In my previous column “Decoding Chinese signals in Nepal” (June 3-9), I had argued that China is sending us a signal and we need to decode it to understand its intent in Nepal. Probably sensing that we are a bit slow in understanding it’s real intent, China has sent us yet another signal that even a five-year-old has no difficulty understanding. By providing the ruling CPN-UML with health equipment and 100,000 N-95 masks—nothing significant in terms of real help, but a highly symbolic gesture nonetheless—it is clearly telling us that it wants to start anew with KP Oli.
There are two reasons for China's change of heart. First, the less important one. China clearly understood that it is not yet ready to challenge and or upset India’s traditional role in Nepal. It has rightly calculated that Oli is here to stay for some time and it is futile to back those opposing him. And despite Oli trying to distance himself from China by not uttering the Belt and Road Initiative even once while talking about the India-led BBIN and BIMSTEC and the American MCC in his speech to the nation on May 28, China sending the symbolic “relief” to the UML a week later is a clear expression of an end of its political (mis-) adventure in Nepal.
And now the more important reason for repeated signals, and that has nothing to do with Nepal.
While some of our analysts never tire of repeating that Nepal is quite important for China to thwart any US or Indian designs on China by using Nepal (and only God knows what they mean by that), I too have been repeating that it’s not the case. Nepal was and is just a bargaining chip for China and it would use us to either amend its relations or to resolve its outstanding issues with India, which again has nothing to do with Nepal. To achieve that objective, it brilliantly hoodwinked us into believing that it had replaced India as a major player in Nepal. To be frank, China viewed us a pawn to be sacrificed in the grand chessboard of international politics all along, but “we” interpreted the Chinese “involvement” as it acknowledging us as an important neighbor for its security. As expected, there were a zillion misplaced and mistakenly argued pieces on Nepal’s geopolitical importance and what not by our “scholars”.
While they are still arguing Nepal is important for China, President Xi Jinping on May 31 clearly signalled a change in China's foreign policy. According to China’s national news agency, Xinhua—and as quoted by all major global media outlets—President Xi remarked “it is necessary to make friends, unite and win over the majority, and constantly expand the circle of friends [when it comes to] international public opinion.”
Many scholars have interpreted this as China acknowledging the spectacular failure of its assertive “wolf-warrior diplomacy” and as a proactive measure to minimize the damage to its international reputation following the US President Joe Biden’s orders to his intelligence community to find out the origin of the coronavirus within three months. China is certain that the US intelligence report will blame it for the pandemic and it needs friends to speak on its behalf. Assertiveness is not going to win it friends and influence the global public opinion, hence the volte-face.
While those interpreting it this way are mostly focused on Western powers, as a South Asian, I see it as China trying to mend its relations with India as well. India is a neighbor and a regional power and India’s silence on or dismissal of the US intelligence report would mean a lot to China. After all, India is the world's largest democracy and India’s opinions do matter in today’s world. And what credibility would the US report have if China’s neighbor and the West’s favorite India does not endorse it?
Therefore, China’s willingness to work with Oli is a clear signal to India, more than a signal to Nepal. And it is not the first time China has used Nepal to send a signal to India. It happened during Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 Nepal visit as well. According to Professor Ezra Vogel, Deng “not only avoided criticizing India, but also composed his message in Nepal in a way that might well appeal to India: China would assist all nations in the region trying to pursue an independent policy. Deng was paving the way for improved relations with India, which he hoped might help pull it away from the Soviet Union” (Deng Xiaoping and the transformation of China by Ezra Vogel).
Therefore, China’s support (absence of opposition equals support) to Oli is a brilliant way to let India know that it can have its way in Nepal, and China has no plans whatsoever to challenge its influence and authority here. Or to put it in a slightly politically incorrect way, China is using or sacrificing or trading Nepal to buy India's silence or opposition to what it views as a US-led effort to chastise it for the spread of coronavirus. In our scholars’ parlance, China is playing the “Nepal card” in its relations with India. There goes our “importance for China”.