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China and Maoist Nepal: Challenges for India

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • May 23, 2008

    “[China] feels that the Himalayas alone in this nuclear age are not enough to guarantee its national security, especially in view of Tibet’s strategic location. [It], therefore, ideally wants a China of small, preferably pro-Chinese, neighbours on the cis-Himalayan region separating the two Asian giants.”

    - Dawa Norbu

    Nepal constitutes one of the cis-Himalayan regions, which Dawa Norbu had once described as the “new buffer zone”, after the old buffer (Tibet) came under China’s sovereign control in 1951. Its strategic importance can be fathomed not only from its geo-political location, being sandwiched between the two rising Asian giants but also from its transformation into a new buffer zone between India and China in the 1950s. This buffer has assumed even more importance in the current times with Royal Nepal being transformed into a People’s Nepal in the aftermath of the Maoist victory in the election to the Constituent Assembly (CA) on April 10, 2008. The victory of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) CPN(M) a one- time rebel group, has significant geopolitical repercussions for the region. The growing concern in India is, therefore, whether the Maoist Nepal would come under the Chinese sphere of influence, or is it going to chart a policy of equi-distance between India and China.

    Certain developments suggest China’s growing influence in Nepal and the latter’s cozying up with the former. To begin with, both Nepal and China are planning for greater economic linkages and there are proposals for connecting the two countries with as many as ten roadways. China has also promised to construct a railway line from Lhasa to Khasa at the Nepal-China border within five years. According to news reports from Nepal, China has agreed to provide assistance worth about Rs 460 million (RMB 50 million) to Nepal for the construction of Syaphrubesi-Rasuwagdhi Road.

    Apart from road and rail linkages, there has been a sudden proliferation of China Study Centres (CSC) all along the Indo-Nepal border with their number rising from 7 in 2005 to 19 till February 2008. These study centres, which were initially set up in 2000 as civil society groups to promote cultural interaction, have become effective tools for advancing Chinese perspective on key issues concerning Nepal. These centres also disseminate the benign role of China and caution the Nepalis about India’s hegemonic intentions.

    Diplomatically, from 2006 onwards, there has been a perceptible shift in the Chinese stand towards Nepal. China apparently regarded the Royal take over of Nepal in 2005 as the latter’s internal affair. But after the 2006 People’s Movement, China stated that “key to resolution of crisis in Nepal lies in conciliation among the constitutional forces”… and urged the King to “reach out to the political parties to restore democracy and peace in the country.”

    Another major indicator of growing Chinese influence on Nepal is the latter’s crackdown on Tibetan protests in April this year at the behest of China. Time magazine reports that Beijing has also deployed security officials inside Nepal, to help detect fleeing Tibetans and keep a lid on unrest. There are even reports of Chinese security agents preventing a reporter and photographer from Agence France-Presse from working inside Nepal. These activities demonstrate Chinese interference in the internal affairs of the country despite their stated policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.

    For China, Nepal is important as it is integral to China’s peripheral diplomacy. China believes that the March 2008 Tibetan unrest is very much the handiwork of international forces operating from Nepal. In order to secure its southern periphery, which it considers most vulnerable, it feels the need to monitor clandestine activities in Nepal. Therefore, China is likely to play a significant role in determining the future shape of Nepalese politics under the Maoists. From this perspective, China’s conception of Nepal as a new buffer acquires significance. Further, Nepal is important for China in order to check the rise of India. In recent years, China is increasingly exploiting anti-Indian feelings prevailing among the Nepalese and the China Study Centres have been employed in a big way to achieve this objective. This strategy is a part of its larger strategy of building friendly relations with India’s immediate neighbours in order to isolate and marginalise India’s influence in the region. Moreover, China’s rapid rise has deemed it necessary to seek more and more resources to fuel its economic growth. Nepal has a huge resource of hydro-electricity and, according to one estimate, it is only second to Brazil with 83,000 megawatts of energy.

    Ever since the Maoists became the dominant partner in Nepal’s coalition government in the post-Janaandolan period, China started to revisit its Nepal policy. It may be noted that earlier China had branded the Maoists as anti-government forces. With the victory of the Maoists in the election to the CA, the Chinese “have beefed up their interests in Nepal” and the Chinese leadership is cozying up with the Maoists. Just after the elections, it sent its first nine-member official foreign ministry delegation to Nepal headed by Chinese Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ha Yafei. There are also reports of high-level meetings between Nepali and Chinese officials regarding the government formation in Nepal. China is also eyeing to tap the hydro-electricity power and two of its companies are in the fray for winning the bids on hydro-power projects.

    For Nepal, building close ties with China is important as it could gain enormously from China’s rapid rise and spiraling economic growth. A decade of civil-war has left Nepal’s economy in a dismal state. Its growth rate is a meagre 2%, inflation is around 9%, unemployment rate is 42%, about a third of its population is under the official poverty line, and more than half the population is illiterate. More importantly, China serves as an alternative platform for its political and diplomatic bargaining vis-à-vis India. There is a huge dependence of Nepal on India for economic needs. India is Nepal’s largest trading partner accounting for more than 60% of its trade. About 12 of the 13 trade routes of Nepal are via India. About 50% of Nepal’s remittances come from India. Thus, for strategic and economic reasons, the Maoists feel the urgent need to cultivate deeper ties with China on the one hand, and reduce their dependence on India on the other. This, therefore, also explains why the Maoists are calling for renegotiating the 1950 Indo- Nepal Treaty. In fact, one of the top CPN(M) leaders, Babu Ram Bhattarai told Nepal Telegraph on May 10th that it was only because of the open border that Nepal could not achieve economic prosperity. The Maoists are also insistent on reviewing the Gorkha recruitment by the Indian Army. All this evidently suggests that the Maoists are essentially calling for re-negotiation of the relationship with India. Also, the alleged ideological affinity of the Maoists with the Chinese Communists is seen as an added advantage which China is likely to exploit in future.

    There is a growing awareness in India about the Maoists developing a close relationship with China, much to the displeasure of India. In fact, there are speculations in some political and intellectual quarters that in the typical style of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Maoists would initially strengthen their position by forging a unified front with other parties and then gradually overshadow them and assume monopolistic hold on Nepal’s democratic space. It would be then very difficult to dislodge the Maoists from power and they would rule Nepal autocratically. Such an autocratic state would naturally find a close ally in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

    However, there are also beliefs in certain quarters that there is not much scope for any deepening of China-Nepal relations. Rather, Maoist Nepal would opt for a policy of equi-distance between India and China. Clarifying his stand on equi-distance policy, Maoist chief, Prachanda said in an interview to the CNN-IBN on May 18th, “…we will not side up with one country against the other. We will maintain equidistance in political sense and not in terms of cooperation and other things.” Nepal has deep civilizational and cultural ties with India. Historically, the political forces in Nepal have had deeper political linkages with India than with any other country. In fact, India was instrumental in bringing about the 12-point Agreement between the alliance of seven parties and the Maoists’ party in 2005 in New Delhi.

    In summation, the Chinese challenge is real. That with the end of 240-year-old monarchy, Nepal’s politics would chart a new path is a reality. Nepal, being a sovereign country would like to deal with India on an equitable basis. Given geographically contiguous, culturally similar and economically closer relationship with India, Nepal perhaps also realizes that it would be quite impractical to ignore its southern giant at the behest of building strategic ties with the northern giant. Also geopolitically, being sandwiched between the two Asian giants, Nepal does benefit from following an equi-distance policy. With globalisation, shifting Asian balance of power, rise of China and emergence of India, Nepal is, thus, likely to opt for a balanced approach with both India and China, which would eventually pave the path for its own economic growth and stability. For India, the challenge is to support Nepal to gain economic and political stability without being domineering and create a win-win situation. In fact, India has to deftly handle its Nepal policy keeping in mind the growing Chinese influence in Nepal.