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Making sense of China’s forceful diplomacy in Nepal

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Making sense of China’s forceful diplomacy in Nepal

Some see this as a reflection of China’s shift from quiet diplomacy to vocal diplomacy under President Xi Jinping

China’s strong opposition to the MCC compact was evident both before and after its parliamentary endorsement. The northern neighbor publicly blamed the US for engaging in ‘coercive diplomacy’ in Nepal, claiming that the $500 million grant came with ‘political strings attached.’

Before the endorsement, leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) had held a series of video-conferences with their Nepali counterparts, asking them not to endorse the compact from parliament. Beijing’s uncharacteristic statements on US-Nepal bilateral relations raised many eyebrows at home in Nepal as well as abroad.

So, does this signal a shift in China’s Nepal policy? Some see this as a reflection of China’s shift from quiet diplomacy to vocal diplomacy, something President Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, has championed. Foreign policy watchers note how China has become more aggressive and vocal everywhere, including in South Asia, on issues related to America and India.   

Harsh V. Pant, Professor of International Relations at King's College London, says Chinese are now more explicit in expressing their preferences. “We see the famous Wolf Warrior diplomacy of China everywhere—if they do not like something, they openly express it, their diplomats are now more expressive, and they push back against anyone who is critical of them even in social media,” says Pant.

Take Bangladesh, where the Chinese have also become more vocal than before. In 2021, some Bangladeshi media outlets reported that the South Asian country was mulling joining the US-led QUAD. China’s Ambassador in Dhaka Li Jiming responded by saying such a move would entail “substantial damage” to bilateral relations.

Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul objected to the statement, terming it unfortunate and aggressive, and reminding China that Bangladesh is capable of taking its own decisions.

Similarly, Chinese officials have become vocal in other South Asian countries such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka when it comes to denouncing the US and India.

According to Amit Ranjan, a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, an autonomous research body at the National University of Singapore, the Chinese feared that the endorsement of the MCC Nepal Compact would help increase American footprint in the Himalayas. Ranjan argues that Beijing was confident that it could prevent the compact’s parliamentary passage. “Only when it became clear that the parliament would endorse it did they start becoming more vocal,” he says.

Ranjan says China adopts different approaches in different countries and so it is hard to arrive at a sweeping judgment of its diplomacy. China is trying to regain its lost space in the Maldives, and it is trying to assert itself in Sri Lanka. In Nepal and Bangladesh, it is increasingly competing against India and the US.

Though China has been adopting aggressive and explicit postures everywhere, Nepal remains a test case due to its strong communist parties with robust links with the CPC. “In other South Asia countries, communist parties enjoy little actual influence. Not so in Nepal. China sees an opportunity to influence Nepal’s political system by using the country’s vast communist network,” Pant says.

Another emerging trend in Chinese diplomacy, according to him, is their greater involvement in the domestic politics of other countries.

Returning to the MCC compact, China’s strong opposition also suggests growing geopolitical competition with America and Nepal’s slow progress on China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), say experts. “For the first time, they actually see real competition to the BRI in Nepal,” Pant says.

Nepal signed up with the MCC and BRI in the same year (2017). But Nepal is yet to select specific projects under the initiative. Increasingly, America, Indian, and western-country representatives are fretting about growing Chinese investments in Nepal. In private meetings with Nepali politicians and bureaucrats, they like to give the example of Sri Lanka, cautioning Nepal on ‘debt trap.’

China sees this as a part of a wider pattern in South Asia, all aimed at encircling it. Writing in Global Times, Li Tao of the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, argues that the US is trying to use the MCC compact to make Nepal an important part of Washington and New Delhi's anti-China coalition.

She says Nepal’s decision to endorse MCC will have political, diplomatic, and economic consequences. “Diplomatically, Nepal will be forced to change its “equidistance” policy with China and India. Nepal, moreover, will now have to get involved in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, and there is a risk of the country being used to contain China's development.” For Li, the American intention is clear enough: to obstruct the BRI in South Asia and to undermine the security and stability of China’s southwestern frontier.

On February 23, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying termed the MCC compact ‘Pandora’s Box’. On March 7, a China Daily editorial warned of serious consequences should “any part of the compact be used against neighboring China”. It further advised Nepal to stay out of “the US' geopolitical games”.

Pramod Jaiswal, Research Director at Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement, a Kathmandu-based foreign policy think-tank, says the Chinese were not bothered about the MCC compact before American officials linked it to the IPS.

“The MCC compact itself is not a big issue for China as it only relates to roads and transmission lines,” Jaiswal adds. “What the Chinese fear is Nepal tilting more towards America and also ultimately joining the IPS, a fear that has made them more vocal.”

To counter growing American and Indian influence, China has adopted a new approach in South Asia. The trend is of engaging small South Asian countries collectively, side-by-side the old bilateral engagements.

Soon after becoming Chinese president, President Xi had in 2013 directed his Foreign Ministry to develop new political, economic, and security cooperation policies to tie the neighboring countries to China more closely.

In 2020 and 2021, China held collective meetings with South Asian countries, in what some see as Chinese efforts to create a sub-regional body under its leadership.

On 8 July 2021 the China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center was launched in Chongqing City in the presence of resident ambassadors of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. China also held collective discussions with the same countries on Covid-19.