Why Nepal is moving closer to China

The Nepali Minister for Education Giriraj Mani Pokharel announced recently that Mandarin would soon be taught in Nepali schools. He said this was part of the Communist government’s plan to have an education system that best suits the needs of the 21st century. A day later, an agreement was signed with China to help Nepal build detailed satellite maps of its territories. Back in July 2018, while Nepal introduced policies to restrict western NGOs, Chinese NGOs were given greater leeway to operate in the country.

All these steps were in keeping with the policy of Nepali Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s government to cultivate ties with China, as a counterweight to India. But Prime Minister Oli, as the leader of a country precariously sandwiched between India and China, also knows how to hedge his bets.

In order to allay New Delhi’s apprehensions regarding growing Chinese inroads into Nepal — a country that India has traditionally considered as falling under its ‘sphere of influence’— Oli has signed a slew of new agreements with India, including on expanding Indo-Nepal railways and developing common waterways.

And Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be reciprocating his overtures. PM Modi has already visited Nepal thrice since assuming office in 2014. There has also been a marked softening of India’s rather hardline pro-Madhesi stand, which has helped bridge the trust-deficit between Kathmandu and New Delhi. 

If Nepali government officials are to be believed, following the much-touted Wuhan summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and PM Modi, gone are the days of active geopolitical rivalry between India and China in South Asia. They see no reason the two cannot cooperate to help Prime Minister Oli realise his dream of making Nepal a ‘vibrant economic bridge’ between India and China. 

There is nothing wrong in having grand goals. But the Oli dream also overlooks that India and China have never cooperated for the benefit of a third country, anywhere, and certainly not in South Asia. The 2015-16 Indian blockade of Nepal was partly the result of New Delhi feeling overlooked in the process of writing of the new Nepali Constitution, even as the interests of the Chinese were amply accommodated.

Even the two earlier blockades of the Indo-Nepal border resulted from China’s construction of a highway linking Kathmandu with Tibet (1969), and after Nepal decided to import arms from China (1989). There has always been a great deal of suspicion in New Delhi of Chinese activities in Nepal, starting from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, who feared that a Communist China would engulf Nepal just like it had gobbled up a free Tibet. 

For Prime Minister Oli, who came to power on a distinctly anti-India platform, it is important to continue to be seen as enhancing ties with China, a popular proposition in Nepal. This course is popular because of what is seen as India’s recent highhandedness and because China has traditionally had a hands-off Nepal policy. This is in sharp contrast to India, which has always been closely involved with developments in Kathmandu, including in making and breaking governments. 

So, when Indian observers warn their Nepali counterparts of the dangers of a closer embrace of a fire-breathing dragon — ‘Look what happened in Hambantota!’ — the message does not quiet hit home. In trying to find the right counterweight to India, most Nepalis appear willing to take that risk.

Recently, Nepal has also made a concerted effort to reach out to the US, to expand the country’s reach beyond its two immediate neighbours. Following the recent visit of Nepali Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali to America, the US State Department declared Nepal to be a ‘central part’ of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. This, too, won’t go down well in New Delhi, which has traditionally frowned on any Western involvement in Nepal. Nor would China have welcomed the outreach to the US, for that matter.

Nonetheless, the pro-China bias of the leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party is there for all to see. They would all like to see Nepal derive maximum benefit from President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. Currently, the government is busy finalising the projects to be financed under BRI. 

After the failure of its hardball tactics during the process of Constitution-making, India and Prime Minister Modi have no option but to continue to take Kathmandu into confidence, and perhaps continue to warn Nepal of the dangers of relying too much on China. New Delhi could also keep its promises.

After all, had India delivered on its promises of timely infrastructure development and showed more respect for Nepali sensitivities, the Nepali political class may not have been under such pressure to inch closer to Beijing.  

(The writer is Editor of The Annapurna Express published from Kathmandu)

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Why Nepal is moving closer to China

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