Setbacks in India-Nepal ties have helped Beijing make considerable gains in that country. But close cultural ties bind Kathmandu and New Delhi and the Govt should work on them
Yahan sab China ki taraf ja rahe hain. Aapko kuch karna padega (Here everyone is being drawn to China. You have to do something).” This Nepalese politician sounded the warning early last year after for the first time in Nepal, the new Communist Party of Nepal, the merged United Marxist Leninist and Prachanda Maoist parties won landslide electoral victories - a near two-thirds majority in the lower House, a majority in the upper House, Governments in six of the seven provinces and victories in 80 per cent of the local body elections. That the Chinese played an unprecedented role in this political transformation of Nepal is no secret. All previous landmark changes were India-driven.
In 1770, the founder of modern Nepal, King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s observation that Nepal is a root vegetable between two boulders has remained a variable constant. Variable because the country has swayed with the wind and bent towards whichever power was stronger in periods of history — British India/India or China. Nepal was a tributary to China and the latter claimed suzerainty. Vis-a-vis India, it found its sovereign space by playing the extra-regional China card.
China’s rise in Nepal is unstoppable at least till 2021 when the next elections are due. Kathmandu’s policy of equidistance between its two giant neighbours has acquired a Beijing tilt, courtesy New Delhi’s serial blunders since 2015, which gave rise to marked anti-India sentiment — though New Delhi lived in denial — and sovereignty-based nationalism. China’s proclaimed policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of any country was ditched once the Maoists came to power in 2008. Soon, like India, it was implicated in regime change. Kathmandu did not have to play the Beijing card. Beijing dealt it itself. In the recent history, Nepal has viewed India and not China as the threat. Which was why the bulk of Nepalese Army deployment faced south, in Terai, India being the subject of vigil. With deep pockets, China’s inevitable rise began in 2005 when King Gyanendra facilitated Beijing’s entry into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) as an observer. At that time, China was vociferously critical of the Maoists, who were fighting the civil war, calling them “miscreants”, “anti-state rebels” and “hijackers of Mao’s fair name.” With remarkable alacrity, China changed tack once Maoists took power, saying “we have rediscovered ideological similarities with our comrades.” Beijing dropped the King whom it had supported in the war and stated that it will protect Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Gyanendra committed hara-kiri with his palace coup, creating conditions for dismantling of monarchy and a new Constitution.
In Nepal, China has been looking beyond Tibet, its “One China” policy and the virtual control of the 17 northern border districts. Kathmandu will never displease Beijing over managing the 30,000 Tibetan refugees in Nepal. The Dalai Lama’s office was ordered closed in 2005 and refugee crossings into Tibet through Nepal reduced from 3,000 to 300 annually. China has invested heavily in Nepal’s domestic politics, economics, military and people-to-people relations besides the art of regime change. Beijing facilitated the formation of the Left alliance and its merger and has reached out to all political parties and civil society groups. In 2004, it had trained 40 bureaucrats in China. That number has jumped to 800 civil servants in 2019. Since 2013, it is the largest Foreign Direct investment (FDI) investor and provider of Official Development Assistance (ODA), overtaking India. In 2017, China committed $8.3 billion at the Kathmandu Investment Conclave of which $1.3 billion has been utilised.
President Xi Jinping, who is yet to visit Nepal, wants to create a cross-border Special Economic Zone and wishes India to join hands in the development of Nepal, echoing the sentiments of Nepali leaders that Kathmandu should act as a bridge between China and India. China has bagged most infrastructure projects — like international airports in Pokhara and Lumbini and refurbishing the Kathmandu airport — which were initially awarded to India and for the first time, hydro-power projects. Nepal has joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisages ambitious rail and road corridors from Tibet into Nepal, touching the Indian border, ultimately connecting the Indian Ocean. At present, there is the North-South road, which is in a state of disrepair since the 2015 earthquake. The project is facing tests of economic viability, funding and topographical challenges. It is unlikely to materialise anytime soon.
High-level political visits to China are on the rise. President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, Prime Minister KP Oli and Prime Minister-in-waiting, Prachanda, have been invited at least twice, besides a slew of other leaders. Many agreements have been signed, including Trade and Transit, dry ports, supply of petroleum products and access to seven Chinese ports. A look at the map will show the cost profligacy of these alternatives in the event of another economic blockade. China wants a Comprehensive Strategic Programme with the Nepal Army, which has received $32.3 million in grant, 10 times higher than earlier. It has also increased its seats in China’s War College and is the recipient of specialised equipment for UN peace-keeping.
China’s soft power is manifest through Confucian institutions. At least 45 Chinese study centres and Nepali schools offer free Mandarin courses. Buddhism is being promoted through a Chinese-dominated Buddhist circuit focussed on Lumbini, emphasising Buddha was born in Nepal. People-to-people contacts have risen sharply with Chinese tourists swarming Nepal. China has penetrated the Terai, which was once India’s red line.
A Chinese think-tank in 2018 suggested that India should be punished for giving the Dalai Lama a long rope, including visiting Tawang in 2015. One of the likely places of retribution is Nepal, where there is no Wuhan spirit. Beijing has taken advantage of the anti-India sentiment and the Nepali media, while being critical of India, favours China. A historical mistake of preventing Chinese occupation of Tibet has come to haunt India as China eyes Indian markets across the strategic Indo Gangetic Plains via the planned China Nepal Economic Corridor (CNEC). A day may come when China will object to the use of Nepali troops in the Indian Army — along with ex-servicemen, the biggest pro-India constituency — confronting the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Even as Beijing has made considerable political and economic gains, China cannot become an alternative for dependence on India, given that geography, history, culture, religion and the open border, across which six to seven million Nepalis move for livelihood, bind India and Nepal together. Still, the ominous unfolding in Nepal is mainly the result of the inept handling by the Modi 1.0 Government.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)