A defining feature of Chinese diplomacy is that it sends signals to the intended country that signify a major change in its attitude to that country. The most famous one being inviting Edgar Snow, the Mao-loving American journalist, to attend the annual military parade to mark the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 1970. The Chinese released a photo of Snow standing alongside chairman Mao. They saw Snow as an important figure in America and hoped that the picture would signal to the Americans that China was not only willing to establish diplomatic relations with the US, but also to welcome a high-level US delegation.
But Snow was not an important figure in the US and as Henry Kissinger later wrote, at first nobody in the US understood what the Chinese were trying to signal with the photo and they (the Americans) understood its message fairly late. And there are numerous other instances of China’s signal diplomacy. (If you are particularly interested in China's signal diplomacy vis-à-vis Nepal, you can read about them here.)
China is signaling something to us and we got to understand it. After all, it’s an important neighbor and as things now stand, our only hope of getting corona vaccines quickly.
(A disclaimer first: Look, like many in Nepal, I too am clueless about what really happens in the halls of Baluwatar and Shital Niwas, and like many who write, I also write based on what I think really transpired, and like them, I too could be very wrong.)
It’s hard to believe that the telephone conversation between our President Bidhya Bhandari and President Xi Jinping was not preplanned. Many days and weeks were probably spent by our diplomats in Beijing and by Chinese diplomats in Kathmandu (or given the way we conduct our foreign policy these days, I wouldn't be surprised if it were the Chinese diplomats who did all the work.) This suspicion has some grounds. Think of it, otherwise, why would President Bhandari send a letter to her Indian counterpart requesting speedy delivery of vaccines just a day before the phone conversation with her Chinese counterpart? Maybe it was to signal to India that Nepali government was not going to switch sides. Or, by making her appear really concerned about the people, it was an attempt to improve her public image in Nepal where her popularity is at an all-time low.
Now the million-dollar question: why would the most powerful man in the world be willing to talk to our president when almost all reports point to PM Oli snubbing China's requests to do his most, even resign as either party president or prime minister, to save the unity of the party China invested heavily on?
Without a doubt, China is signaling something.
The most likely one being that despite what happened in Nepal, China is willing to work with the Oli government. Maybe China realized it is futile to get involved in Nepal's internal politics and no Nepali government, even one supported by India, would dare work against its legitimate interests in Nepal. Further, given India’s support for Oli, as suggested by India’s suspicious silence on Nepal’s recent political developments, the Chinese must have rightly calculated that he is going to call the shots for some time. And it is in their interest to engage with him. Could it be that China is signaling that from now on, it will follow its earlier hands-off approach in Nepal?
The second most likely scenario is that China wants to help Nepal deal with the covid pandemic by supplying us with the much-needed vaccines. But as a major global power, it wants Nepal to make an official request and let the world know about it. That would serve three purposes: Prove there are many countries that trust Chinese vaccines, and let others know that if you request from us, we would give you vaccines. Third, and most important, using Nepal as a successful model of Chinese vaccines would make India realize it’s limits in dealing with the pandemic and force it to rethink its opposition to Chinese vaccines. That would boost China’s international standing and soft power by many folds and force India to accept that its regional ambitions are unrealistic and misplaced as of now.
And my twisted skeptic brain has yet another theory. It is most likely but like I said, we can only make intelligent guesses and this too should not be overlooked.
China is giving us a million vaccines this time. Earlier it gave 800,000. That’s a total of 1.8 million doses. While it’s better than nothing and like all Nepalis, I am grateful to China for this kind gesture, the volumes are awfully low given our 30 million-plus people. Maybe the Chinese are signaling that more vaccines will follow only after the ouster of PM Oli, and it is their way of punishing him—or, the way Chinese like to put it, teaching him a lesson—for snubbing Chinese requests to step down. Maybe it signals a more hands-on approach on Nepal.
We don't need to wait long to decipher the Chinese signal. What the Chinese do and don't do would make us understand what they want in Nepal and their Nepal policy for at least 10 years to come.