Nepal's new PM seeks warmer ties with India after China pivot

NEW DELHI • India is likely to offer Nepal's new prime minister help in building an east-west railway line and better access to its ports on his first visit this week, as it tries to regain ground lost recently to China.

Mr Prachanda, a former Maoist rebel commander, has chosen New Delhi as his first foreign stop, seeking to rebalance ties that chilled under his pro-China predecessor, Mr K.P. Oli. The latter sealed trade deals that sought to reduce landlocked Nepal's economic dependence on India.

"Relations with India have become frosty for some time. I want to remove the bitterness," Mr Prachanda told reporters on Tuesday evening in Kathmandu, adding that India "wants to help Nepal, which is in difficulties".

Mr Prachanda said that, on his four-day trip starting today, the two sides would discuss the railway line stretching from Mechi in east Nepal to Mahakali in the west that India will help build.

An Indian railway official said the project that runs parallel to Nepal's 1,030km east-west highway has been talked about in the past, but that the two countries are now discussing financial terms. The mountainous country has only one short rail line from Jaynagar on the Indian border to Janakpur.

Another possible project, Mr Prachanda said, is a hydroelectric power plant that could be built with Indian grant aid.

Nepal is one of several South Asian countries where India and China are vying for influence. India has long considered the country of 28 million people as a natural ally based on their close historical ties and long open border. But China has gained a foothold, rapidly building roads and hospitals while there was little progress on longstanding Indian proposals for hydroelectric plants, and trade and transit corridors that became mired in political disputes.

Under Mr Oli's government, Nepal signed a deal to extend China's Tibet rail network to Kathmandu, created special economic zones for Chinese companies and sealed a long-term agreement for petroleum imports, alarming New Delhi.

Mr Prachanda is now making "a deliberate recalibration away from what the previous prime minister planned, which was a closer relationship with China", one Western diplomat said.

Nepali media said Chinese President Xi Jinping had put off a visit planned next month due to a lack of progress on Nepal's part on the projects agreed between the two countries.

The Annapurna Post said Beijing was particularly unhappy about Nepal's tardy progress on its One Belt, One Road initiative, Mr Xi's signature project to build infrastructure and establish new trade routes across the region.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2016, with the headline 'Nepal's new PM seeks warmer ties with India after China pivot'. Print Edition | Subscribe