By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's prime minister is set to throw his support behind Beijing's initiative to build a modern-day Silk Road across Asia during a six day trip to China starting on Thursday, in a move that could upset traditional regional powerhouse India.
Beijing is jostling to increase its influence in Nepal, which serves as a natural buffer between China and India.
China, which has invested in hospitals, roads, hydropower projects and airports in Nepal, is keen to include it in President Xi Jinping's flagship "One Belt, One Road" (OBOR) initiative to link Asia with Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Prime Minister Prachanda, a former chief Maoist rebel commander, will discuss energy cooperation, investment and the OBOR program with the Chinese leader, Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat said.
“We’ll express our commitment to join the OBOR initiative,” Rishi Adhikari, an aide to Prachanda, told Reuters. The leader is on his first visit to China since his election in August.
India, which has a festering border dispute with China, has looked at the latter's ambitions in South Asia including Nepal with concern.
India is still the landlocked Himalayan nation's biggest trading partner, donor and supplier of essential goods, as well as the only source of fuel for the impoverished country.
In October, Xi avoided Nepal during a South Asian tour amid Nepali media reports that Prachanda’s government was growing closer to India and going slow on the China deals made by his communist predecessor last year.
Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Times, said China had advised Nepali leaders not to try to play Beijing against New Delhi.
“So Prachanda will have to tread carefully not to ruffle feathers in Delhi and to make Beijing too anxious,” Dixit told Reuters.
Visiting Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan, in a meeting with Nepali counterpart Bal Krishna Khand on Thursday, said China would continue to support the Nepal Army in disaster management, U.N. peace keeping operations and development work, a Defence Ministry spokesman said.
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Alison Williams)