Following the monarchy’s ouster China started cultivating all major political actors in Nepal: Nepali Congress, the big communist parties, as well as the emergent Madhesi outfits. It had come to believe that in an unstable polity like Nepal’s, any of them could be running the show at any time. Yet when KP Oli sought China’s balancing role against India following the 2015-16 border blockade, Beijing saw an opportunity to benefit from the changing political equations in Nepal.
In the 2017 federal elections, the UML-Maoist coalition romped home to victory, partly as a result of Oli’s efforts to minimize Indian interference with China’s help. China continued to encourage the two largest communist parties to unify and the Nepal Communist Party was born. (The Chinese didn’t have the final say on this unity, but they did play an important role.)
As the NCP locked in government leadership for five years, the Chinese sought to train its leaders in ‘Xi Jinping thought’ and to vigorously push the BRI, Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative. China also leaned on the new communist government to reject the American MCC compact and to keep India, Uncle Sam’s new ‘poodle’, at arm’s length.
The internal power struggles in the ruling party put paid to China’s plans. After engaging in a futile, last-ditch effort to undo the NCP split, it has already started distributing its Nepali eggs in multiple baskets. Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba has been invited to attend CCP’s birthday bash next year. Feelers have been sent to the JSPN, the unified Madhesi party. Meanwhile, the Chinese will continue their efforts to unify Nepal’s communist forces.
The Chinese are reinventing diplomacy. With the help of their increased financial clout, they are building support among elites in every country they operate in. Top politicians, businesspersons, academics and journalists are invited on all-expenses-paid trips to China, and hosted like royalty. When these people get back to their country, they bring stories of modern China’s dazzling development, and emphasize on the need to follow China’s path.
In time, these elites, who are repeatedly invited to tour and learn from China, become its points of influence. Thus, today, China has powerful friends in every sector of the Nepali society—and across the political spectrum. The inducements on offer are just too good to resist.
Public opinion, the Chinese don’t much bother with. At least the Indians seem worried about ‘unfavorable’ public opinion in Nepal, as was evident during the blockade. Not so the Chinese leadership, which can give any domestic spin to events outside their borders. When it singled out The Kathmandu Post for censure last year, many thought China had committed a diplomatic faux pas. Yet intimidation was exactly the point. The message was that China under Xi wouldn’t be charitable to its vocal critics.
So, yes, China is helping us balance against India, but at what cost? What level of Chinese interests do we accommodate and still retain our democratic values?
Nepal cannot do without China, its all-powerful neighbor. But how do we import its developmental model while keeping its governing ideology out? And is there a way to minimize China’s influence on our elites, or to use this influence in our national interest?
Countries around the world are grappling with these questions in their dealings with China. Not so in Nepal. Our new, elitist foreign policy framework for one is predictably silent on this all-important issue.