Silk Road Headlines_21st June, 2019

BRI moves into Nepal with free teachers and railways

China is setting up its Belt and Road Initiative for a foray into Nepal, a move that will certainly anger India. But for Nepal, the dependence on India for transport links is exactly why BRI is welcome.

China is preparing the grounds with language. Free language courses and free Confucius Institutes have long been part of China’s influence arsenal, but in Nepal they go one step further. China has offered to pay the salary of any Mandarin teacher in Nepal [Compulsory Mandarin in Nepal's schools to make Himalayan state "China ready" for BRI].

Dozens of schools around the country immediately made Mandarin a mandatory language, just to get the ‘free’ teachers. Under Nepalese law, schools may teach foreign languages, but they cannot make them mandatory. In this case, the schools simply ignored that stipulation, leading to some unrest in Nepal’s intellectual-nationalist establishment.

Much more is going on with transportation links. Nepalese President Bidya Devi Bhandari was at the BRI summit in Beijing in April. Countries agreed to several new transportation and infrastructure initiatives [Inclusion of railway in China’s Belt and Road renews optimism in Nepal].

The main BRI-Nepal initiative is called the Nepal-China Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network, an umbrella that will cover various projects. The most important of those is the Transit and Transport Treaty, which lets Nepal use Chinese territory to trade with other countries. Nepal has a similar treaty with India. But without proper infrastructure, Nepal cannot get its goods out to China, and so it needs railways.

Countries have agreed to do another feasibility study to the Kerung-Kathmandu railway. Talks about this link-up started more than ten years ago, but within the BRI framework the project moves much faster. The proposed railway will run from Kerung in China to Kathmandu in Nepal, with possible extensions to Baireni, Pokhara and to Lumbini, which is right at the Nepal-India border.

In China, the railway will link up with the existing Lhasa-Shigatse line, creating a direct connection between Lhasa and Katmandu, and, to its full extension, with the Indian border. China has already started construction of the Shigatse-Kerung part of the railway, 500 kilometres through very rough terrain. China expects this railway to be ready by 2025.

For the Nepali side, Chinese engineers earlier estimated a total cost of $2.75 billion. China has offered soft loans to Nepal to finance the railway. Nepal however is aware of the debt-trap theory, and has been looking for other investors, so far without much success [The Talk Of Kerung-Kathmandu Railway].

Interestingly, one investor Nepal is courting is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), based in Beijing, and under heavy Chinese influence. So, either direct or indirect, the money will be Chinese, unless an institution like the World Bank steps in. And anyway, like with the proposed railway in Bangladesh (Silk Road Headlines May 22), China doesn’t really care where the money comes from, as long as they get their railheads close to the Indian border.

China and Nepal want to complete the feasibility study in two years. If all goes to plan, the railway may start operating in 2030. By that time, the first Nepalese Mandarin-speaking pupils will be ready.

Tycho de Feijter