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China, Nepal take first step towards rail link project between Tibet region and Kathmandu

On August 10, China announced that it would launch a feasibility study for the ambitious Tibet-Nepal railway project within a year. The announcement, which took place during Nepalese Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka’s visit to China, also revealed that China will pay for the study.

The proposed 170 kilometer railway, which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative, will connect Kerung in southern Tibet with Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and will enter Nepal at Rasuwa district. The plan is to eventually extend the railway to India.

People familiar with the matter said The third pole that the construction of the Kerung to Kathmandu railway would cost about 38 billion yuan ($5.5 billion), almost equivalent to the country’s total government revenue in 2018. Although only a third of the total length falls on the Nepal side, this section would account for almost half of the cost due to the harsh geology and climate.

Credit: The Third Pole.

The estimated cost of the feasibility study has not been made public, but China has announced that it will provide 800 million RMB ($118 million) to Nepal in 2022.

Experts say it could be a game-changing decision for the Tibet-Nepal Railway, which has been on hold for years with Nepal reluctant to fund the study and China reluctant to fund it.

“The feasibility study will do two important things: first, it will determine the route, including the proportion of land and bridge. And second, [it will determine] the type of railway that needs to be built – high-speed or slow,” said Paribesh Parajuli, an engineer who worked as a consultant at the Department of Railways until 2019.

At the end of 2018, China prepared a pre-feasibility study of the railway for Nepal. He estimated the cost of the 72.5 km stretch in Nepal at $2.75 billion. The reportwhich is not yet publicly available, suggested that this was an extremely difficult project, but not impossible.

“Technically this will be one of the most difficult railways to build in the world as it has to cross the high and fragile Himalayan range, but with China’s technological prowess it is possible as they have already built railways railway at higher altitudes in Tibet than the proposed Nepal-China railway,” said Aman Chitrakar, spokesperson for the Nepalese Ministry of Railways.

He added that the pre-feasibility study was carried out only by a Chinese team as Nepal does not have the capacity to carry out technical works on the railways. It will be the same for the feasibility study. “It’s their money and their expertise will be essential, but we hope to be consulted during the study,” he said.

But some worry about Nepal’s lack of capacity to even review technical reports as it has no railway engineers. The department created ten years ago is dominated by road engineers.

“It was OK to rely entirely on the Chinese for a pre-feasibility study because it was more of a survey of sorts, but the feasibility study is a key project document if it is to be put implemented, and Nepal needs to seriously consider it,” said Paribesh Parajuli, one of a handful of railway engineers in the country – none of whom work for the government.

Nepal, which built its first railway in 1927 near its border with India, had no railway department until 2011 and has yet to hire railway engineers to staff the department.

In 2018 – the same year as the pre-feasibility study – the Nepal Railway Department and China Railway signed a memorandum of understanding to foster cooperation, according to Chitrakar. But the Ministry of Railways was not informed by its own foreign ministry of any developments during the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in March and the visit of Nepal’s Foreign Minister in August.

“We learned that our government had signed a memorandum of understanding on the technical drawings of the railway project during Wang Yi’s visit in March and now the media has announced that a feasibility study will be carried out, but as a implementing agency, we have not been briefed on all the developments that have taken place over the past few months,” Chitrakar said.

Geopolitics on geology

The Tibet-Nepal railway project has deep roots. In 2020, former Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Qiu Guohong wrote in a Nepalese newspaper: “Our great leader Mao Zedong is the one who sowed the seeds of the Nepal-China railway dream. During the visit of the late King Birendra Shah of Nepal to China in 1973, Mao mentioned the Qinghai Tibet Railway. Even then, Mao had thought of linking the railway from Tibet to Kathmandu in Nepal because he was a visionary.

In 2016, China signed a transit and transport agreement with Nepal when KP Oli, former Prime Minister of Nepal, visited China following a trade blockade imposed by India because New Delhi disagree with some clauses in Nepal new constitution.

Two years later, the railway was a key item on the agenda when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal. Last March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Nepal to reiterate China’s interest in the railway project and four months later made the announcement in support of the study feasibility.

“For several reasons, India has been suspicious and overly sensitive to the China-Nepal railway, but it is incumbent on both China and Nepal to convince India of the importance of the railway for connecting India and China and its mutual benefit to the region as Nepal is at best a geography that connects mainland China and the South Asian subcontinent So if we can connect the Chinese rail network to the rail network Indian, this could be an important transit point for the region,” former Ambassador Qiu wrote in 2020.

Nepali Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing in July 2019. Credit: Reuters.

Unlike Nepal, India is not a host country of the Belt and Road Initiative. “Greater Chinese influence in Nepal is not a bilateral or regional problem but a global problem,” said Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy and security studies fellow at the Center for Social and Economic Progress think tank, during a meeting. a recent webinar hosted by the New Based in Delhi Institute of Chinese Studies. “India should be able to calculate its relations with world powers rather than just looking at Nepal-China relations or China’s presence in Nepal.”

In recent weeks, the cross-border rail project has been covered by Chinese media and sparked reactions on Chinese social media. It was cited as an important geopolitical project that China could use as needed.

A commentary piece published by Caijing MagazineChina’s WeChat channel suggested that a rail link via Nepal to India could both “strengthen China-India economic ties when geopolitical tensions ease” and “increase China’s strategic maneuvering space.” China when tensions rise”.

Ecological impact

The ecological impacts of the proposed railway line are not discussed in Nepal – and nothing has been said about what China 2021 green development guidelines could mean for the project. Some experts say this is due to the inability of the Nepalese government to work with the Chinese team.

“Any trans-Himalayan project of this scale will have serious environmental impacts and there should be more concern around the fragile geology of the region. This railway will cross main central thrust – a geologically weak area in the Himalayas – and it is important to use the technical knowledge of geologists and other experts to minimize its environmental impacts. But it is sad that no effort has been made in this direction”, Basanta Raj Adhikari, deputy director of the Center for Disaster Studies at the Institute of Engineering at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, said The third pole.

In China, some concerns have been expressed about the ecological impacts of the railway. “At a time when we are experiencing extreme heat, many are concerned about the ecological impact of the railway on the world’s water tower,” said a comment on Caijing Magazine’s WeChat channel. “Railway maintenance is going to be very difficult in the Himalayan region. International relations also depend on how we choose to act. Be careful,” said another.

Promises and uncertainties

The Chinese government is encouraging Nepal exports more to China. As of September 1, 98% of Nepalese products were eligible for duty-free export to China. “It will help the Nepalese side make good use of this political dividend to expand exports to China,” said a statement after the two foreign ministers met in Qingdao last August.

Nepal imported goods worth 211 billion Nepalese rupees ($1.7 billion) from China between mid-July 2021 and mid-April 2022, according to Nepal’s Customs Department. In contrast, Nepal’s exports to China amounted to 622 million Nepalese rupees ($5 million) during this period.

Chinese media have expressed hope that Nepal can export more. “The cross-border railway project, if eventually built, would certainly bode well for Nepal’s economy, as the landlocked country’s transport connectivity with China currently relies on a few land ports that cannot operate. amid heavy snowfall or geological disasters,” Long Xingchun said. , president of the Chengdu Institute of Global Affairs, told the World times.

The only functional Nepal-China road at Rasuwa Gadhi, northwest of Kathmandu, has been closed since early August and has had very little commercial transit since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. “The Chinese side used to arrange the transport of up to 14 containers per day to the border post and the containers on the Nepalese side were used to transport goods to Kathmandu. But it has been completely blocked for weeks. extinct,” said Anu Acharya, a journalist based in Rasuwa district, bordering Tibet.

This article was first published on The third pole.