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Nepal: New ‘Strategic Partner’ of China?

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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  • March 30, 2009

    There has been a major shift in China’s foreign policy towards Nepal since the Maoist ascendance to power. China had earlier adopted a policy of ‘non-intervention’ in the internal matters of Nepal and largely stayed out of Nepalese internal politics. However, the demise of the monarchy and the ascendance of political parties have forced China to reshape its Nepal policy. Moreover, frequent protests by Tibetans in recent months alerted the Chinese to the possibility of the China-Tibet border being misused. Consequently, China has sought to engage Nepalese political actors at all levels, primarily to secure the border with Nepal. With the Maoists in power, China also hopes to use its ideological commonalities to suppress the Tibetan movement in Nepal.

    When the Maoists emerged victorious in the April 2008 elections, China adopted a wait and watch policy because it was unsure of their intentions. After all, the Maoists were backed by India and were catapulted to the political centre stage only after a comprehensive peace agreement in which India had played a substantial behind the scenes role. However, media reports reveal that after several interactions with Maoists leaders, China has begun to feel quite comfortable with the Maoist-led government. The Maoists’ ideological linkages with China and their keenness to neutralize India’s influence in the region have also made them an obvious choice for engagement.

    It has been reported that in interactions with Chinese the Maoist leaders gave the impression that the future of democracy in Nepal could be guided by the example of the Communist Party of China. Indeed, there are many in Nepal who argue that persistence with the Maoist tag in the party name despite joining competitive politics indicates that the party may work towards a single party system in the future, given that dictatorship of the proletariat has prime of place in the Maoist lexicon. In fact, some hardline leaders of the party have suggested a people’s republic similar to that of China on a number of occasions even after Maoists joined the political mainstream. These ideas might have encouraged China to attempt to consolidate its position in Nepal by continuously engaging the Maoists at the political, economic, military and social levels, and thus secure its strategic interests in the region.

    In fact, twelve high-level Chinese delegations, including two military teams, visited Nepal in the course of 2008-2009. During these visits, China has repeatedly assured economic, technological and military aid to Nepal. The Maoist-led government was also asked to adopt a ‘One-China’ policy, not to allow Nepalese land for anti-China activities, take strong action against Tibetan refugees and grant special facilities for Chinese investments in strategic sectors. Beijing has also initiated Track-II diplomacy with Nepal and invited Nepalese scholars to undertake visits to Chinese think tanks.

    Some of the important visits from China to Nepal were:

    • 25 February 2009: Assistant Chinese Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue led a 14-member delegation.
    • 19 February 2009: Liu Hongcai, Vice Minister of the International Department of the central committee of the CPC led a delegation to take part in the inaugural ceremony of the 8th convention of the UML in Butwal.
    • 10 February 2009: A high level Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) delegation, one of the largest delegations in two months, arrived in Nepal.
    • 06 December 2008: Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of General Staff of the PLA headed a ten-member delegation. China agreed to provide US $2.61 million worth of security assistance to Nepal.
    • 01 December 2008: China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Nepal.
    • 24 July 2008: Chinese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wu Dawei, visited Nepal. He pledged a grant assistance of 100 million yuan as economic and technical cooperation.
    • 04 March 2008: Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs of China, He Yafei, undertook a three-day visit to Nepal.

    Nepal’s engagements with China have also increased manifold with the visit of delegations both at State and non-state levels. Apart from visits at the official levels, private visits by political leaders, journalists and academicians are also sponsored by China as part of public diplomacy. During these visits Chinese authorities have reportedly assured all kinds of support to the Maoist government in its efforts aimed at laying the foundation for a ‘New Nepal’. For the Nepalese Maoists, growing Chinese engagement is a win-win situation in line with their ‘policy of equidistance’, which has been deliberately adopted to counter-balance India’s influence in Nepal.

    The increasing level of bilateral engagement also indicates that China is wooing Nepal as a new strategic partner. This has been confirmed by the statements made by various Chinese officials. For example, on 16 February 2009, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in Beijing that China would prefer to work with Nepal on the basis of a strategic partnership. In fact, Vice Minister of International Department of the Central Committee of Communist Party of China, Liu Hongcai said in Kathmandu in February 2009 that “we oppose any move to interfere in the internal affairs of Nepal by any force.” Similarly, on November 04, 2008, Liu Hong Chai, International Bureau Chief of the Chinese Communist Party, stated that “China will not tolerate any meddling from any other country in the internal affairs of Nepal- our traditional and ancient neighbour.”

    China has also submitted to Kathmandu a draft Sino-Nepal friendship treaty. The draft states that China will not attack Nepal and would respect Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Nepal would recognize ‘One China’ policy and not allow its territory to be used for “anti-China” activities. The draft treaty in fact looks more like a strategic one that is tilted highly in favour of Chinese security concerns. China needs this agreement because it does not have confidence in the democratic arrangements and future governments in Nepal, and wishes to consolidate its position while the Maoists are in power.

    China has penetrated the Nepalese political system by gaining the confidence of hardline communist leaders both in the CPN-UML and the CPN-Maoist. China is also known to have played a major role in facilitating the alliance between the CPN-UML and the Maoists. Prior to Jhala Nath Khanal becoming UML Chief, a four-member Chinese delegation visited Kathmandu on May 10, 2008 and met Khanal and other Maoist leaders. A senior delegation from the Communist Party of China led by vice Minister Liu Hongcai was also in Kathmandu in February 2009 to attend the inaugural ceremony of the 8th national convention of the UML. The victory of Khanal as chairman of the UML, who is close to Prime Minister Prachanda, has been crucial for the survival of the Maoist-led coalition government.

    The nature of Chinese engagements in Nepal goes beyond the political domain. They might also be aimed at influencing the process of drafting of the new constitution to ensure that China’s long-term interests are served, particularly in hydropower and other strategically important projects. China has also assured Nepal help in the modernization and integration of registered Maoist guerrillas into the Nepal Army.

    Considering the strategic and economic interests Beijing has in Nepal, in terms of energy from hydro projects and as a transit country between China and India, China may expand its state level engagements by entering into long-term agreements at various levels. The proposed new friendship treaty marks the beginning of this process. Moreover, the treaty may enhance the bargaining power of the Maoist government vis-à-vis India to resolve some of the long standing disputes between the two countries.

    Any foreign presence in Nepal is a concern for India. Given the centuries-old socio-cultural and economic ties between India and Nepal, recent Chinese insistence on closing the Indo-Nepal open border is a matter of concern for both countries. The Indo-Nepal relationship was acknowledged as “unassailable” during the official visit of Nepalese Prime Minister, Puspa Kamal Dahal to New Delhi in September 2008. But an ‘equidistance policy’ can only come at the expense of India-Nepal relations.