The big-power rivalry in Nepal is getting curiouser and curiouser. India imposed a crippling blockade on the landlocked country for its reservations over Nepal’s new constitution. Gasping for life, the country and the then KP Oli government naturally turned to China, Nepal’s only other immediate neighbor. He went there in 2016 and signed many vital agreements, most importantly the Trade and Transit Treaty and a deal to import a third of Nepal’s oil from the northern neighbor. The goal was to forestall another blockade-like situation at all cost. His policy of ‘diversifying’ away from India paid electoral dividends— and at long last led to Xi Jinping’s Nepal visit. The Indians are worried. What does the growing Chinese presence in Nepal mean? Does it pose a direct threat to Nepali democracy? Does it spell an end to its traditionally dominant role? India and China have seldom cooperated for the benefit of third countries in the region, and it would be naïve to expect them to do so now, never mind Wuhan or Malappuram.
There is also a perception in Delhi that the common ideology of the ruling parties in Nepal and China helps bring the two countries closer. “India does not seem to have any effective ideas to meet this massive Chinese cultural, ideological and political challenge,” writes SD Muni, an old Nepal hand in India for The Quint.
Ashok Mehta, a retired general of the Indian Army and another Nepal expert, believes it is more a case of Nepal being “somewhat fearful of China and doing things after receiving some signal from Beijing.” Yet most Indian analysts also seem quietly confident that Nepal is trying in vain to overcome the hard constraints of geography.
After the formation of the two-third communist government last year, Nepal has been more assertive in its foreign policy conduct under the new slogan “amity with all, enmity with none”.Mainly, the government is trying to strike a balance among three major powers—India, China and the US—while also reaching out to key development partners. Balancing the three powerhouses, which sometimes have conflicting interests, has proven to be a Herculean task. In particular, Nepal faces the challenge of simultaneously handling the American Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Adding to Nepal’s challenge is the growing perception in India and the US that the communist government is steadily tilting toward China.
Despite claims to the contrary, the Americans and the Chinese have introduced the IPS and the BRI respectively in order to augment one’s own clout and contain the other. India, meanwhile, has been maintaining a low profile in Nepal amid the Sino-American rivalry. Although the IPS projects India as a strategic partner, the latter’s position on the American strategy remains unclear.
Growing Chinese influence in South Asia has long been a concern for India. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Nepal, a first by a Chinese president in over two decades, must have added to the worry. Xi sent a clear message that China would help Nepal realize its dream of transforming itself from a ‘land-locked’ to a ‘land-linked’ country. Since the Indian blockade of 2015-16, Nepal has adopted a policy of diversifying its trade and transit options. Xi’s visit and the agreements on connectivity projects he signed in Kathmandu have given a boost to the policy.
India has not issued an official statement on Xi’s trip to Nepal; Indian officials in Kathmandu maintain that they are still evaluating the broader implications of the visit. But comments from former diplomats, foreign policy commentators and media practitioners suggest that New Delhi is wary of the growing Chinese footprint in Nepal. Indian government officials, however, have been downplaying the import of Xi’s trip and making routine statements that there is nothing out of the ordinary about such visits and India has no reason to be bothered.
Such statements notwithstanding, India has had reservations over Nepal’s decision to join the BRI. India also expressed displeasure with Nepali officials when Nepal and China began their first ever military drill in 2017. India is not happy with their growing military ties and says that the Indian and Nepali armies enjoy an unparalleled special relationship.
Following the Indian blockade, Nepal signed a transit and transport treaty with China, ending its supply system’s total dependence on India. The protocol to the treaty has been finalized, and both countries are working to enhance rail and road connectivity in order to implement the agreement. New Delhi has felt uneasy over the proposed infrastructures such as railways, roads and tunnels.
Imran Khan and KP Oli
Nihar R. Nayak, a research fellow with IDSA, a New Delhi-based think tank, says, “It is a bilateral visit concerning Nepal and China, so there is nothing much for India to comment on. Elevating comprehensive partnership to strategic partnership is the only phrase that India could have concern with.” But he adds that India expects Nepal to address its core issues while making agreements with other countries, be it China or the US.
What are those core issues though? “India’s genuine security interest in Nepal, including the perils of terrorism; big infrastructures built by third countries in Nepal and their implications; and possible threats and challenges to multi-party democracy in Nepal,” replies Nayak. Two other vital Indian concerns, according to him, are the protection and smooth functioning of Indian projects in Nepal and adverse climatic impact in Nepal’s Himalayas.
“Xi Jinping is free to visit any country. But if he invites Imran Khan just before he comes to India for an informal summit and visits Nepal just after, people will read meaning into it,” said Ashok Malik, a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, in a recent interview with NDTV.
“As Xi and Oli discuss the CNEC [China-Nepal Economic Corridor], the elephant in the room is PM Modi. It is no secret that Delhi is wary of China’s infrastructure projects in Nepal. On its part, Beijing has often suggested that India must be part of the CNEC; for many projects will not be commercially viable without India’s participation,” wrote C. Raja Mohan, Director at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, for The Indian Express on October 13.
There is also a perception in Delhi that the common ideology of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) helps bring the two countries closer. Stating that China has posed cultural, ideological and political challenge to Nepal, SD Muni, an expert in Nepal-India relations, writes in a recent article for The Quint: “There is a degree of complacency at the strategic level in India that in the long run, the Chinese cultural push will not last—Chinese language is difficult to inculcate, and Chinese values and lifestyles are alien to the Nepalese. And even if this view stands validated, enough damage might be done by then to India’s vital interests in Nepal.”
Muni adds, “India does not seem to have any effective ideas to meet this massive Chinese cultural, ideological and political challenge. It is still licking its wounds caused by the most grotesque political intervention in Constitutional affairs in 2015.”
Plus or minus
China has proposed new formulas to mitigate Indian concerns over big infrastructure projects. For instance, it first came up with a proposal of trilateral cooperation, which did not materialize. Last year, China put forward a new proposal of ‘China-India Plus’ cooperation, which entails consulting each other before launching big projects in small South Asian countries. Though India has not reacted to it, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, soon after Xi’s visit to India and Nepal, said that Modi and Xi discussed ‘China-India Plus’ cooperation.
“The two leaders also agreed to expand ‘China-India Plus’ cooperation, push forward facilitation of regional inter-connectivity, and work with other related parties to strike the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement as early as possible,” Xinhua news agency quoted Wang as saying at a media briefing.
Pramod Jaiswal, Senior Fellow with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, another New Delhi-based think tank, tells APEX that there is little India can do to counter Chinese influence in Nepal. “China’s rise has opened up new space in all South Asian countries. But in Nepal, India has also given additional scope to China through its flawed policies and failed diplomacy.” The best India can do, he adds, is complete with China “with better projects, bigger grants and smoother implementation of development programs.”
Interview with Ashok Mehta, a retired general of the Indian Army
Nepal’s vital infra projects in China’s hands
How did you view Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Nepal?
The visit had been pending since 2014. We had been hearing different reports that Xi was not happy with the preparations for his trip or that he was not visiting Nepal. Finally, he visited Nepal and conveyed a big message. In my understanding, no foreign leader has had the impact that Xi did during his two-day state visit. When Indian Prime Minister Modi went to Nepal for the first time in 2014, it was billed as landmark. Modi also won the hearts and minds of the Nepali people.
Preparations for Xi’s visit were taking place for a long time. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi went to Kathmandu a month ago. A delegation of the Chinese Communist Party had also visited Nepal. And a seminar on Xi’s political thought was recently held in Kathmadu.
Before his visit, Xi himself wrote an article that was published in private and government newspapers. He went to Nepal with a new blueprint for bilateral relations. He said China would help Nepal become ‘land-linked’ instead of ‘land-locked’. He talked about the Nepal-China Economic Corridor under the Trans Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity.
The visit was the outcome of well-thought-out preparations. Its timing was also significant. Currently, Nepal has a communist government with a big majority in the parliament. In this context, the visit by the paramount leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is a turning point in Nepal’s history.
What did you think of the agreements signed during Xi’s visit?
The agreements do not have much substance as there are no deliverables. The financial assistance, however, is important. There have been agreements to conduct feasibility studies of some connectivity projects, which are significant. But until and unless India gets involved in such vital connectivity projects, China will not invest its money and tech-nology. There is no economic benefit in extending the railway line up to Lumbini, because the flow of tourists only would not sustain it. The main target of the railway line is obviously India’s market. Nepal has always wanted to be a bridge between its northern and southern neighbors. When Baburam Bhattarai was the prime minister, he pushed the concept of trilateral coopera-tion. However, India’s focus is on continuing and enhancing bilateral cooperation because it thinks of itself as the dominant power in South Asia. As far as the economic corridor is concerned, it would gain signifi-cance if India joins it. India-China relationship is tense at the moment and it is poised to remain so for long. Therefore, the feasibility study of China-Nepal-India economic corridor is challenging. Billions of rupees are required for the construction of roads and railway lines.
How do you evaluate the current state of Nepal-India and Nepal China relations?
The two cannot be compared because Nepal and India share an open border, whereas the Nepal China border is a closed one. Nepal and India also enjoy close military cooperation. China, with a closed border with Nepal, cannot demand the same type of relations that India has with Nepal. There may be flaws in the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty of Peace and Friendship, but the fact remains that the two countries share an open border. There is frequent movement of people, one lakh Nepalis are currently employed in the Indian security forces and two lakhs of them receive pensions. In terms of geography too, the major Chinese population hubs are much farther from Nepal than are Indian population hubs. With some caution I would say that Nepal fears China. Nepal frequently says Taiwan is part of China, it keeps reaffirming the one-China policy, it strictly curbs anti-China activities, it closes the office of the Dalai Lama, and bars the celebration of his birth-day. All these indicate that Nepal is somewhat fearful of China and does things after receiving some signal from Beijing. Now that Nepal has a communist majority government, there is more pressure than in the past. But China is giving more devel-opment assistance to Nepal as well.
How can India minimize China’s influence on Nepal?
India should focus on completing its development projects in Nepal on time. All its works, be it the Rax-aul- Kathmandu railway line or any other development project, should be of high quality. However, major development projects are already in China’s hands. Nepal is handing over projects to build airports, roads and hydropower plants to China. China-Nepal eco-nomic corridor is under construc-tion. The letter of exchange men-tions investment in infrastructure and hydropower projects. In the past, there was no such focus. Now China is constructing transmission lines in Nepal.
Are you suggesting that Nepal is already in China’s fold?
We cannot say that. My analysis is based on the current political situation in Nepal. What type of political equation emerges in the future cannot be predicted.
(Our India correspondent Asha Thapaliya talked to Mehta in Delhi)