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India-China Power Game in Nepal and the Consequences

Pramod Jaiswal is Research Intern from Nepal at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is also a Ph.D. candidate at South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • September 16, 2010

    A month after the visit to Nepal by Shyam Saran as special envoy of the Indian Prime Minister, a delegation of 21 senior Chinese leaders led by He Yong, vice-premier and secretary at the secretariat of the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, arrived in Kathmandu on September 11, 2010 on a six-day visit.

    This is the highest-level Chinese delegation to visit Nepal since the beginning of the peace process. The visit also coincided with news about a controversial audio tape purportedly containing a conversation between Krishna Bahadur Mahara, International Bureau Chief of the Unified CPN-Maoist, and an unknown Chinese, in which Mahara is heard asking for 500 million rupees to buy off 50 lawmakers required to form the government under Prachanda’s leadership. This tape brought China into the internal political debate of Nepal for the first time. As of now, it is not known whether the tape is genuine or not. If it is genuine, then it indicates a serious shift in China’s policy towards Nepal. It can be seen as the beginning of Chinese interference in Nepal’s internal affairs.

    The Chinese have always adopted a pro-establishment policy towards Nepal. Experts emphasize that Nepal-China relations are based on the Five Principles, or Panchsheel, according to which China will not intervene in Nepal's domestic politics and Nepal will respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity with respect to Tibet and Taiwan.

    But the controversial audio tape violates the principle that China will not intervene in Nepal’s domestic politics. It also indicates that China seems to have adopted a proactive policy towards Nepal. China had always gained good faith in the Nepalese mind by pointing at Indian interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. The current visit of the Chinese delegation, coming close on the heels of the audio tape controversy, also indicates that China may involve itself more actively in Nepalese affairs and serve as a check on interference in Nepal’s internal matters by any other external powers (read India).

    These events are also taking place at a time when there is a souring of relations between China and India due to the denial of visa to the Indian Army's Chief of Northern Command Lt. Gen. B. S. Jaswal. There is also tension between India and China on the issue of stapled visas being issued to Kashmiris, the Chinese claim on Arunachal Pradesh, the issue of Dalai Lama, and so on. Thus, one can argue that China is taking such actions in Nepal to confront and counter-balance India and will continue to act similarly in other countries in India’s neighbourhood.

    The Maoists have always looked towards China for help and support. But China had made it clear to them so far that it could help only if they are in government because of their pro-establishment policy. But in the past few months, it seems that the Maoist have been able to convince the Chinese that they would not come to power until Indian interference continues in Nepal. This may explain the new Chinese behaviour.

    China has always been worried about chronic political instability in Nepal and the possibility of external powers using Nepal against its strategic interests. China viewed the monarchy as the most stable, credible and dependable partner and the mainstream political parties as pro-India. The King always played the ‘China card’ effectively to counter Indian influence. Chinese security interests, which have been China’s prime concern in Nepal, were also served by the King in the past. The King wielded tremendous power as the Commander-in-Chief of the army.

    After Nepal became a republic, China lost its most reliable partner (Monarchy). It realized that it has to choose between two major political forces in Nepal, i.e., the democratic parties, which were mostly pro-India, and the Maoists, a large party with anti-India and anti-US sentiments.

    While the Chinese were looking for a durable and dependable force in Nepal, the Maoists, looking for support from a strong power in the neighbourhood, approached China for help. The Maoists looked at China with sympathy due to their ideological affinities. Significantly, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) promised in its election manifesto to set up eight new national highways linking Nepal to China. Interestingly, China did not support the Maoist party until they emerged as the single largest party in the Constituent Assembly election of April 2008. In fact, China was the only country to supply arms to King Gyanendra to suppress the Maoist insurgents when India, the US and the UK had refused to provide any such help.

    China also found it expedient to cultivate the Maoists because of the growing tensions in Tibet, particularly after the March 2008 uprising. China wanted to curb the underground activities of some 20,000 Tibetan refugees settled in Nepal. As is well-known, Nepal is the most easily accessible entry point to Tibet and it has the second largest Tibetan refugee community in the world. China has traditionally alleged that international forces are conducting operations against China, through Tibetans based in Nepal. In this context, China was deeply concerned when six Nepalese Parliamentarians visited Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in February 2009. Only after this did China start establishing good relations with other political parties like the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum apart from the CPN-Maoist.

    It is well-known that even though Maoist leaders are posing themselves as anti-Indian, most are aware that at the end of the day they will have to deal with India, and that they cannot wish away the geographical, historical, cultural and socio-economic linkages between the two countries. It is almost certain that they will temper their policies towards India once they come to power. However, for the moment, the Indian policy of preventing Maoists from coming to power and the Maoist counter-tactic of mobilising popular opinion on the basis of growing anti-India sentiments in Nepal, seem to be pushing the Himalayan country deeper into uncertainty, which will not serve the interests of either country.

    Interestingly, China and India have been competing for influence along the Nepal-China border. Soon after India provided development assistance of Rs. 100 million for the remote hill region of Mustang, China responded with financial assistance worth Rs. 10 million for construction of a library, science laboratory and school building with computers in Chhoser village (adjoining Jhongwasen district of Tibet) in the same region to counter Indian influence. The ambassadors of both countries have visited the area. China is also opening China Study Centres in Nepal along the Indo-Nepal border. Out of a total of eleven China Study Centres that China has built in Nepal so far, seven are along the Indo-Nepal border.

    In response to the Chinese attempt to extend the railway link from Tibet till the Nepalese border, India is also planning to extend its rail links to Nepal along the border. India has announced assistance worth Rs. 10.88 billion for the expansion of railway service in five places along the India-Nepal border. The first phase of expansion is scheduled to start from Birjung of Nepal which is about 350 kilometres south of Tatopani, the place to be connected by China through railways. The power-game between China and India is thus slowly unfolding in Nepal.

    In this context, the controversial audio tape incident has had its effect. It has benefited the anti-Maoist forces the most. The leak seems to have stopped the Madhesi parties from supporting Prachanda’s candidature as PM in the seventh round of voting. At a time when the Nepalese media was in overdrive to nail the Indian Embassy for its alleged intervention in Nepalese politics, the tape controversy has successfully diverted popular attention towards China.

    Whether the audio tape is genuine or fake, it will affect the contour of Nepalese politics in the days to come. If China decides to play a proactive role in Nepal, it will definitely have serious implications for India’s security. The win-win situation for both India and China lies in respecting the ‘buffer-status of Nepal’ between them. This will also ensure political stability in Nepal and will serve the security interests of both nations.