All is not well between China and KP Oli. The Nepali prime minister is miffed by the Chinese insistence of late that he should rather resign than cause a split in the ruling Nepal Communist Party. Nor are the Chinese all that pleased with Oli, who, they feel, isn’t doing enough to push BRI projects in Nepal. Oli’s off-the-cuff readiness to split the NCP, which China helped come into being and in which it has invested so much, also irks the northern neighbor.
Cornered in his own party and with the outside power that hoisted him to the PM’s chair displeased, Oli has chosen a familiar tactic: ship-jumping. Until the new constitution’s promulgation in 2015, Oli was among New Delhi’s most trusted henchmen in Kathmandu. But when he saw his fortune lay in opposing Indian highhandedness over the Nepali constitutional process, he swiftly ditched his old allegiance. Overnight, he turned into an ardent advocate of cultivating China as a balancing power against India. This anti-India stand paid him handsomely in the 2017 federal elections.
He is now trying to reach out to his old contacts in New Delhi, sending feelers of his readiness to bury the hatchet. The recent spate of high-level Nepal visits of top Indian officials—and some covert trips the other way—suggests the same. In other words, Oli is seeking India’s help to prolong his tenure in power. In doing so, he has, among other stuff, promised not to needle India over border issues again.
In the weeks and months ahead, he will try to convince the Indians that he is remorseful of his past pro-China stand and ready to make amends. The new message will be that India has to back him politically if it wants to check growing Chinese influence in Nepal. New Delhi seems to be taking heed and again appears ready to give him a second chance, largely for the lack of a batter alternative given the balance of power in Kathmandu. If Oli digs in and splits his party, so much the better. In the Indian eye the NCP is a Chinese construct and its disappearance would again give India a chance to play kingmaker in Kathmandu. Standing in the way is China.
Given the enormous Chinese leverage inside the NCP, it won’t be easy for Oli to split it and still retain majority support within the party. Nor will a sudden switch to India be a cakewalk. But Oli’s goal is not long-term survival. He is more minded to keep his government intact for a bit over the next two years that remains in his term. Oli will deal with the next political hurdle when he gets to it.
Amid the flurry of high-level visits between Nepal and India, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe is coming to Kathmandu as well, signaling that China won’t allow India to regain its dominant role in Nepal easily, not the least because it is seen as doing US bidding here. China under Xi Jinping is a beast on the prowl. Gone are the days when it reluctantly allowed India the upper hand in Nepal.
Talks of increasing geopolitical competition on Nepali soil have become such clichés. But Nepal appears poised for a rare post-monarchy no-hold-barred open tussle between India and China for sway. India reckons it can regain its lost clout and is counting on American support for the same. China, now under an imperious leader who has set his sights on South Asia, is in no mood to back down either.