Visible awkwardness has appeared around the China–Nepal equation related to the newly constructed and inaugurated airport in Pokhara. The scenic lake city is situated in western Nepal. Beijing is openly describing the new airport as a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project. However, Kathmandu is veiling its references to the project in a guise of ambiguity.
The year 2023 is the 10th anniversary of Xi Jinping's BRI strategy. For China, Nepal constitutes a core priority in its neighborhood diplomacy in Southern Asia. This is true especially when it comes to spreading connectivity through ports, roads, rail, and aviation networks via the BRI.
On January 1, 2023, Nepal's Pokhara International Airport was inaugurated. Congratulating the Nepalese government on the occasion, the spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Nepal, using social media channels, officially declared that the airport was a "flagship project of China–Nepal BRI cooperation."
Further, it was the Chinese embassy which announced that Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and China's Chargé d'Affaires Wang Xin were attending the ceremony. Speaking at the inauguration event, Wang thanked the PM of Nepal and his government for their support. He also thanked Chinese and Nepalese engineers and technicians for their contribution.
Additionally, he claimed that the Pokhara International Airport had been designed and built "according to Chinese standards."
Nepal Evades the Subject
Chinese statements and claims notwithstanding, Nepal and its government officials seem to be evading the subject. In an apparent attempt to circumvent the issue, Nepal's official statement says that "no official document mentions the international airport as such."
Moreover, The Kathmandu Post cites an anonymous Nepalese foreign ministry official, saying, "As per our definition, this particular project does not fall under the BRI framework.” The official added that "no project under Beijing's BRI has been signed … if the Chinese embassy says that this airport is built under BRI, this is their definition."
Nepal and China signed a BRI framework agreement in 2017. Kathmandu initially identified 35 projects to be undertaken under the BRI. Subsequently, the total number of projects was tapered down to nine with Pokhara airport taken off the list.
Despite this, the official press note circulated by the Chinese embassy stated that the new airport is "designed and built in accordance with the standards of China and the International Civil Aviation Organization." It also described the airport as "a remarkable sign for China and Nepal to jointly build the BRI."
The Chinese embassy further recalled President Xi Jinping's visit to Nepal in 2019. This is when Xi and Pushpa Kamal Dahal apparently agreed to promote the airport construction, and its early completion and operation.
Heralded by Beijing as a 'China-Assisted Project'
Around the same time, in October 2019 the Global Times published a report from Beijing titled "A China-Assisted Pokhara Airport Takes Shape". The report described the Pokhara International Airport as a major undertaking of the BRI under construction. It further said that the airport, once completed, would be "the largest China-assisted project in Nepal."
According to the Chinese engineer Yang Zhigang, General Manager of No 1 Engineering Department of China CAMC Engineering Co., responsible for the project, "About 47 percent of the project has been completed" at the time of filing the Global Times story.
This is the kind of detail being put out publicly by the Chinese side regarding the Pokhara airport project. But Nepal has displayed a rather obvious evasiveness on whether the Pokhara project falls under the BRI framework. This surely suggests a lucid disconnect between the two sides.
The Nepalese side appears to be playing up the ambiguity card regarding the project. It talks only along fine lines about whether the project was "funded under the BRI scheme." In contrast, it argues that all Chinese investments, be they grants or commercial loans, are tagged as BRI cooperation by China.
Nepal Losing Confidence in BRI?
Recall that Nepal signed an approximately $216 million USD soft loan agreement with China in March 2016 for the construction of this airport. That said, The Kathmandu Post reports that the agreement between the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal and China EXIM Bank does not mention the BRI. If that is the case, then why has China insisted all throughout since its inauguration, that Pokhara airport falls under the ambit of the BRI?
China's outgoing ambassador, Hou Yanqi, met with select journalists in April 2022. She said that many of the projects that China was currently building in Nepal fall under the BRI framework. That included the Pokhara Airport, she said, which involved commercial loans and grants from China, and a Chinese construction company.
In all, Nepal does have a lot of explaining to do. It has taken a clandestine approach regarding the extent of China's involvement in the completion of this airport. More significantly, why has Nepal not issued any official denial or clarification of all the official Chinese claims? It appears that Nepal too is becoming cagey about the BRI's fast-losing momentum globally.
After all, the BRI, Xi Jinping's "project of the century" is facing major challenges and significant backlash. It is mired in multiple issues such as overpricing and debt sustainability concerns. These appear likely to usher in transformational changes in the public sentiment against China. Nepal's case as a small landlocked Himalayan nation bordering Tibet could be no different.
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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.