Prime Minister Pushpa Kumar Dahal of Nepal paid a state visit to China from September 23-30th, 2023. This was the second foreign visit of Mr. Dahal since assuming office on December 25, 2022 and the first visit to China by a Nepalese leader in three years. Dahal’s first foreign visit was to New Delhi in May-June 2023.
During the visit, Dahal had meetings with Xi Jinping; Li Qiang, the Premier; and Zhao Leji, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. He also visited Lhasa, Tibet on September 27, 2023.
Mr. Dahal, who is serving his third stint as Nepal’s Prime Minister, heads an unlikely coalition between his party – the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) – the Nepali Congress, and other smaller political parties. According to many Nepal observers, the fact that Mr. Dahal’s party has fewer seats than his coalition partner (the Nepali Congress) and the main opposition party ( Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninst), limits his ability for any major foreign policy revision or long-term bilateral agreement with China.
The core issues for China in its ties with Nepal are Tibet, Taiwan, the One China policy, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For Nepal the key issues are increasing trade and securing support for Nepal’s economic growth, reducing the glaring trade deficit, safeguarding Nepal’s territorial integrity, and ensuring that any BRI or other projects financed by China does not lead Nepal into a debt trap.
During the visit, Prime Minister Prachanda reaffirmed Nepal’s adherence to the One China principle; openly opposed Taiwan’s independence, regarding it as an integral part of China’s territory; and acknowledged Tibet as an internal affair of the PRC and pledged not to allow any separatist activities against China on its soil.
The Nepali and Chinese sides released the Joint Statement on September 26th, 2023 which contains 13 points of understanding and agreements reached during Prime Minister Dahal’s visit to China. Excerpts from the statement include:
The Nepali side reiterated its firm commitment to the one-China principle. Recognizing that the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal Government representing the whole of China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, the Nepali side is against “Taiwan independence.”
The Nepali side reiterated that Tibet affairs are China’s internal affairs, that it will never allow any separatist activities against China on Nepal’s soil.
The two sides agreed to continue consultations on the Protocol between the Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China and the Ministry of Home Affairs of Nepal on the Establishment of Boundary Contact System at Three Levels, so as to elevate the level of border management and cooperation between the two countries.
(The above section impacts the ability of Tibetans to escape Tibet through Nepal and also the safety of the Tibetan refugee community in Nepal. The number of Tibetan refugees from Tibet has decreased significantly in recent years and one major factor for this is China’s heightened security in border areas. China has also been pressuring Nepal to sign an extradition treaty which if signed will facilitate the deportation of Tibetans and seriously endanger the safety of the Tibetan refugee community in Nepal.)
The two sides expressed satisfaction over the progress of the feasibility study of the Jilong/Keyrung-Kathmandu Cross-Border Railway, and planned to hold the 8th Working Meeting on China-Nepal Railway Cooperation as early as possible.
(This ambitious and geopolitically important rail project will connect Kerung in Southern Tibet to Kathmandu. The two countries, however, have not been able to agree on how to finance the project which is estimated to cost more than US$5.5 billion. While Nepal very much wants to see this project implemented, it is unable and unwilling to take substantial loans and fall into a Chinese debt trap. Nepal joined the BRI in 2017. However, no substantial projects have been implemented so far. China is now the largest creditor to Nepal. The new Pokhara International Airport built by China and with loan from China’s Exim Bank is serving as a cautionary tale for Nepal and other countries. The airport opened in June 2023, but there are currently no international flights and Nepal now has to pay off a huge debt to China. The financial burden and all other other issues associated with this project is well documented in a recent New York Times article)