KP Oli could be many things to many people, but one thing is certain. When it comes to managing our foreign relations, he is a master strategist. He has changed the course and direction of Nepal's decade-long foreign policy—and for the better.
Our leaders spent the past 30 years in achieving something impossible—“balancing” our relations with the two neighbors. (This was something even the Panchayat and its founder King Mahendra didn't think was possible. While the Panchayat paid lip service to “balance” and non-alignment, it understood Nepal’s limits and China's too, and brilliantly aligned itself with India or accommodated India’s interests when times called for it.) In the post-Panchayat regime, the balance meant have China back their government in case India decides to withdraw its support. But China, realizing that Nepal could not be freed from Indian influence, and that it really had no real interest in Nepal, decided to pursue its long-held hands-off approach to Nepal while India used the influence it had here to create political instability.
But things changed in the past decade or so. China considered itself a regional power and as a reaction to India’s US tilt, it tried to become an influential player in South Asia. Chinese strategists calculated that if China were to wrestle South Asia away from India, India would realize its weakness vis-à-vis China and it would be discouraged from siding with the US and South East Asian nations that have territorial disputes with China. The message was clear: If you can't influence your small neighbors, forget becoming a major regional power and be ready to compete with China for regional influence.
China won, but not for long because it thought India would not react or that the religious, cultural and linguistic similarities, along with years of Indian penetration of the south Asian societies, would not matter in the world obsessed with Chinese money. China's mistake was it considered itself a major power in South Asia and believed it had the power to upset Indian influence in the region.
While India was dumbfounded with China’s “successes” in Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, it didn't sit by idly and the leaders in these countries too realized the limit of their pro-Chinese positions. It soon became obvious that making China influential in their domestic politics at the cost of India was replacing one hegemon with another. The Chinese foreign policy these days vis-à-vis neighbors is becoming impractical as it wants them to pledge their allegiance to China at the cost of their relations with others. For example, the Chinese extended “support” to the CPN (Maoist Center) so that the latter could oppose the US MCC grant in Nepal, making the Maoists think of it as their only ticket to power. Only God knows what security threat a yearly $100 million grant over five years to build transmission lines poses to an almost $15 trillion Chinese economy.
In contrast to the Chinese, the Indian policy now is to accommodate its neighbors’ valid concerns and accept that their dealings with China are normal—as long as those dealings don’t threaten its real interests. Perhaps this is borne out of Indian confidence that its neighbors (minus Pakistan) won’t and can’t act against its vital interests because of their shared cultural heritage and history, and that Chinese influence in the region is just a passing phenomenon. This has made India offer leeway to its neighbors in their dealings with China. And it has resulted in the South Asian leaders in power becoming more receptive of India. The new and confident Indian dealings with its neighbors are clearly working, unlike what many alarmists and the “liberal” anti-Modi scholars would have us believe.
In Nepal, China had and still has some leaders and intellectuals on its side, but that was not enough (as recent events also prove) to cement its control on Nepal. True, it enjoys tremendous goodwill among the common people for what they see as China's non-interference policy in Nepal, or as a balancer to India's bullying. The reality is, the common people who believe this aren't the ones deciding foreign policy.
China's new position or policy on Nepal had its own flaws. The most important being the belief that Nepali leaders would remain true to the promises made behind closed doors and be grateful and loyal toward China for its recent political and other help. It failed to see how our leaders were using it to advance their political aspirations, instead of China using them to advance its “interests”. Second, it thought the Indian blockade of 2015 had resulted in an anti-Indian nationalistic leadership that was ready to embrace it as savior. Our leaders made it appear so and China started to invest heavily in our politics, with the belief that it had now secured Nepal and could use it to bargain with India at an opportune time. It totally misread our leaders and their virulent anti-India rhetoric and the limit to our collective "shallow" anti-Indianism.
Yet another Chinese mistake was to view Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda as more powerful and more important to China's “interests” than PM Oli. It interpreted the power struggle between the two leaders as a struggle between pro-Indian and pro-Chinese factions, or was made to do so by its trusted “analysts”. Up until the Chinese envoy’s interference, the conflict between the two leaders was purely personal in nature. It had nothing to do with India or China, as my good friend and editor of this paper Biswas Baral wrote: PM Oli was flabbergasted when the Chinese envoy asked him to step down to protect party unity. PM Oli then did what anybody in his position would do—dissolve the parliament. The Indians were quick to understand the implications of Oli's actions. They only “took note” and more than that he was interviewed by two Indian television channels to bolster his nationalist credentials. It was in India's interest to make Oli appear nationalist and not make his move appear as one directed by India—and in all fairness PM Oli acted independently to prevent Prachanda from becoming PM with China's help.
India was happily surprised because it got what it wanted—not because of its excellent diplomacy or covert operations, but because of the Chinese side’s mistake of asking PM Oli to resign. Had Prachanda maintained distance with China and not have himself portrayed as Beijing’s trusted man in Kathmandu, then, probably, India would have worked out a new coalition and made him our next PM already.
For the first time in many years, Nepal has decided its own political course under PM Oli. And this course is quite advantageous to India. He may not be someone the Indians can control, but he is not someone the Chinese can control either. This means less Chinese and Indian interference in Nepal's domestic politics. Therefore, the wise thing for India to do is what it is doing now—not supporting any coalition against PM Oli, because that would only lead to political horse-trading and instability, letting the door wide open for others.
China shouldn’t see Oli as an enemy either. If he refused to follow its diktats, he is not someone who is likely to follow India’s either. And that means no threat to its real interests in Nepal. Its recent spectacular failure should also make China understand the flaws in its Nepal policy and not look for favorites in Nepal. It should follow its earlier hands-off approach and hope Nepal keeps getting a somewhat "nationalist" like Oli who can counter not only it but also India. Just as an old Chinese saying goes: Sai weng shi ma, yan zhi fei fu (“what appears bad could be a blessing in disguise”).