Xi Jinping is the first Chinese leader to visit Nepal in decades — why and what’s at stake?

Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Nepal over the weekend for a two-day state visit — the first by a Chinese leader to the Himalayan country in 23 years.

Nepalese officials had prepared a wish list of 11 projects for Mr Xi, who arrived fresh from meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Nepal had hoped for an infrastructure boost involving highways to the Chinese border and a railway link.They weren’t disappointed.

The two sides signed 20 deals across a range of areas, including health, agriculture and tourism.

Front and centre was an agreement to conduct a feasibility study for an ambitious Chinese-built railway through the Himalaya mountains.

“They’re going to build a railway through the third-largest ice pack in the world that’s the source of 10 rivers,” Himalaya historian Dr Ruth Gamble told the ABC.

“What does this mean for water [supplies] from Pakistan to Beijing?”

Nepal is sandwiched between regional powers India and China.

“The lowest parts of Nepal have a lot in common with India. The highest parts of Nepal are basically Tibetan,” Dr Gamble told the ABC.

“The middle band, where Kathmandu and the bulk of the population is, have basically been at war with each other for decades.”

The last Chinese president to visit Nepal was Jiang Zemin in 1996, although senior officials have visited the country in the interim.

According to former Nepalese diplomat Tanka Prasad Karki, China was waiting for a “strong government in Kathmandu, as the last few decades were marked by a Maoist war, frequent changes of government and political instability.”

While it has traditionally relied upon India, Nepal signed onto Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative in 2017.

It has been suggested that the Belt and Road initiative fundamentally aims to reshape global trade, with the goal of putting China at the centre.

“China and Nepal are bound by mountains and rivers, and stay as close as lips and teeth,” Mr Xi declared over the weekend, as quoted by official news agency Xinhua.

The Chinese Communist Party also sees ideological allies in Kathmandu. The ruling Nepal Communist Party, while democratically elected, is the third-largest communist party in Asia.

“The dynamics have shifted after the Maoists assumed the dominant political position in Nepal,” Raghbendra Jha, director of the Australia South Asia Research Centre.