behind terrorism in India.
At the end, the MEA is expected to issue a Wuhan like statement that President Xi and PM Modi “recognised the common threat posed by terrorism” and reiterated their “resolute opposition to terrorism in all its forms and manifestations”.
The reader may expect no mention of Kashmir in the official release, if it puts out, by the government. But Kashmir, under the given circumstances, is bound to come up for thought-sharing between PM Modi and President Xi over next two days.
An about-turn by China head of President Xi’s India visit was enough hint that he was in a mental frame to discuss Kashmir with PM Modi. Chinese foreign office on Tuesday called for resolution of Kashmir issue with Pakistan through dialogue. It had been referring to UN resolutions consistently since scrapping of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August first week.
This happened while Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was in China. The Chinese government gave a fresh tweak to the tale in a statement issued after Xi-Khan meeting on Wednesday saying it backed Pakistan in safeguarding the country’s legal rights.
In the joint statement, China again made reference to UN resolutions drawing sharp reaction from Indian side.
On Indian side, scrapping of special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 and bifurcation of the state into two Union Territories is key development that attracted international glare. PM Modi may bring this up as part of confidence building measures between India and China.
Kashmir as an issue, though, is an India-Pakistan issue essentially, but China is a party to overall Kashmir matter as far as India is concerned. China is in possession of Aksai Chin for nearly six decades and is developing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
What Xi, Modi will not talk about
The question of border security has undergone some changes between India and China in recent times. Post-1962, India adopted a strategy where it focused on strengthening defence of the border should Chinese forces cross the borders again. This led to a conscious decision of not carrying out infrastructure development in the border regions, of Arunachal Pradesh in particular.
The border security approach has changed in the past 10 years or so. It has become more visible in the past four-five years. India has increased pace of infrastructure development in border regions and also raised a specialised Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal.
It is a quick reaction force aimed at inflicting heavy damage on any invading force. To test if the newly raised corps is ready, it began Him Vijay military exercise, which is underway in Arunachal Pradesh. It will conclude with the completion of second phase of exercise on October 24.
China has raised objection to the exercise. But it is customary for China to voice opposition to any such activities taking place in Arunachal Pradesh. It is unlikely that President Xi will bring this up during his talks with PM Modi. A hint for the same came from the statement of Chinese side on Wednesday.
Chinese vice-minister Luo Zhohui, who was China’s ambassador to India earlier, responded to a question on Him Vijay saying, “As far as we know, the so-called military exercise is not a fact. It is not true. Second, the region you mentioned is a sensitive region and we don’t want to hear that reference.”
This leaves no doubt that Him Vijay or Arunachal Pradesh is not going to come up in discussion between President Xi and PM Modi.
The two leaders are also not expected to discuss Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and the turbulence in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protesters are on the streets challenging the Chinese authority in the erstwhile British territory.