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Chinese PM in Nepal: A short visit but a long trail?

Nihar R Nayak is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 18, 2012

    Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China paid a short visit to Nepal (lasting four and a half hours) on January 14, 2012, stopping over on his way to the Persian Gulf. During the visit China announced an RMB 750 million (US $ 120 million or Nepalese Rs 9.7 billion) grant to Nepal. The amount will be spent on mutually identified projects under a new bilateral Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation . China also announced a one-time grant of $20 million, to be spent on the rehabilitation of former Maoist combatants. It also increased its annual assistance to Nepal from RMB 150 million to RMB 200 million. An eight-point joint statement was also issued during the visit. The statement notes that the two countries agreed to “further promote Nepal-China friendly relations of comprehensive partnership of cooperation featuring everlasting friendship on the basis of the five principles of peaceful Coexistence”.

    The visit came about at a time when China is concerned about the ongoing political instability in Nepal and is looking for new political partners after the fall of the monarchy. The last Chinese Premier to visit Nepal was Zhu Rongji in May 2001, while Nepal was witnessing an armed struggle by the Maoists and the King was ruling the state. China is apprehensive that the Tibetan refugees may take advantage of Nepal’s instability and strengthen their position within the country. Moreover, the Chinese are not comfortable with the multiparty system of Nepal, with the parties numbering around 32, and would like to have an abiding relationship with any force eager to work with them. India’s successful engagement with the latest Maoist-led government has added to Chinese concerns leading it to cultivate Nepal even more proactively.

    This has also led China to realign its foreign policy towards Nepal. It has increased the number of its political, economic, military and academic delegations to Nepal since 2008, posted one of its better diplomats as Ambassador to Kathmandu, increased people-to-people contacts, opened more customs posts at the borders, increased annual grant assistance and, most importantly, strengthened its engagements at the institutional level leading to greater interaction with the Nepalese army, bureaucracy, police and armed police (mostly deployed along the borders). During Wen Jiabao’s visit, the Chinese side pledged RMB 10 million for strengthening the Nepal Police and RMB four million for an Armed Police Force college. According to Xinhua, in 2010, the number of bilateral personnel exchanges with Nepal reached 74,000.

    Nepal occupies a special position in Chinese foreign policy, even if it is depicted as a country of ‘peripheral’ concern by Chinese sources. First, because, among the South Asian states, Nepal shares the longest border with China after India and a large part of this border is inadequately guarded due to the nature of the terrain (mountainous). Not surprisingly, the joint statement re-emphasizes strengthening ‘border area management’. Second, geographically, Nepal has remained the southern gateway for Tibet. Since time immemorial, Nepal has been maintaining closer economic and cultural linkages with Tibet than China. Third, India has maintained a strong historical, geographic, cultural and economic relationship with Nepal and both countries share an open and peaceful border.

    Therefore, China’s policy towards Nepal has been different from its policies towards the rest of the South Asian countries. China also has three major strategic interests in Nepal: firstly, containing Tibetan refugees south of the Himalayas and stopping their anti-China activities; second, neutralising India’s influence in Nepal and setting up a pro-China regime in Kathmandu, for which China has scaled up its policy of engagement in recent years and adopted even soft diplomatic measures, i.e., people-to-people contacts, cultural relations, scholarships to students, economic aid and spreading of Chinese Buddhism in Nepal; and third, investing in strategically important infrastructure like airports and important highways. Chinese investments in Lumbini, and Pokhara airports are a point of reference in this regard. The Chinese must be happy that they have finally got the Government of Nepal to agree to Chinese investment in the Pokhara airport during Wen Jiabao’s visit.

    Strangely, the visit by the Chinese Prime Minster was shrouded in secrecy. The visit was not mentioned by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs till the evening of January 15, 2012, while his five-day visit to three Gulf countries – Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – was announced earlier. The Foreign Ministry did not also mention the eight-point joint statement even two days after the agreement was signed. The Embassy of China in Kathmandu also chose not to post anything about the visit or this agreement on its website even 48 hours after the visit: it only cited a news report by Xinhua.

    Perhaps, the Chinese establishment was apprehensive of protests/demonstrations by Tibetan refuges in Nepal during the Premier’s visit. An earlier scheduled visit, which was to take place on December 20, 2011, was reportedly cancelled because China was not impressed with the security arrangements in Nepal. Chinese intelligence reportedly came up with information that there could be some demonstrations with black flags and attempts at self-immolation by some Tibetan refugees.

    Following the cancellation of the earlier visit, the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister of Nepal, Bijaya Gachhadar, had visited China to reassure the Chinese establishment that there would be no disturbance by Tibetan refugees during the Chinese Premier’s visit. Special instructions were given by China to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry of Nepal not to disclose news of the intended visit. China also asked Nepal to allow only a limited numbers of journalists to cover the visit once the visit was announced.

    Surprisingly, no media house in Nepal reacted to the decision. There were instructions from the Chinese embassy not to discuss the visit in the media in advance. There was no mention even about the financial and development aid that China was going to give to Nepal. Since the Nepalese government had sent in a request for a credit line of $5 billion (over Rs. 400 billion) from China prior to the scheduled visit in December, China did not perhaps want much discussion on this subject, lest it aroused public expectations and forced China to commit more than it decided to offer. This, in a way, indicates the indifferent and condescending manner in which China wants to behave with its small neighbours like Nepal. All the arrangements for the visit were dictated by China.

    Historically, China has behaved as a domineering power in its dealings with its neighbours, especially when it felt that it cannot actively control developments in its periphery and that this could lead to an eventual reduction of its sphere of influence in the neighbourhood. At present, apart from the election of a pro-China leader in Taiwan, China is not quite comfortable with the developments in its immediate periphery. It is not very happy about political developments in Myanmar. Its assertive policy vis-à-vis India has also not been effective. Moreover, Tibet remains China’s soft underbelly, and of late, it has been feeling insecure due to the absence of a credible political partner in Nepal. To add to the Chinese worries, the Tibetan refugees have taken advantage of the situation in Nepal and have undertaken several protests against China in recent years. If the Nepalese political instability prolongs, Chinese micromanagement and intervention in Nepal will increase in future.