India on tenterhooks as China, Nepal discuss joint military exercises

China's defence minister will arrive in Nepal on Thursday for talks on joint military exercises, a meeting that will be closely watched by India as Beijing boosts its influence in the region.

Chang Wanquan will be in Kathmandu for a three-day visit – the first by a Chinese defence minister in 15 years – that will include talks with his Nepali counterpart and Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal.

"Both sides are working out some agreements for assistance for the Nepalese Army," defence ministry spokesman Uttam Prasad Nagila said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) speaks with Nepal Premier's special envoy Krishna Bahadur Mahara (L) during their meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, 16 August 2016. REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool - RTX2L4EI

File image of Chinese delegation meeting with Nepal Premier's special envoy. Reuters

"The ministry expects there might be some progress on talks over joint military exercises, but (it is) not confirmed yet."

The prospect of the first army drills ever between China and Nepal will rattle India, which is often accused of playing "big brother" to its tiny neighbour.

An army source, who asked not to be named, said the exercises may be dubbed "Sagarmatha Friendship" – referring to the Nepali name for Mount Everest – and would focus on disaster response.

Sandwiched between China and India, impoverished Nepal has in recent years ping-ponged between the sphere of influence of Delhi and Beijing as the Asian giants jostle for regional supremacy.

"What we are seeing this week with Chang's visit is more of a military exchange," said James Char, a China expert at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

"It is also something that has grown under the current leadership of (China's President) Xi Jinping."

Landlocked Nepal remains dependent on India for the majority of its imports, but the previous administration aggressively courted China as part of a nationalist drive to decrease the country's reliance on Delhi.

China has responded with grand infrastructure promises, including recently pledging $8.3 billion in investment to Nepal – equivalent to nearly to 40 percent of its entire GDP.

The staggering commitment dwarfed India's investment offer of $317 million.

The current Maoist-led government in Nepal has sought to repair strained ties with Delhi while continuing to accept cash from its powerful northern neighbour.

Prime Minister Dahal is due to fly to China later Thursday and will meet with President Xi next week.

Updated Date: Mar 23, 2017 15:18 PM

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