How deep is China's engagement in Nepal

This was not a routine visit that went the old way. When President Xi Jinping landed at Kathmandu Airport, no Chinese head of state had visited the state of Nepal for almost a quarter of a century. Now Xi came for two days. His foray into the Himalayas shows that South Asia is currently experiencing geostrategic shifts that previously seemed unimaginable.

Just a few hours earlier, the Chinese head of state had met India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi to talk to him about expanding trade between the two Asian powers. At the meeting near the Indian city of Chenai, both sides had spoken of new impulses, but were unable to resolve their disputes over the Himalayan region of Kashmir. The fact that Xi now also made a two-day stop in Kathmandu, Nepal, did not spark any joy in Delhi: India regards Nepal as its classic sphere of influence.

But with China, Delhi has got a competitor in the small land locked country, which now wants to drill and blast its way through the mountains from the other side of the Himalayas. China wants to retain Nepal in the long term with two ambitious construction projects. From Tibet, which - although very controversial under international law - belongs to the People's Republic of China, a 70-kilometer railway line is to lead to Kathmandu. There are also plans to shorten road travel times between the two countries by building a tunnel. These are technically daring, expensive projects, and there is no schedule yet. But even the prospect of tunnels and railways seems to open doors to Beijing in Nepal.

Geographical barriers that have made communication with the north difficult for centuries seem to be becoming less important in the face of Chinese high-tech investments. This opens up completely new perspectives for Nepal. When Nepal's Prime Minister Sharma Oli traveled to Beijing last year, there was already talk of the dawn of a new era. "Driven into China's hands by India," the newspaper headlined South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, and asked, "Is Nepal the new Sri Lanka?" The reference to the island nation in the Indian Ocean touched a sore point. Delhi has had a problem for some time with China continuing to expand its influence around the Indian subcontinent. Sri Lanka has provided a drastic example of this in recent years. The concern about strategic encirclement also contributes significantly to the fact that Delhi does not want to participate in Chinese plans for a "New Silk Road".

For smaller states, financial injections and loans from China are a temptation. The example of Sri Lanka in particular shows what consequences this can have: Dependency on Beijing is increasing and borrowers run the risk of becoming entangled in the debt trap. In Sri Lanka, the state has already had to surrender control of the new port of Hambantota to the Chinese due to a lack of solvency.

Nepal has already experienced how painful dependency on a single state can be. However, it was not the embrace of the Chinese that caused concern there, but the supremacy of India. Both countries are culturally very close, in Delhi it was hard to imagine for a long time that Nepal could break away from this closeness. For geographical reasons alone, this seemed unlikely, because almost all roads led out of Nepal to the south, into the vastness of the Indian subcontinent.

So far, imports have come from there: oil, machines and even consumer goods "Made in China" are transported up into the mountains via the Indian port of Calcutta. As the Nepalese columnist Yubaraj Ghimire noted, India has severely damaged its credibility as a partner to Nepal over the years by breaking promises and poorly implementing investments. When unrest led to five-month border blockades in Nepal in 2015, the government in Kathmandu blamed India for the persistence of the crisis. The dispute accelerated the alienation and strengthened Nepal's urge to orientate itself more towards Beijing.

China's state media did not spare praise for the newly opened chapter in Kathmandu. They quoted their head of state Xi, who invokes the "everlasting friendship" between China and Nepal. In Kathmandu, meanwhile, it is hoped that the political and economic interests of the two large neighboring states will be balanced over the long term and that Nepal will find a balance between the traditional godfather Delhi and the new investor China. Because the small inland in the Himalayas cannot afford big enemies.