China is expanding its air links with South and Southeast Asia, focusing on Nepal and Myanmar, to help enlarge its regional footprint.
On Sunday, Himalaya Airlines — a China-Nepal joint venture — landed its maiden flight from Kathmandu to Beijing’s brand new Daxing international airport.
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency has reported that the “flight marks the first-ever capital-to-capital direct connectivity between Nepal and China…”
The arrival of the flight follows the recent visit to Nepal by China’s President Xi Jinping, which focused on the expansion of connectivity between the two Himalayan neighbours.
Unsurprisingly, a joint statement released at the end of President Xi’s visit on October 13 noted that China and Nepal would sharpen their focus on connectivity “encompassing such vital components as ports, roads, railways, aviation and communications within the overarching framework of trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network”. The statement spotlighted that the connectivity initiative would help Nepal graduate from a Least Developed Country (LDC) to a middle income nation by 2030.
During Mr. Xi’s visit, the two countries nailed a cross-border railway project between Tibet and Nepal as a top priority item. Besides, the Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini railway project, which would extend the railway close to the Indian border, would also be expedited.
Regarding aviation, the two countries agreed to launch more direct air services and speed up construction of the Pokhara International Airport.
“We will be operating two flights a week — on Tuesdays and Fridays — till November 15. Thereafter, we will also fly to Beijing on Sunday,” Ujjwala Dali, head of brand and service improvement department of the Himalaya Airlines, told the Nepalese daily Republica.
“Along with Beijing, we are preparing to fly to other Chinese destinations like Guiyang, Changsha and Nanchang from November,” she said.
The expansion of air connectivity follows a revised air services agreement between the two countries, signed in July. Under the new arrangement, Nepali airlines would be able to access five new Chinese destinations this year, and three more in 2020. The new airline hopes to tap into the tourism industry, anticipating the arrival of 40,000 Chinese passengers, especially from north China, to Nepal, every year, along this route.
Apart from Nepal, China is also stepping up its aviation ties with Myanmar.
On Sunday, China’s Ruili Airlines launched a direct flight from Myanmar’s Yangon international airport to Dehong, located southwestern China’s Yunnan province.
This is Ruili Airlines’ second route to Myanmar. Earlier it had connected the border town of Mangshi, in Yunnan, with Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city.
The initiative is part of China’s effort to link Yunnan, which shares borders with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, with Southeast Asia. China is reinforcing its structural ties with Myanmar, by opening a deep water port in Kyaukpyu in Rakhine state. Beijing has also built an oil and a gas pipeline from Myanmar’s coast to Yunnan, to lower its dependence on the Washington- dominated Malacca straits for its energy security.