“Have you read the new Times of India news report on Nepal?” I ask Upendra Gautam of the China Study Center. He hasn’t. I want to know what Gautam makes of a line in the news report where the writer quotes “official and political sources in India” as saying, “India reckons China will be the worse for wear getting in the mud of the never-ending chaos of Nepali domestic politics.” I ask Gautam if India has learned the hard lesson and was now waiting for China to replicate its old mistakes in Nepal. He isn’t happy I start our conversation by quoting an Indian newspaper.
“You quoting an Indian report shows how Nepalis tend to unnecessarily invoke India-China geopolitical rivalry,” he answers. Why can’t Nepal handle India and China separately? I get what Gautam is getting to. Perhaps I should not have quoted the TOI report right off the bat. But, surely, the Chinese envoy went overboard in meeting so many top NCP leaders and urging them to keep the party united. And what about Xi personally calling President Bhandari, supposedly to sort out the party dispute?
“You have it wrong, it was rather Bhandari who called Xi. So far as the Chinese envoy meeting top NCP leaders of the ruling coalition is concerned, it is natural for China to want a strong power-center in Kathmandu. China believes in a stable government, whoever is in it,” he says.
Vijay Kant Karna, an old observer of Nepal-India relations, isn’t convinced. “What you see is that Chinese interference in Nepali politics has been increasing steadily since Pushpa Kamal Dahal replaced KP Oli as the prime minister in 2016,” he says. The latest Chinese maneuverings leave no doubt in Karna’s mind that China is interested in managing “the internal politics of Nepali parties as well as the government.”
He also doesn’t buy that it was President Bhandari who wanted to talk to Xi rather than the other way around. “My understanding is that Xi called when the legwork of the Chinese envoy in Kathmandu was inadequate to achieve China’s goal,” he says. So China wants Oli to stay? “Is there any doubt about that?” he retorts.
The backers of China in Nepal see the latest Chinese efforts as a reflection of the way they do diplomacy around the world, and there is nothing sinister about it. They deal with strong power centers wherever they do business. But China skeptics espy a clear-cut case of meddling.
I for one think China’s image in Nepal is still largely positive, thanks to its traditional hands-off approach. The more it is seen as trying to influence Nepali politics, the more it will get into controversy. Even in the past, there have been times when the public tide has turned against the Chinese, for instance when it claimed ownership of Mount Everest in 1960.
The way China is being cornered on the novel coronavirus globally, perhaps Beijing sees no alternative to cultivating smaller powers like Nepal to speak on its behalf on the world stage. And the more it does for Nepal, the greater will be its expectations. India may wait and watch for the time being. But history suggests India will intervene when it feels the Chinese have crossed New Delhi’s self-defined ‘red line’ in Nepal.