In the first part of this article, I discussed the different Chinese goals in Nepal and how China has been steadily increasing its foothold. The second part here will deal with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ties with the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), Chinese soft power, the India factor, and dangers of the communist China.
Growing proximity with NCP and increasing strategic space
The Chinese are believed to have come closer to the Nepali Maoists after the latter emerged as the largest political party in the first Constitution Assembly election in April 2008. Prior to that, during the Maoist insurgency, China most did not lend the Nepali Maoists any material or moral support, even as the Maoists claimed to be inspired by Chairman Mao. China rather suspected the Maoists of trying to defame the name of the revered chairman at the instigation of foreign powers. The fact that they provided arms and ammunitions to Nepal Army at the request of then King Gyanendra in 2005, to be used against Maoist rebels, when India, the US and the UK, the traditional suppliers of arms, had stopped the supply citing human rights violations, tells a lot about what the Chinese thought about Nepali Maoists.
The Maoists participated in a joint struggle with then Seven Party Alliance (SPA) against King Gyanedra's direct rule during the Second Popular Movement and came to the peace process after its success. In the election of the first Constitution Assembly in April 2008, they emerged as the largest political party, pushing other two influential parties, Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, into distant second and third positions. Only after that did China reach out to the Maoists in the country’s 'state to state' relation module. The 'ideological common ground' could have brought them close as well. Though the Maoist leadership spent most of their insurgency days on Indian soil and held important meetings there, because of their ideological orientation and the way they trained their cadres on anti-Indian sentiment, it was no surprise that the Maoists developed sympathies for China.
During this time, China might have realized that it could have a trustworthy and reliable friend in Nepal's communists. In the first Constitution Assembly elections, the Maoists got about 30 percent votes and CPN-UML about 21 percent. Coming to the second Constitution Assembly elections, the Maoists were pushed to third position with about 17 percent (average of FPTP and proportional) votes, while the largest party Nepali Congress got about 30 percent and the UML about 25 percent (average votes again). In the last parliamentary elections in 2017, where UML and Maoists fought elections by forming an alliance, the former got about 30 percent votes while the latter got about 15 percent. With the alliance, their representation in HoR was far higher, 174 seats, when the main opposition Nepali Congress could have only 63 members even though it got about 33 percent votes. When the votes of all communist parties were combined, it came to around half of total votes in the elections. With this realization, China seems to have reached out to Nepali communists.
China has developed such good relations with Nepali communist leaders that hundreds of Nepali students have been studying in China at their recommendations. Political leaders are also accused of receiving resources for various foundations they run. China in the past maintained good relations with almost all major parties in Nepal but in last decade, relations between the CPC and erstwhile parties that united to form NCP has been so intense that they have even been organizing joint symposiums and meetings; Chinese ambassador uses her 'good offices' to unite communists of Nepal or mediate conflict between them.
Later, almost throughout 2020, when the ruling NCP factions were having serious conflicts, China's current ambassador Hou Yanqi played an active and overt role, probably with the intent of giving a loud and clear message that China had arrived as a big player in Nepal. She was thus often criticized by Nepali media, opposition parties and even members of the ruling NCP. Nepali media refrain from criticizing China. News and views about China usually pass serious scrutiny before they are published because Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu tries to make sure that 'detractors with ulterior motives' do not use mainstream media. Responsible mainstream media in Nepal have been respectful of China's sensitivities.
On April 27 Chinese President Xi Jinping talked to his Nepali counterpart Bidhya Devi Bhandari over the phone for about 40 minutes. The talk, according to official statements from the two countries, focused on supporting Nepal in its fight against Covid-19 and other issues of bilateral interests such as the BRI and China's developmental assistance. As this happened when the conflict in the NCP was at its peak, many analysts and media outlets at the time speculated that President Xi had probably conveyed a message of truce between the feuding sides. Pushpa Kamal Dahal faction suddenly backtracked from a dispute with PM Oli after the telephone conversation, making some in Nepal suspect he abided by Xi's suggestion conveyed to him via President Bhandari. Though the constitution of Nepal envisioned the President as a ceremonial figure and a symbol of unity, President Bhandari has not hesitated from playing an active role in the ruling NCP, to either keep it united or for the benefit of the Oli faction with whom she has very good political ties. She has been severely criticized by the media, analysts and political parties, including some within the NCP, but she seems undeterred. Oli and his group in the party were instrumental in the two-time election of Bhandari as Nepal’s President.
Other incidents also indicate growing strategic proximity between the CPC and the NCP. A two-day symposium on 'Xi Jinping Thought' was organized between the two in September 2019 where the Chief of International Liaison Department of CPC Song Tao and other CPC officials imparted training to around 200 NCP leaders. According to news reports, issues of party discipline, strengthening inter-party ties and jointly executing the BRI were discussed. Though this was justified as an attempt to make Xi happy and to make his planned Nepal visit possible (which latter happened on October 12 and 13, 2019), the parties in opposition and sections of media criticized the symposium as ‘undesirable’ because of the differing political systems in Nepal and China.
Third, at that virtual meeting, Dahal committed that Nepal would decline assistance considered detrimental to its and its neighbor's security. He was referring to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) pact with the US, which China dislikes and some leftist groups in Nepal are resolutely opposed to. Oli is thought to have opted for dissolution of the House of Representatives after feeling China favored Dahal instead over him as Oli was for accepting the MCC assistance. The $55 million grant to Nepal has been pulled into controversy mainly by Nepal's leftists and especially those who protect China's interests in Nepal. Rumors have been spread about the MCC being a part of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy that is aimed at containing China. The propaganda has gone to the extent of portraying the MCC as anti-national and strengthening US presence in Nepal. Even general people have developed negative views about the MCC based on such rumors.
Besides using its influence in the NCP, China has also used its soft power in Nepal rather effectively.
Their kind of soft power
In international discourses on soft power, China is said to have little of it, unlike its economic and military power. According to Western scholars’ definitions of soft power, politics (read: democratic system), culture, economy, movies, language, universities, etc are primary sources of soft power and China, due to its 'lack of democracy' and freedom of expression, does not have a political culture worth emulating. Chinese experts however refute these western standards. They say culture should be the primary source of soft power and take pride in having a culture developed over 5,000 years.
International Relations scholars have said that political systems, culture, educational institutions and value systems don’t comprise soft power unless they can influence policy decisions. If the efficacy of soft power is measured in terms of influence on policy decisions and formation of positive public opinion about a particular country, China has been rather effective in using soft power in Nepal for several reasons.
First, China has traditionally cultivated an image of a great power that does not interfere in Nepal's internal affairs but assists the country’s development almost unconditionally. It is viewed as disinterested, benign, benevolent and credible developmental partner. This image of China has been formed over seven decades, and China has benefitted from such public perception.
Second, the India factor continues to bolster China’s positive image in Nepal in an interesting way. Nepal and India, two close neighbors with open borders and interactions at multiple levels, do not always have smooth relations. They have more frictions as they have more interactions. Moreover, Indian highhandedness in Nepal's internal affairs in the past has at times pushed Nepali elites to move closer to China.
Third, after the restoration of democracy in 1990, the number of communist parties and voters in Nepal gradually increased. In past elections of the lower house of Nepali parliament, communists got almost 50 percent popular votes. In the past their popular votes could not translate into parliamentary majority as they were divided. But the pre-poll alliance between the then UML and Maoist Center got over 45 percent votes for these parties and their majorities translated into almost two-thirds of total seats in the lower house. Though almost all these parties are communists only nominally, their indoctrination and socialization with various communist jargons seem to make them always ready to fight 'bourgeoisie and feudal' elements on the domestic front and more sympathetic to China. But they are usually hostile to 'imperialist US' and 'expansionist India'.
Fourth, China has also been successful in influencing Nepali opinion-makers. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, big groups of Nepali journalists visited China every month with the sponsorship of Chinese agencies. Those who got great hospitality in China didn’t dare to write critically about it. Nepali editors rarely prevent journalists from going on sponsored foreign trips or inquire about the sponsors or the impact of such trips on those journalists’ writings and reports. Editors of mainstream Nepali media are also very sensitive about China. This may not be the case in news about liberal democracies, which are freely criticized. But news and views about China pass through great scrutiny before they are published. This gatekeeping is the result of frequent interactions between Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu and editors of mainstream media.
Fifth, our intellectuals, opinion writers and analysts rarely write critically about China. With few exceptions, scholars who get higher education in China, for reasons that are difficult to understand, rarely criticize China, its foreign policy or any aspect of Nepal-China relations. People who got their higher education from democratic countries do not shy from criticizing their earlier host countries though.
China also provides generous funds to scholars working in opinion-making positions. China has been able to use these intellectuals to not only highlight positive aspects of China and Nepal-China relations but also to criticize China's competitors in Nepal. For example, a few months ago, I asked a Nepali writer about why he wrote about China's response to Covid-19 pandemic with such appreciation in the Chinese media. 'Otherwise they do not publish,' pat came his reply. The temptation to get published in Chinese media or academic publications probably bars Nepali scholars from being objective and forces them to self-censor.
China has invested heavily in intellectuals and students in opinion making positions in universities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that call themselves think tanks. China provides scholarships to students on long- and short-term courses and to other professionals on the recommendation of political leaders and close Chinese confidants in Nepal. China offers scholarships not only in medicine, engineering and other science courses but also in humanities and social sciences, law and even media. Lately, China has been providing hundreds of BRI scholarships and fellowships to Nepali students and scholars. This has ensured that positive news and opinions about China are routinely written and published in mainstream Nepali newspapers and other media outlets.
China is not solely to be blamed though. Nepal government does not believe in spending in research and development and engaging intellectuals with expertise in different areas. Limited number of universities, the few research centers in those universities and a handful of government think tanks cannot engage scholars with various expertise, ideologies and inclinations. Therefore, intellectuals in search of greener pastures are forced to work in projects funded by foreign donors. In the long run, most of them end up being loyal to the country that funds their organization, for the security of their jobs and livelihoods. There are dangerous repercussions of this seemingly simple phenomenon. Our government-funded think tanks and universities hardly have a role in shaping discourses. Most are limited to giving jobs to people loyal to political leaders. Vibrant and government funded think tanks, research centers and universities would engage scholars of all ideological inclinations, enriching and enabling the state. But the Nepali state has failed to appreciate this.
There are some intellectuals who speak critically of China. But the problem with many of them is that they speak for their 'donors', not from the standpoint of Nepal's national interest. This too is undesirable and dangerous for the reasons already discussed.
The India factor: Elephant in the room
There are many important considerations in Nepal-China relations and one of the most important is India. For many reasons India occupies a lion's share in Nepal's strategic thinking, whether on Nepal's foreign relations or domestic developments. Many people, especially those who naively believe in idealism or those unaware of the present world-order, find it inappropriate and unnecessary to talk about India when discussing Nepal-China relations.
The multifaceted Nepal-India relations include political, cultural, social, and religious spheres. The two countries had open borders much before countries in the European Union did. Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis and Indians work in each other's countries. For example, according to a commentary by Vikrant Deshpande available on the website of India's Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, around 40,000 Nepali and Indian Gorkhas serve in the Indian Army, and around 90,000 Gorkhas in Nepal receive their pensions from India. Of the 40,000 Gorkhas, about 32,000 are Nepali citizens. Nepal's relation with China or with any other power is not as multilayered. Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis and Indians crossed the borders even during the pandemic, first to go to their homes and to latter to go back to their workplace. There are innumerable links between Nepal and India, which will be difficult to undo even if the hostility between the two countries intensifies.
India considers the Himalayas as its natural and magnificent barrier with China. After China assumed direct control of Tibet in 1950-51, India portrayed Nepal and Bhutan (and then Sikkim) as its buffers with China. Before that, British India and independent India both considered the vast territory of Tibet as a buffer between the two countries. Based on these colonial geo-political perspectives of security, India considers Nepal and Bhutan as lying within its security perimeter and sphere of influence. This view that independent India inherited from British India and its narrow interpretation made India take active interest in Nepal's internal developments.
For these reasons, India has been instrumental in almost all political developments in Nepal. It played an important role in Nepal's struggle for democracy before 1951, then most probably in King Mahendra's takeover from democratically elected government in 1960, then in the restoration of democracy in 1990, and again in the signing of the 2005 agreement between then Seven Party alliance and CPN (Maoist) in New Delhi. India has also been accused of trying to 'micromanage Nepal. Nepali politicians, scholars and general population probably would not have been in favor of balancing India with China had India had displayed such an overbearing attitude time and again.
India's deep engagement in Nepal has been made possible not just because of India's interest. Many endogenous factors have also dragged India into Nepal's internal affairs and widened the space for it to play. Nepali political groups and elites have a tendency of asking for India’s help when necessary, but then resorting to demonizing it to prove their nationalist credentials.
For example, before 1951, King Tribhuvan took refuge in India and the forces struggling against Ranas also took shelter there too. Hence, Nepali Congress, King Tribhuvan and Ranas accepted India's mediation in signing a tripartite agreement that led to the establishment of democracy in Nepal in 1951. From that time, Nepali political actors have been seeking India's support/recognition. India was home to many dissidents in exile including Nepali communists who were fighting for democracy during the Panchayat era. Again, in 1990, those fighting for democracy sought India's support by inviting it into Nepal's internal affairs.
During the 10-year-long Maoist insurgency, most Maoist leaders used India as a shelter and many of their decisive meetings were held there. India's role was also sought during the signing of the 12-point agreement between the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists in November 2005 in New Delhi, in preparation for the second popular movement.
Nepal trying to move uncomfortably close to China should be a lesson for India that too much interest in its internal affairs antagonizes Nepal and pushes it away. India should respect Nepal's sovereignty and assist wholeheartedly in its developmental and democratization efforts. Even if it wants to be reckoned as a regional power, it has to have a cooperative rather than a coercive approach. It is difficult to understand why Independent India has been unable to come up with 'win-win' approaches despite having so many good universities, think tanks and non-governmental research centers.
Nepali elites have welcomed and lauded India's role whenever it has served their purpose but been critical of it when India acted against their personal or group interests. With only a few exceptions, Nepali elites have not only welcomed but also compelled foreign forces into intervening or speaking about Nepal's internal affairs when it benefitted them. Such is also the case with China. Chinese interests alone would not have created such a big space for them so soon. Had Nepali elites, especially in the communist parties, not welcomed China's role, China probably would have limited its presence here.
India and the US, and other powers that have had significant say in Nepal, are uncomfortable with China's rising influence in Nepal at their expense. The more China is drawn into Nepal, the more the probability of disproportionate response from other powers. Though factional NCP rivalry is the main endogenous cause for parliament dissolution, the power-game between the India and the US on one hand and China on the other is widely believed to be the main exogenous one. The zero-sum approach between these great powers can bring great dangers to Nepal.
Nepal and Bhutan may be the last places where India would be willing to give up its influence due to reasons discussed above. Nepal shares an open border with Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. In a way, Nepal's Tarai and India's 'heartlands' of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are contiguous geographical regions with a lot of interactions between people on either side. Strong Chinese presence in Nepal will hence be unacceptable for India. Besides, India has multiple interests and leverages in Nepal. China's strong presence may invite strong reactions from India too. As India has great strategic penetration in Nepal it might not hesitate to use those leverages.
Even the US, the global superpower, which is actively trying to contain China in the global political theater, would be uncomfortable with the expansion of China's influence in Nepal, at the cost of India, its QUAD partner. The controversy over the MCC might only be the tip of iceberg of the budding geopolitical rivalry in Nepal. The country could thus be turned into a dangerous geopolitical battlefield. Some intellectuals have already started expressing their fear about it.
Political uncertainty after the recent dissolution of parliament has given rise to a grim situation. Foreign experts often call Kathmandu not only the capital of Nepal but also a capital of conspiracies, where conspiracy theories are constantly manufactured and spread. The prospect of Nepal turning into a geopolitical battlefield might sound like just another conspiracy theory but the way great powers of the world are being drawn here does not bode well.
China used to be praised as a good and trustworthy friend until a decade ago. But given China's proactive role in the NCP and in management of Nepal's internal affairs, Nepali mainstream media have started opposing China's highhandedness. Nepali media and intellectuals may end up criticizing China the way they do India's overbearing attitude. Moreover, as discussed above, China can never substitute India in Nepal, at least for a few decades. Though Nepal and China signed the historic Agreement on Transit Transport during Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli's 2016 China visit, due to lack of infrastructure, great distance of Chinese ports, and geographical and language barriers, China can never be India’s alternative for Nepal. China should exercise restraint as an unstable Nepal will be in the interest of neither China nor India.
China’s proactive role may cause severe instability in Nepal. China will thus have to resist the request of myopic Nepali politicians or friendly intellectuals for its greater role in Nepal. From Mao to Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao, Chinese politicians advised Nepal to have good relations with India, as they believed China could not be India's substitute for Nepal. They exercised restraint when Nepali politicians asked for greater Chinese role to balance India's. China would do well to keep following that wisdom. In the longer run, Nepal must try to reduce the engagement of India, the US and other powers in its internal affairs. But, immediately, it is China's aggressive posture that has put Nepal into a spot of bother.
Besides the possibility of dangerous geo-political fallouts, there are other undesirable consequences of China's overt role in Nepal's internal affairs. Elements within the NCP believe the communist revolution in Nepal, armed or unarmed, is incomplete. They say Nepal has not reached a stage from where socialism can be achieved, and that multiparty democracy is the root cause of many of Nepal’s problems. The elites of communist parties have comfortable lifestyles and many have developed 'feudal' and 'capitalist' ways and tastes. They have their children educated and settled in the US, the UK, and Australia, the countries they denounce as capitalists, imperialists and neocolonialists. In the past couple of decades, children of some of these leaders have started going to study in China under various scholarship schemes.
Communist leaders are trapped in an irony. Due to Nepal's geopolitical compulsions, the kind of communist regime they want will never materialize. Nor can Nepal be another China. Any such effort will only turn us into geopolitical battlegrounds. Geopolitical battles can be merciless for weak and small states straddling geopolitical fault-lines. We Nepalis and as well as our namesake communists must know our limits.
China's strategic proximity with the NCP has alienated other political parties like Nepali Congress, Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal and other fringe parties. Congress leaders do not say it openly but in private conversations they express dismay at China’s preference for the NCP and its pro-active role in keeping the party intact. They argue that China's backing of the NCP has the chances of emboldening 'anti-democracy' groups. Nepal's struggle for democracy is now over 70-year-long. Though Nepali democracy has been more ritualistic than substantive, any perceived threat to democracy, freedom of expression and mobility may not be taken well by political forces that have repeatedly fought and made sacrifices for the cause of democracy.
Many westerners accuse China of being an 'empire in the making' after its claims on the South China Sea, India’s Arunachal Pradesh and 'other territories of China' lost during China's century of humiliation. (Fortunately, China has not treated Nepal that way after the two countries established diplomatic relations.) They argue communism has been a vehicle for China's revival and rejuvenation and the cultural important of Chinese life has surpassed communist ideology. Hence Chinese rulers including Xi Jinping are often criticized for being 'emperors in new clothes', the new cloth being the communist ideology.
Great powers find it difficult or are unwilling to disentangle themselves from strategic spaces for themselves. India for instance finds it hard to keep aloof of internal developments in Nepal. The US refuses to withdraw from not only from North or South Americas but also from Japan, South Korea, Middle East, South China Sea, and major international organizations, and every nook and cranny around the world. China is deeply engaged in the Koreas and the South China Sea and is trying to enhance its influence in other parts of the world as well, even at the cost of other powers. Through the BRI, and other bilateral and multilateral mechanisms China is determined to have its place in the world and China's aggressive posture in Nepal is a part of it.
Tibetan refugees may have their grievances but Tibet has been accepted as an integral part of China by the world’s most powerful nations including the US and our southern neighbor India, the latter of which is home to the largest number of Tibetan refugees. Nepal cannot allow anti-China activities of Tibetan refugees. China's power, our good relations with China and our sensitive geopolitical location do not allow us to go against China’s genuine interests. All political forces, intellectuals, media and other stakeholders agree on so much.
We should also not be a part of China's encirclement by great powers. This should not be limited to policy and rhetoric but should also be translated into our actions so that China starts trusting us. For this we have to develop state capacity to an extent that our neighbors and other powers will have confidence that our soil won’t be used against their security interests. Gradually, powers like India and the US should also be persuaded to disengage from many sectors. It is easier said than done but this must be our goal.
But we should also avoid dancing to China’s tunes. China has come very aggressively in Nepal and it has been vocal about its desire to shape developments here. It wants to do so not only for its advantage but with also the intent of challenging other powers and harming Nepal's relations with its traditional developmental partners. We should draw a red line on China's engagement. To still believe China is disinterested and benevolent would be naive. For example, Nepali media have written that China kept its border with Nepal closed for months due to fear of 'imported Covid cases' reaching China. Because of this some northern mountainous regions of Nepal like Humla could not get vital day-to-day goods. This shows that China puts its national interest above everything else.
Though there have talks of leveling the Himalayas and handshake across Himalayas via a multimodal connectivity network between Nepal and Tibet, the prospect of Nepal using China as a transit is slim. Even if some level of transit via China materializes, Nepal's geography and geopolitical imperatives will continue to make it largely reliant on India for transit.
There are also lessons for Nepali politicians and intellectuals: they should have unanimity in foreign policy. Our giant neighbors are rising powers, both have continent-sized geography and population and both are undergoing rapid economic and military rise. These two countries have made significant contribution to what has been called the shifting of the center of global economy to Asia. They are studied in universities, think tanks and research centers throughout the world. We are right in the middle of these two global powerhouses and yet we have hardly studied them, or their interactions and the likely impact on Nepal of those interactions. We have largely become passive recipients of their agenda.
Compared to them, we are economically and militarily nowhere. It is high time we also have our own government-funded centers to study China and Nepal-China relations comprehensively, through multiple perspectives, and devise our own China policy based on the changing global context and our ground realities. Only institutionalized and knowledge based-approach will save us. Nepal needs think tanks that not only study our foreign policy but domestic issues to enhance our state capacity. A handful of such institutions are not enough; we need many more.
Inviting powers with opposing geopolitical interests in Nepal is unwise. Dragging China to balance India or the US or other powers can have dangerous consequences. Nepali political elites and China both need to understand that hard reality. An unstable neighborhood will never benefit China. Like Nepal has been sensitive about China's security sensitivities for decades, China also should be sensitive about Nepal's geopolitical imperatives.
China most probably will not be able to help us if Nepal plunges into a geopolitical conflict. The fact that China kept its border with Nepal closed for several months after the great earthquake that rattled Nepal in April 2015 and during the recent Covid-19 pandemic indicates China won't be there to help us if we get into serious troubles. If so, China would do well not to be dragged into Nepal's internal affairs at the request of Nepal’s opportunist, rent-seeking and myopic elites. China should also reach out to all groups, rather than limiting itself to dealing exclusively with communists.
In the end, we don’t want to unnecessarily drag the dragon into Nepal. Let the dragon also shed the temptation to be dragged in easily.
The author has a Masters in International Relations from South Asian University in New Delhi and is the Managing Editor of Nepali Journal of Contemporary Studies