The North has renewed its commitment to cross-border rail, but progress is slow on the ground

On December 8, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China will help Nepal with road and rail connectivity. “China will make solid progress in the feasibility study of a cross-border railway project, improve the trans-Himalayan multidimensional connectivity network and help Nepal realize its dream of moving from a ‘landlocked country’ to a “landlocked country”. country linked, ”Wang said, addressing the International Conference on Reconstruction of Nepal via video link.

Wang’s statement comes as China’s renewed support for the construction of the cross-border railroad project, which has been in talks for a few years and has captured the Nepalese imagination.

China agreed to conduct a detailed feasibility study of the Kathmandu-Kerung cross-border railway with its own funding during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in October 2019.

Right after his visit to Nepal, the world fell to its knees when the coronavirus swept the planet from December 2019.

As the world grappled with the pandemic, bilateral trade was disrupted across the world. Bilateral Nepalese and Chinese visits have also taken a back seat.

However, Nepalese officials say there has been no progress in carrying out the detailed feasibility study for the railway project. “We are where we were,” Deepak Kumar Bhattarai, director general of the Ministry of Railways, told the Post. “The Chinese side had started work on a detailed feasibility study by collecting some data. After Covid-19, there has been little progress. “

Regular Nepal-China flights have been suspended since the start of the pandemic.

About five months ago, the railway department sent a letter to the National Railway Administration of China, asking the latter to work on a feasibility study.

“But we haven’t received any response,” Bhattarai said. According to him, Nepalese officials are discussing holding virtual meetings with the Chinese side regarding the development of the project.

The Nepal Railways Department is coordinating with the National Railway Administration of China in the development of this project which is expected to improve Nepal’s connectivity with its northern neighbor.

Department spokesperson and information officer Aman Chitrakar said they were in contact with officials from China’s National Railway Administration.

“They are also awaiting government approval to carry out work related to the railway project, including a field study,” he said, adding that his office was aware that the Chinese side was doing the same. of its duty by the remote sensing method.

Even though it had been agreed two years ago that the Chinese side would conduct a detailed feasibility study, no concrete deadline had been set for completing the study, Nepalese officials said.

The cross-border rail project, which is an important component of the TransHimalayan multidimensional connectivity network between Nepal and China, was integrated into the Belt and Road Initiative at the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April 2019.

Even though the Chinese side has agreed to conduct a detailed feasibility study, no agreement has been reached on its financing.

Nepal wants to share the bill with China if the latter does not want to fully fund the study.

Former Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali told reporters after his visit to China in April 2018 that he called on China to build the cross-border railroad as part of financial aid as a symbol of the relationship. bilateral between the two neighbors.

The Trans-Himalayan Railroad project, however, has been called easier said than done given the difficult topography.

Earlier in December 2018, the China First Survey and Design Institute prepared the prefeasibility study for the Kathmandu-Kerung railway and the National Railway Authority of China handed the report to Nepalese officials.

His findings suggest that the Kathmandu section lies in the “collision and splicing zone” along the Eurasian Plate, presenting six major geological problems. The bursting of hard rock and the great deformation of soft rocks would cause extremely high stresses.

The fault effects of deep and active fractures lie in high-intensity seismic zones. The report indicates that the level of seismic activity could present problems with high ground temperatures, slope stability, debris and water erosion. According to the report, around 98.5% of the railway is either bridges or tunnels, and the construction cost is Rs3.55 billion per kilometer.

The project’s longest and steepest slope is 95 km long with a total length of 121 km. The report said that continued use of the air brakes would cause abrasion of the brake shoe and heat up the tire.

The euphoria among the Nepalese over a rail link to the north is one thing, but a railroad through the Himalayas, even by China’s own admission, will be a test for their technological might.

Nepal has long sought to have a rail link with its northern neighbor. The lawsuit began in 2006 when Beijing opened the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. When the railway line reached Shigatse in 2014, Nepalese authorities found it quite close. But the 2015 earthquake shifted focus to relief and reconstruction.

After India imposed a border blockade in 2015 following the promulgation of the constitution in Nepal, officials and politicians in Kathmandu again began to explore options for establishing connectivity with the north in order to overcome the almost total dependence of the country on India.

The government that came after the 2017 elections in 2018, led by KP Sharma Oli, was also more open to engagement with China.

However, the project did not come to fruition.

Although there was a delay in the detailed feasibility study in Nepal, China has extended its rail network in Tibet.

In June, China began operating the first high-speed train line in Tibet, connecting Lhasa to Nyingchi near the border with Arunachal Pradesh in India. The Lhasa-Nyingchi rail is a section of the Sichuan-Tibet line connecting two provincial capitals.

There are also concerns whether China is indeed interested in investing in such an expensive and difficult rail project unless it is linked to India, one of Beijing’s biggest trading partners. Despite tensions between them, Indo-Chinese trade broke a record $ 100 billion in October.

India itself is undertaking the feasibility study of the proposed Kathmandu-Raxaul railway project, which has been seen as India’s response to China’s efforts to increase its influence in Nepal through the railways. of iron.

During Xi’s visit to Nepal, the two countries reaffirmed their commitment to expand cooperation on the Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini railway project.

Leela Mani Paudyal, former Nepalese Ambassador to China, said the Chinese Foreign Minister’s renewed commitment to the railway suggests they are very serious about building this project.

“China wants this project to be implemented as part of its efforts to maintain the stability of its neighborhood with development initiatives,” he said.

But, according to Paudyal, this railway is more important for Nepal in order to reduce its dependence on a single country and it should be seen as the country’s effort to diversify its international relations.

However, questions were also asked about the economic sense of building this project given that Nepal has no goods to export to China. In the first four months of the current 2021-2022 fiscal year starting in mid-July, Nepal’s exports to China amounted to a meager Rs.311 million while imports from China soared to 94.3 billion rupees, according to the Nepal Rastra Bank.

Paudyal believes Nepal should be linked to China’s industrial value chain like Southeast Asian countries do, which would benefit Nepal in the long run.

But geopolitical concerns also remain. Some, like India and the United States of America, have looked askance on Nepal’s membership of the BRI and China’s growing interests in Nepal, analysts say.

India has cautiously refrained from participating in the BRI, while the United States has repeatedly reminded Nepalese leaders that any aid from the north should be in the best interests of Nepal, not China.

In February 2019, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, Joe Felter, said: “We welcome a constructive relationship with China, we welcome China’s investment, but as long as that investment is designed to serve the interests of Nepal and not just China.

He also said that some of China’s past activities in the region – in Sri Lanka, Maldives and Malaysia – are cause for concern.

The US Millennium Challenge Corporation, under which Nepal will receive a $ 500 million grant, is seen by many as an American bid to counter the BRI. Some statements by US officials that the MCC is also part of the Indo-Pacific strategy have also caused confusion in parts of Nepal. The MCC has languished in the Nepalese Parliament for over two years now due to divisions among Nepalese political parties over its passage.

In May 2019, the Chinese Embassy claimed that the BRI initiative would not create a “debt trap” but would free underdeveloped countries from the lack of development, with the aim of demystifying the theory of the debt trap. the debt that often emerges when it comes to China’s investments in various countries.

Foreign policy experts say India and the United States could try to choke the project because they don’t want to see China’s influence in Nepal increase.

“The interest of India and the United States has converged when it comes to controlling Chinese influence in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, as both are partners of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) “said Lokraj Baral, former Nepalese ambassador to India and professor of political science at Tribhuvan University. “China investing in infrastructure in foreign countries was not a big concern for them in the past. But amid the deteriorating relationship between China and India as well as the Western powers, especially the United States, they view China’s involvement in overseas infrastructure development with suspicion.

China, however, is well aware of this fact, which emerges from the Chinese Foreign Minister’s remarks on December 8.

“China supports Nepal’s leadership position in rebuilding international cooperation,” Wang said. “All parties must respect Nepal’s sovereignty, security and development needs and must not attach any political conditions to aid to Nepal.

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