Acting US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia David J Ranz’s Nepal visit was part of recent American efforts to ‘explain’ to Nepalis the much-hyped Indo-Pacific Strategy. To this end, senior American officials have been regularly visiting Kathmandu. The process of Nepali scholars and journalists being ferried to the US for the same purpose has also begun. Separately, while Ranz was in Nepal, Shambhu Kattel reported in Annapurna Post of the third joint ‘anti-terrorism’ military drills between Nepal and China, planned for August-September.
These two seemingly unrelated events have many common threads. The Americans, who see Nepal playing a ‘central role’ in the Indo-Pacific, want to minimize Nepal’s participation in the BRI. They are loath to see China’s growing activism in what they have traditionally viewed as the perfect outpost from which to monitor the communist China’s rise. Nepal’s joint anti-terrorism military drills with China trouble them. The Indians too have never gotten over how Nepal, a keen participant in Chinese military exercises, ditched the India-led BIMSTEC military anti-terrorism drills in Pune last year.
The Indians and the Americans have many differences over how they view South Asia. But they also know that only by working together can they check China’s expanding presence here—the joint military drills with Nepal the perfect manifestation of this presence. Both India and the US have repeatedly objected to Nepal’s military exercises with China. Under pressure, the then Army Chief Rajendra Chhetri had even assured the Americans that he would not allow the exercises to go ahead—only to be overridden by his political masters.
But why is the focus of Nepal-China military drills the loaded concept of ‘anti-terrorism’? Those in the know say the Chinese pushed for anti-terror drills for two reasons: one, it would send a clear message to the Indians and Americans that China has a lot of clout in Nepal; and two, China wanted to draw the world’s attention to Uighur ‘extremism’ in Xinjiang and its ‘success’ in controlling it: If the Americans can have terrorist correction facilities why can’t the Chinese have similar re-education camps of their own?
A recent editorial in the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times was instructive: “New Zealand and Sri Lanka have recently suffered religious massacres. Xinjiang, in turn, has been shielded from the flow of international terrorism and extremism. The international opinion will gradually turn in favor of Xinjiang governance.” The larger goal is to convince the international community that the Uighur extremism in Xinjiang, if left uncontrolled, could lead to another New Zealand or Sri Lanka.
The implicit message of Ranz when he talked to Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa about Nepal needing to crack down on terrorism—including by installing the American PIECES border control database system at the TIA—is that western help is essential for Nepal to keep the ‘scheming Chinese’ in check. Rest assured: In the face of this heightened American concern in Nepal, the Chinese are not sitting quietly either