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Himalayan nation will use a Beijing-favoredgauge except at southern border


KATHMANDU -- Nepal will use Chinese gaugestandards for a planned nationwide rail network, its transport minister told Nikkei,in a move seen intertwining the Himalayan country more deeply with its northernneighbor on the economic and security fronts.


The decision will likely sting for India,which sandwiches Nepal to the south. India uses a wider gauge it has pushed forKathmandu to adopt, as it tries to build influence in the landlocked nation.


China has been pushing for the constructionof a trans-Himalayan railway link using the standard gauge, reaching from Lhasain the Tibet Autonomous Region through Kathmandu to northern India. New Delhihas pushed back against Beijing's plans, instead urging Nepal to use the broadgauge south of Kathmandu.


Minister Mahaseth recounted having askedthe Indian government and railway operators for "about three four months,'why don't you design your [railway in] standard gauge?'"


The China-friendly government of NepaliPrime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, which took power in February 2018, has soughtto reduce economic reliance on India while cozying up to Beijing and its Beltand Road infrastructure ambitions. Decisions on Nepal's northern link withChina may be made at April talks in Beijing, the transport minister said,adding that China could provide funding "maybe in loan, maybe in grant,maybe in both."


Most goods that arrive in Kathmandu areshipped by truck from Kolkata in eastern India. "If there is a railway andcontainers, transport capability will drastically improve," said an expertwith an international aid organization.


But some express more cautious views towardNepal's linking up with China. The northern line connecting the two countriesis expected to cost $2.6 billion to build, and Mahaseth put the cost of theeast-west line at around $7 billion.


"This railway line -- which may turninto a white elephant -- [is] similar to the Hambantota Port and some othermega projects," said Amit Bhandari, a fellow with Mumbai-based think tankGateway House, referring to a port Sri Lanka was forced to hand over to Chinaafter it was unable to repay debts incurred in construction. "I think thisis where the real risk to Nepal, and hence to India, lies -- that it borrowsfrom China to build unviable, unsustainable projects, and is then forced tohand over assets in return."