China in Nepal
New Delhi, Oct 22 (ANI): When Beijing sent in the high-profile Yang Houlan as its Ambassador to Nepal in June 2011, the obvious intention was to assert itself in that country as it wrestled endlessly with its enduring political crisis.
With less than a week to go for PM Baburam Bhattarai's visit to New Delhi, Ambassador Yang told the Nepalese media on October 16 that "We have authentic information that our oldest and nearest friend Nepal is turning into a playground for anti-China activities. Some international and domestic forces are coordinating their activities, against China."
He added: "We are fully confident that activities against China do not take place in a spontaneous manner in Nepal. Nepal's political parties and government are also aware of these activities." [The message is obvious - we know who they are and who is helping them and you as well New Delhi are warned]
Asked to comment on the forthcoming visit of PM Bhattarai, Yang advised that he should hold discussions not only on bilateral matters but also trilateral issues [meaning China]. Yang asserted more than once during his interaction that there were several Nepali issues that demanded China's consent as well. Read with his comments that "we have adopted a policy of non-interference in the internal matters of Nepal, yet we are committed to support the constitution drafting and peace process," this only clearly indicates a more assertive Chinese role in Nepal in the future.
He also referred to forthcoming high level visits between the two countries. Clearly also Ambassador Yang was not batting on his own; he had Beijing's nod just prior to PM Bhattarai's visit to India. [The Chinese PM is expected to visit Nepal soon but after the visit of Nepalese Foreign Minister Hiryanalal Shrestha to Beijing, scheduled to take place during PM Bhattarai's visit to India.] Once again, the balancing act.
Nepal became a buffer zone between China and India, after China occupied Tibet. Nepal recognised China's sovereignty over Tibet in the 1956 Treaty of Thapathalli when relations between the two countries were re-established. The Dalai Lama's escape to India in 1959 provided a greater urgency for a nervous and angry China to be sure about Nepal's intentions.
The two countries concluded a boundary treaty in Beijing in October 1961 and during the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, Nepal remained neutral while disapproved aggression by one state against another. That year Nepal withdrew its Ambassador to Lhasa and in 1966 it closed its trade agencies in Tibet, even as the Chinese-built Kathmandu Kodari road was opened in 1967. Other than that relations between the two countries remained cordial but at a low level even during the 1970s and largely through the 1980s. Although King Birendra had tried to lay an even hand between the two giants, the attempt to reduce Indian influence by buying Chinese arms in 1988, was a major setback to India-Nepal relations.
Nevertheless, China continued to woo Nepal and it was estimated that in 1990 there were about 750 Chinese workers, mostly as road construction workers and in small scale development projects. The foreign trade balance was in Nepal's favour and China conceded some territory to Nepal in the boundary agreement. The 1990s were however placid in the Sino-Nepal relationship as China remained pre-occupied with its economic miracle and the after effects of Tian An Mein in 1989. Nepal had begun to experiment with democracy but the situation went out of hand following the assassination of the Royal family and the rise of Maoist insurgency.
India's nuclear test, and the country's economic revival, which was seen but not admitted as the rising challenge from India, in the first decade of the 21st century and the US fiasco in Iraq was seen as a decline in the power and reach of the US. The growing need to access energy resources and markets as well as the need to keep Indian influence restricted to its national boundaries required a more pro-active Chinese policy in the South Asian region. The other worry for the Chinese has been that the Tibetan problem, which just does not seem to go away however much the Chinese may try.
As India supported the democratic movement in Nepal, Beijing continued to support the monarchy. It was the only country to supply arms to King Gyanendra as he tried to suppress the Maoist insurgency after India, the US and the UK had refused to provide military assistance to Nepal. There were other steps that the Chinese had begun to take. China offered greater economic linkages with reports that there could be as many as ten road connections between Nepal and Tibet.
There is also a Chinese plan to extend the railway line from Lhasa to Khasa on the Nepal Tibet border leading up to Kathmandu eventually. There was also an offer to provide Nepal with assistance worth Nepalese Rs 460 million to construct the 65-km Syaphrubesi-Rasuwaghdi road providing the shortest link between Tibet and Kathmandu.
The Chinese have also loaned US $ 187 million for the two Upper Trishuli hydel power projects. Working quietly, the Chinese began to establish China Study centres along the India-Nepal border. From a mere seven in 2005 the number had grown to 19 by early 2008 and according to the latest figures the number was 33. Originally planned in 2000 these centres were to improve cultural exchanges but had in reality become the means to project Chinese viewpoints on key issues which included cautioning Nepalese about Indian hegemonic designs in contrast to China's benign role.
The Chinese reassessed their positions in 2006 after the royal takeover by King Gyanendra the previous year and the Peoples' Movement against this gathered momentum. Gone was the earlier definition of the Maoists as anti-government forces. The definition had changed to describing the movement as providing the key to the resolution of the crisis in Nepal through conciliation among constitutional forces and urged the king to reach out to the political parties to restore democracy and peace in the country. The Chinese had seen the writing on the wall and had quickly changed sides. It had to abandon the monarchy, could not support the generally pro-Indian political parties but chose instead the anti-Indian and anti-US, the Maoists. However, Chinese support for the Maoists was evident only after they became the single largest party in the elections to the Constituent Assembly in April 2008. Nevertheless there were reports of quiet assistance to the Maoists even in 2006. The Chinese were hedging their bets.
This coincided with Chinese anxieties about activities of Tibetans in exile in Nepal especially after the demonstrations by Tibetans in Tibet in March 2008 short of the Olympics. The Chinese insisted and obtained Nepalese consent in curbing the activities of Tibetans and their entry into Nepal from Tibet. By the end of 2008 the number of entrants had dropped to 500 from 3000 annually. The Chinese had also provided funds, equipment and training to Nepalese border guards to tighten the Nepal-Tibet border and a leaked US state department Wikileaks cable also said the China had paid inducements to Nepalese guards for apprehending Tibetans and handing them back to the Chinese authorities.
Exchange of delegations including two military delegations became a feature of the following year. There were about a dozen Chinese delegations in Nepal in 2008-2009. These delegations offered economic technological and military aid to Nepal seeking in return a Nepalese adherence to a One China policy, that Nepalese soil would not be used for anti-Chinese activities, take strong action against Tibetan refugees and allow Chinese investments in Nepal's strategic sectors. Nepalese acquiescence to Chinese demands on the Tibetan refugees and on how to handle or hand over Tibetans back to the Chinese has won great approval from the paranoid Chinese.
Beijing has tried to widen the scope of assistance and support to the Nepalese, both in commercial and strategic terms. Aid for various projects, attempts to increase Chinese investments in Nepal and China is now the third largest FDI contributor after India and the US. Besides, Nepal with its tremendous hydro-electricity potential (estimated to be 83000 megawatts of energy) is a temptation that China, already pressed for energy resources is unlikely to want to ignore this.
China has been making more and more explicit statements about its strategic relationship with Nepal. In November 2008, Liu Hong Chai, International Bureau Chief of the CCP said that "China will not tolerate any meddling from any other country in the internal affairs of Nepal - our traditional and ancient neighbour." A similar statement was repeated by Liu in February 2009 when he said that "we oppose any move to interfere in the internal affairs of Nepal by force." The Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi however preferred to make a more bland statement, when he said that China would prefer to work with Nepal on the basis of a strategic partnership.
China has announced its intentions in Nepal. It will compete or may be out compete India in Nepal. It is prepared to use cheque book diplomacy and offered a US $ 1 billion aid against an Indian offer of US $ 249 million. Although Nepalese and Indian leaders talk of traditional India-Nepal ties, the lure of the dollar and the chance to play India off against Nepal is all too tempting for the Nepalese. The Chinese also see this as an opportunity to extend their sphere of influence at India's expense. Having secured Pakistan and extended its influence in Myanmar, China now sees an ability to lock Indian within its geographical confines. Nepal is an important third plank for China of this strategy given the extensive logistic and infrastructure development all across the Himalayan belt in Tibet, providing access to Nepalese goods and commerce into Tibet and bringing Nepal under its influence.
India-China competition in Nepal is likely to increase perceptibly in the years ahead especially but not necessarily only, if the Maoists retain control of government. It will be in all spheres of economic political, military and strategic activity. (ANI)
Attn: News Editors/News Desks: The views expressed in above article are that of Mr. Vikram Sood, former Secretary, R and AW.
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