Spearhead Analysis – 03.04.2018
By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Earlier this year in March Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaquan Abbasi made his first official visit to Kathmandu, Nepal– which was the first visit by a Pakistani head of government in over two decades to the capital. Strictly bilateral visits are uncommon between Pakistan and Nepal. This may be because there are in actuality few issues that demand top level exchange between the two countries. The last visit paid by a Pakistani prime minister was Benazir Bhutto’s visit to Nepal back in 1994.
Until now, visits between the two countries were only limited to those related to participation in regional platforms, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit meetings which have involved top level exchange between the two countries.
In this respect, PM Abbasi’s visit to Nepal was significant.
China and India are presently competing for more influence in Nepal. Typically, both India and China are the first ones to visit Nepal’s capital with their respective development assistance packages following the formation of a new government. This time however Pakistan was the first to send a high-level foreign dignitary and extend its congratulations as the new regime led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (CPN-UML) Chairman K.P. Sharma Oli set in.
With PM Abbasi’s March 5th visit, Pakistan committed to increasing engagement and economic cooperation with Nepal. Interestingly, Abbasi also talked about India-Pakistan bilateral issues, more specifically the Jammu and Kashmir issue during his talks in the country.
More importantly however, PM Abbasi addressed speculations surrounding Pakistan’s believed eagerness towards the holding of the next SAARC summit. The SAARC summit scheduled to be held in November 2016 was cancelled following India’s refusal to be a part of the conference on the grounds that Pakistan, according to India, is promoting cross-border terrorism. Along with India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Afghanistan also joined in the boycott. Subsequently, India in place of SAARC proposed another grouping called the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMESTEC) including countries like Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, and Nepal as members—Pakistan of course didn’t make the cut.
During his visit PM Abbasi further emphasized Pakistan’s position on SAARC. In asking for the next SAARC summit to be held at the earliest in Islamabad, Abbasi’s visit helped emphasize to the international community that Pakistan can no longer be held responsible for the delay in the SAARC process. Abbasi pressed Chairman K.P. Sharma Oli and Chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) Pushpa Kamal Dahal to begin taking the necessary steps in organizing the 19th SAARC summit. Furthermore, he also urged India to be part of the next SAARC summit.
Irrespective of whether the next summit takes place or not, PM Abbasi’s visit last month was significant in setting Pakistan’s image right with respect to the SAARC summit and Pakistan’s commitment to the forum.
Abbasi also referenced the BRI, encouraging Nepal to take advantage of the opportunities it can open up for the country. Nepal signed up to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) in May. According to reports, Nepal is currently looking through BRI projects to select projects it wants to work on with Beijing. China has recently taken the request of Kathmandu for building a cross-border railway line seriously and has begun a feasibility study.
Meanwhile, Indian officials have remained largely silent over Nepal’s move towards the BRI, and the Pakistani Prime Minister’s visit which has been mainly characterized as “unusual” by several Indian media outlets. Some news channels have however gone as far as calling Pakistan’s move to encourage greater China-Nepal cooperation in the BRI a calculated effort by Beijing to isolate India and impact India-Nepal ties with help from Islamabad. China too has not made any official statements on Abbasi’s visit but it can be expected that it must be very pleased with Pakistan working to the benefit of the BRI initiative and its goal of encouraging greater regional cooperation.