China’s ‘course correction’ in Nepal
The patchy history of collaboration with the Nepal Communist Party (NCP, 2018-2021) seems to have taught the Chinese a lesson or two in how to navigate Nepal’s complex and often unpredictable political landscape. In this period, the world’s emerging superpower worked closely with the now dismantled NCP jointly-led by KP Sharma Oli of the CPN-UML and Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the CPN (Maoist Center). All the while, the northern neighbor kept a safe distance from the Nepali Congress, traditionally a party of liberal views and considered close to India and the West.
But China now seems intent on making a correction on its Nepal policy—and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is taking the lead in this.
Liu Jianchao, head of the International Department of the CCP Central Committee, recently wrapped up his four-day visit to Nepal. During his Kathmandu stay, he expressed China’s desire to mend fences with the Congress party.
China no longer believes in keeping out of the internal affairs of other countries. In a clear hint of departure from its long-standing policy, Beijing actively courted Nepal’s communist parties, particularly after 2018. A similar trend was seen in other small South Asian countries.
During his Kathmandu sojourn, Jianchao’s focus was on improving ties with the NC. He even went to the extent of visiting the BP Koirala Memorial Planetarium in Sundarijal and recalled the late NC leader’s role in enhancing Nepal-China relations back in the 1960s.
Former Nepal’s ambassador to China Rajeshwar Acharya says the message is meaningful for Nepal’s political parties, particularly the Congress.
Over the first five years, the Chinese have realized that lack of communication with Congress has led to a misreading of its intent.
China is keen on strengthening ties with the Nepali Congress. The Deuba-led government has reciprocated the gesture too, says foreign affairs expert Geja Sharma Wagle.
Jianchao also tried to give the impression that Beijing treats all parties equally during a dinner with some Congress leaders. Meanwhile, the Congress leaders conveyed to him that favoring certain political parties in Nepal would be counterproductive for China.
In response, the Chinese leader said that China gives equal importance to all political parties of Nepal. The senior CPC leader also conveyed to the NC his willingness to build party-to-party relations.
In a separate meeting with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, Jianchao categorically stated that China is willing to strengthen strategic communication with the Congress, promote mutually beneficial cooperation, and deepen exchanges and mutual learning on issues related to each other’s core interests and concerns.
As Beijing is set to reset ties with Nepal, some exchanges of visits are in the cards. Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka is likely to visit China soon, while some senior NC leaders could also land in Beijing in the near future.
Earlier, in March, a month after Nepal’s parliamentary endorsement of US $500m assistance under Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had come to Nepal. His visit was focused on growing American influence in Kathmandu and regional issues.
“The NC could emerge as a dominant political force after the upcoming parliamentary elections,” says Chandra Lal Giri, a researcher on Nepal-China relations at Research Center for Nepal and Asian Studies. “China is thus keen to revive cordial ties with the party.”
“The Congress is a permanent democratic force in Nepal, but China slowed down its engagement with the party after it was relegated to the opposition bench in 2018,” he says.
This created a perception inside the NC that China was ignoring them. China is trying to clear this misunderstanding.
The relationship between the NC and China soured due to the latter’s exclusive engagement with Nepali’s communist parties. Reports about border disputes in Humla district following the formation of Congress-led government did not help.
Beijing started seeing the Deuba government as pro-Western and continued to ignore the ruling democratic party. China’s policy of engaging exclusively with the communist parties of Nepal invited criticisms even from within the Chinese Communist Party.
But China enhancing its ties with the NC does not mean it now gives less importance to the agenda of left unity in Nepal.
China still wants to see communist parties of Nepal back in power, and to see them unite—but not at the cost of upsetting the NC.
In his private meetings with top communist leaders, sources say, Jianchao pushed for left unity. The Chinese leader had held one-on-one with Oli and Dahal following delegation-level meetings with Nepali leaders and officials.
He spent more than six hours with Oli and enquired about the possibility of unity or electoral alliance among left parties. If not party unity, China wants to see a coalition government of left parties in power.
Oli reportedly told Jianchao that the split in the NCP had nothing to do with him and that he has never opposed unification. He, however, added that he did not see left unity happening anytime soon.
Acharya, the former Nepali ambassador, says it is obvious that the visit’s main goal was to push for left unity.
This was also made clear by Chairman of Nepal Communist Party (Unified Socialist) Madhav Kumar Nepal, who told reporters that Jianchao stressed on unification among communist parties.
“The Chinese seek friendly and credible partners in Nepal and they feel more comfortable working with left parties,” Acharya said.
“China’s preference is a left-party led government in order to check growing American influence in its backyard,” says Giri, the researcher. “But the task of maintaining a balanced relationship with the NC and communist parties of Nepal is not an easy one. If China continues to push for left unity, the Congress will naturally continue to be suspicious.”
In his meetings with the Nepali leaders, Jianchao suggested maintaining unity among all political forces to preserve sovereignty and nationalism, a veiled reference to America’s growing influence in Nepal.
According to Acharya, even minor visits and activities of Americans in Kathmandu alarms Beijing these days.
China believes that the passage of the MCC compact could herald an era of greater American influence in Kathmandu.
During his Kathmandu visit, Jianchao also appreciated Nepal’s decision to refuse America’s State Partnership Program (SPP) through political consensus.
According to a Maoist leader, the Chinese leader’s message was that all parties should come together to “resist American pressure” in Kathmandu.
As always, China also raised the issue of security, only this time more seriously. Beijing fears that with the American influence in Kathmandu steadily on the rise, pro-Dalai Lama activities could increase.
On China's flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Jianchao requested the Nepali side to come up with a clear vision and plan based on political consensus.
Prime Minister Deuba reiterated his position that the country was in no position to accept loans to finance its development projects.
The Chinese side is also pressing Nepal to implement the agreements signed between the two countries during President Xi Jinping’s 2019 Nepal visit.
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