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China warns Nepal about ‘outside interference’ following US grant

China warned Nepal this month against what it called interference from outside forces following Nepal’s ratification of a U.S. development grant, while China-tied projects in the country continue to stall, media sources say.

The warning came during Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s March 25-27 visit to Nepal, and only a month after Nepal’s parliament ratified a $500 million no-strings-attached U.S. grant to build electric power lines and improve roads in the impoverished Himalayan country.

Signed by Washington and Kathmandu in 2017, the agreement called the Millenium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact (MCC-Nepal) was finally ratified by Nepal on Feb. 27 after numerous delays in the country’s parliament.

In talks in Kathmandu last week, Wang Yi said that “external interference” in Nepal’s affairs might now threaten the “core interests” of both China and Nepal, according to a March 28 report by the India-based ANI online news service.

“China supports Nepal in pursuing ‘independent domestic and foreign policies,’” ANI said, quoting Wang.

Regional experts speaking to RFA in interviews this week said Wang Yi’s statements in Nepal reflect Beijing’s growing concern that Kathmandu may no longer rely exclusively on China for supporting its development.

Beijing wants to convince Nepalese politicians that China is still a friend to Nepal, said Aadil Brar, a China specialist at the Delhi, India-based online newspaper The Print.

“And there is now a certain concern within China that Nepal might be moving closer to the U.S., and so I think that was the primary goal in terms of [Wang Yi’s] three-day visit,” he said.

“If we look at the kind of support China offers, it’s mostly in terms of infrastructure projects that are being built in Nepal. But Nepalese politicians usually like to have grants instead of loans, because that helps them make sure they are not going to be dependent on China.”

No progress on BRI projects

Nepal is seen by China as a partner in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to boost global trade through infrastructure development, but no agreements on BRI projects or the terms of their loans were signed during Wang Yi’s visit, sources in the country say.

“We have seen many politicians and experts here in Nepal who do not approve of China’s Belt and Road Initiative project and consider it threatening to Nepal,” said Sangpo Lama, vice president of HURON, the Human Rights Organization of Nepal.

“China’s principle is to give money for BRI projects in Nepal in the form of loans, and not as grants,” Sangpo Lama said.

Beijing has been apprehensive ever since Nepal ratified the MCC-Nepal agreement with the United States, said Santosh Sharma, a faculty member at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University and co-founder of the Nepal Institute for Policy Research.

“Nepal needs international grants and support to build infrastructure in the country, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the MCC grant from the U.S. both serve that purpose. However, by signing the MCC agreement, Nepal has shown just how significant the American grant is,” Sharma said.

Wang Yi’s claims of concern for Nepal’s “sovereignty and independence from external forces” only mask Beijing’s greater worry over U.S. influence in Nepal, added Parshuram Kaphle, a special correspondent on foreign and strategic affairs at Nepal’s Naya Patrika newspaper.

“However, neither China nor the U.S. will be able to create a bond with Nepal like India has,” Kaphle said. “There is a natural bond between Nepal and India. And geopolitically India will also play a huge role in Nepal’s future.”

Though BRI projects in Nepal have so far failed to launch, Nepal’s government has cited promises of millions of dollars of Chinese investment in restricting the activities of an estimated 20,000 Tibetan refugees living in the country, leaving many uncertain of their status and vulnerable to abuses of their rights, rights groups say.

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.