China has vowed to strengthen its military relationship with Nepal and support its territorial integrity at a time when its small Himalayan neighbor is embroiled in border disputes with India, according to South China Morning News (SCMN).
General Wei Fenghe, China's defense minister and a state councilor, made the pledge when he met Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and held talks with Nepali Army chief Purna Chandra Thapa in Kathmandu on Sunday, according to SCMN.
A statement released by the Nepali Army said the two sides had discussed the resumption of training and a student-exchange program as well as defense assistance, all of which have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a separate report from Chinese news agency Xinhua, Wei said China would resolutely support Nepal to safeguard its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. "China will continue to maintain close communication with Nepal, conduct in-depth practical cooperation and continue to provide support and help for the Nepali Army, and make greater contributions to the well-being of the two peoples and regional peace and stability," Wei said.
The Nepali Army expressed confidence that "the visit will help in further strengthening and expanding the cordial military-to-military relations between the two countries".
Wei's visit to Kathmandu is closely watched in New Delhi. India has been wary of China's increasing influence in countries along its periphery. New Delhi views South Asia as within its sphere of influence but of late Beijing has been investing in infrastructure and other projects in South Asia.
China's political profile in Nepal has been on the rise in the recent years with billions of dollars of investments coming in under Beijing's multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including the building of the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network.
In August this year, Chinese President Xi said that he attached great importance to the development of China-Nepal relations and was willing to work with his Nepali counterpart Bhandari to push for the continued advancement of the bilateral relationship.
During his two-day state visit - the first by a Chinese leader in 23 years - in October last year, President Xi said China will provide Nepalese Rs 56 billion (approximately US42 million) assistance to Kathmandu over the next two years to help Nepal's development programs and transform the landlocked nation into a land-linked country.
Bhaskar Koirala, director of the Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies in Kathmandu, told SCMN that closer military ties between China and Nepal could serve the strategic needs of both countries.
"It makes infinite sense for China to seek an enhanced level of military cooperation with a geographically important country that also boasts of a long military history and tradition," Koirala said. "For the Nepali Army, it is important to build a relationship with the neighboring country's PLA, as China's military is one of the largest in the world and there is tremendous scope for cooperation and confidence building."
Koirala said this development would make India feel uncomfortable, but for a small country such as Nepal, maintaining friendly ties with both giants could help generate peace and stability in the region.
Long Xingchun, president of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs think tank based in Sichuan, said developing closer ties with China could afford Nepal more choices to develop its economy.
"India regards Nepal [as] being in its sphere of influence but as a sovereign country Nepal has rights to diversify its relations with other countries, such as China and Japan. Once the China-Nepal railway is finished, it can help Nepal's economic development and expand its international market," Long said.
China and Nepal agreed in late 2019 to carry out a feasibility study for the proposed cross-border railway.
It is part of the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network the two sides agreed to develop by 2035 under the Belt and Road Initiative.