China Opens Border Connections to Nepal

China’s Belt and Road projects offer diversification opportunities for smaller countries that could alter longstanding relations. Such Belt and Road influence is evident in a trade and transit protocol finalized by China and Nepal in September 2018. Nepal, remote and landlocked, a country of 29 million sandwiched between China and India, has deep ties with India. “Nepal has historically relied on India for about 98 percent of its transit trade, primarily through the ports of Kolkata and Visakhapatnam, but the new deal with China reverses that dependence,” explains Nicola Contessi. “Although India and Nepal share no less than 25 border crossings, the current arrangement imposes numerous delays and bottlenecks.” Nepal, following in the footsteps of landlocked Kazakhstan in pursuit of connectivity, now has access to four seaports and three dryports in China. Nepal remains cautious yet expects the new options to reduce the neglect that can accompany dependence. Eventually, Nepal could even emerge as a bridge between the two Asian giants. Contessi concludes: “Nepal highlights how the Belt and Road Initiative is shuffling cards in many decks, unsettling entrenched power relations and spheres of influence.” – YaleGlobal

China Opens Border Connections to Nepal

China’s Belt and Road Initiative provides Nepal with access to new ports, encouraging diversification and reducing dependence on India
Nicola P. Contessi
Thursday, January 31, 2019

Diversifying: Nepal has long relied on India and the busy Birgunj-Raxaul border crossing, left, for transit and trade, but China’s Belt and Road investments may bring new trade and tourists to the landlocked country (Sources: Nepal; Surendra Phuyal)

NEW YORK:  Nepal’s geopolitical position has new impetus, thanks to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The landlocked nation has an opportunity to play China and India to improve its bargaining position.

In September, delegations from Nepal and China gathered in Kathmandu to finalize the text of a Trade and Transit Protocol, destined to actualize the Trade and Transit Agreement the two sides had concluded in March 2016. This was a sudden turn of events from a mere two months earlier, when Nepal’s Maoist Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli paid an official visit to Beijing and agreement still appeared to be up in the air. The freshly minted protocol, due for signature presumably during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s scheduled visit to Nepal in April, grants use of four Chinese seaports– Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang, Zhanjiang as well as the dry ports Lhanzin, Lhasa, Xigatsê – to Nepal for third-party trade. All six border crossings between the two countries are included in the protocol. Nepali vehicles can enter Chinese territory to ferry goods, without designating specific routes, and the protocol may include additional ports at a later stage.

Lopsided trade: Landlocked Nepal, ranked 160th for exports, seeks border options to reduce trade imbalances – the country's top exports include flavored waters, carpets, non-retail synthetic yarn; top imports are refined petroleum, gold, motorcycles, rice, cars (MIT Observatory of Economic Complexity, 2016)

Nepal has historically relied on India for about 98 percent of its transit trade, primarily through the ports of Kolkata and Visakhapatnam, but the new deal with China reverses that dependence. Although India and Nepal share no less than 25 border crossings, the current arrangement imposes numerous delays and bottlenecks. Dwell times are seven days in Kolkata and two in Visakhapatnam, and overall transport time for goods can take up to three months. Intricate customs procedures oblige Nepalese traders to produce original invoices in order to clear their goods. Due to these complexities, Nepal has requested a third gateway. The dependence on India has also exposed Nepal to blackmail and other pressure tactics – as demonstrated unequivocally in September 2015, when Delhi subjected Nepal to a blockade that lasted through the following March, bringing the economy to a standstill and causing major disruptions in the supply of vital goods like fuel and medicines.

Stakeholders in Nepal welcomed the announcement with caution, mindful of a similar agreement Kathmandu signed with Bangladesh in 1976 that failed to alter the trade predicament, since that route still requires transit through an uncooperative India. They also point to the rough Himalayan terrain and the poor state of roads and border infrastructure within Nepal – currently only the Rasuwagadhi-Gyirong route is viable. Others noted the distance of Chinese ports, some 4000 to 4600 kilometers from the border, though the dry ports are 400 to 800 kilometers away.

Notwithstanding such caution, the agreement is potentially a game-changer in several ways. Consider Kazakhstan’s railways diplomacy, designed to attract investments from Asia, Eurasia and Europe, while including large amounts of Chinese funding. That solution has allowed the landlocked Central Asian country to manage its overland connectivity in a way that lessens vulnerabilities and expands opportunities, positioning the country at the center of transcontinental transport routes. Nepal’s recent deals appear to replicate the rationale of Astana’s approach, implemented successfully over the past two decades.

This shows how a strategy of diversification is an increasingly attractive option for governments seeking greater independence, and Nepal can anticipate four advantages:

First, while the new connectivity will not break Nepal’s strong cultural, religious, social and military ties to India, it loosens longstanding dependence. India will no longer be Nepal’s sole conduit to the oceans, and this is bound to have a sovereignty-enhancing effect. With a second option available and an enhanced partnership with China, Nepal gains the ability, in principle, to offset future blackmail attempts and pursue independent foreign and domestic policies.


Second, the new link will likely increase Nepal’s bargaining leverage, putting it in the position of arbitrating a bidding war between China and India. Reports suggest since negotiations were launched, this new dynamic has already played out in Nepal’s dealings with India. For example, a complementary agreement between Nepal and China eyes a Kathmandu-Gyirong railway, and China has committed to extend the Lhasa-Xigatsê railway to Gyirong by 2020. At railhead, the line will connect to the Gyirong Port and Economic Cooperation Zone, which appears destined to become a “South Asian Khorgos” of sorts, linking that region to China’s network and taking its name from the Chinese border city and largest dry port in the world. Beijing will also assist in repairing Nepal’s Araniko and Syabrubesi-Rasuwagadhi highways. India has made similar pledges, already building two rail lines, with three more planned. Delhi agreed to give Nepal dedicated access to the port of Vizag during Oli’s February visit. On the other hand, the protocol introduced simplified customs procedures, allowing Nepalese consignors to enter China with just an electronic invoice for the goods. Moreover, China will adopt an electronic tracking system, letting Nepal-bound containers clear at locations near the border. India may be compelled to simplify its own procedures if it wants to stay in business.

Third, Nepal should obtain access to new markets in East, Southeast Asia and beyond. Moreover, the China route will cut shipping times and costs for certain points of origin or destination. Kazakhstan’s experience of using China’s Port of Lianyungang since the mid-1990s shows that the distance is not necessarily an insurmountable hurdle. A longer land route may also be a shorter sea route. Besides, if goods take so long when transiting through Kolkata, the use of a more distant port may come in at analogous cost.

Lastly, with increased goodwill from both powers, Nepal may find the opportunity to realize its aspiration to develop into a “bridge” between China and India.

For its remote and peripheral location, the case of Nepal shines light on some of the upshots of China’s push to connect the world. In particular, Nepal highlights how the Belt and Road Initiative is shuffling cards in many decks, unsettling entrenched power relations and spheres of influence. Sure enough, investing in Nepal allows China to score points in the regional and global balance of power: As has been observed, linking Nepal through roads and railways can offer an alternate route in bringing Chinese land forces closer to India.

Nicola P. Contessi, PhD, is an international affairs specialist with expertise in global governance, foreign and security policy, and international transportation, with a regional focus on Eurasia. His work is published in journals like Asian Security, Europe-Asia Studies, Journal of Eurasian Studies, Problems of Post-Communism, The RUSI Journal and Security Dialogue. Contessi’s opinion essays are featured in Asia-Pacific Bulletin, The Diplomat, Euractiv, The Hill Times and Port Technology.  

© 2019 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center


The only thing about this article that is missing is how China is a bad influence and will get more than it gives. China also helps the Nepal suppress the Tibetan population of Nepal not allowing the Tibetans to celebrate the Dali Lamas birthday. Hopefully Nepal is will figure out a better solution besides going communist.

you are wrong here, Nepal has much more to receive from china than to give it back. Tibetan population in nepal are useless . Tibetan took help of china to defeat gurkhas under Qing dynasty to regain its territory back when gurkhas conquered Tibet in 18th century. At that point Tibet accepted itself to be part of Qing dynasty of China. There is no point in supporting these back stabbers, as a result even Nepal had to surrender at one point to Qing dynasty of China. Besides not only Nepal, even India is now more cautious of dalai lama's activity in India. The high level ministers of India not attending the "thank giving event" of dalai lama in 2017 is an clear example that India doesn't want to trigger China and ruin the growing the economic ties that they have between each other..

How ignorant and racist to classify a population as 'useless'. I sure hope this is not the losing Prime Ministerial candidate, Rahul Gandhi as the comment is misleading, misinformed and the Indian people deserve better or, in the least, would benefit from a more perceptive political analysis. The Dalai Lama devolved political power nearly a decade ago. The GOI is distrusting of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA)- the Tibetan Government in Exile- which is NOT the Dalai Lama, whose "activity" includes things like teaching from sacred texts (for free), investigating science of mind, launching emotional education programs (in India mind you) and trying to implement smart environmental practices that have been in place in Tibet for centuries. The CTA organized Thank you India, not the Dalai Lama or his office and you should be able to distinguish the difference, or in the least, not recycle a weak political soundbite that has been used by India for too long. India would benefit greatly from their government genuinely honoring and investing more in its Buddhist or Nalanda traditions as they relate to Tibet, Tibetan Buddhists, the Tibetan people and specifically, the Dalai Lama who has been a protective pillar of India's PR since Nehru welcomed him. The Dalai Lama has been used by GOI as a soft power tool for too long now and India should develop smarter policies toward its Tibetan population, or in the least, have learned more from the first Sino-Indian war and China's systemic state infringement actions that continue to grow, i.e. Belt and Road, Doklam, Arunachal, dam building or violating the Indus Water Treaty. If GOI is not smart enough to finally see through a fake facade of promised "economic ties" or "benefit" alluded to by China, it will likely get clobbered or taken again. And let's be real clear and honest here, Nepal is 'now more cautious of dalai lama's (sic) activity in India' because of Beijing's profound investment and political pressure in Nepal, which many view simply or only as debt trap diplomacy that Nepal was naive enough to fall for and may one day find itself trying but unable to get free from.

Land locked Nepal has depended on India in trading for ages. With border opening, it will have greater access to China. Kathmandu seems to be getting closer to Beijing politically and economically, much to the chagrin of New Delhi. Hope that China retains its sincerity like it has been in other African countries in helping Nepal to improve its lagging infrastructure..

I am told that Mao caps and Confucius institutes have become popular in Khatmandu!

It is wrong to regard the Qing Dynasty and the People's Republic of China as identical.