Over a couple of centuries, until the beginning of the 1900s, Nepal’s relationship with Zhongguo, the Middle Country, was punctuated by the five-yearly ‘friendly missions’ that traveled overland to Beijing from Kathmandu. The Subcontinent was being overrun by aggressive British colonizers and China provided the counterweight for Nepal as a silent, non-intrusive giant. In the modern era, confronted by the need to balance India’s overwhelming presence in Nepal’s economy and polity, the Kathmandu intelligentsia privileged Beijing’s leaders and administrators with unquestioning deference. For long, Beijing continued its policy of imperial magnanimity, but now suddenly there are indications of activism if not adventurism.
Beijing’s interest in Nepal has escalated with the economic opening up of Tibet, as the railway line extends westward from Lhasa over the Changtang plateau. The Chinese planners are alert to Nepal’s natural resources and market, but even more so of the economic links that can be established with the populous Ganga plains. The increased attention to Nepal affairs is therefore natural, but there seems to be a desire in Beijing to influence political events that go beyond market access.
Politically, Beijing has been exasperated by the continuously unstable polity in a neighbor which abuts the sensitive Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Geopolitcally, Chinese strategists seem to have now decided to make Nepal a part and parcel of their Southasian outreach which includes Bangladesh, Burma, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. While the economic, political and geopolitical imperatives may be important for China, what Beijing is doing about it seems based on an under-appreciation of Nepali political realities and democratic aspirations.
Because the Chinese authorities are inscrutable and used to one-way communication with Nepali counterparts, and independent analysts and scholars hard to find, it is difficult to put a finger on Beijing’s evolved position on Nepal. Till recently, one would have been correct to hold the view that India and China competed and collaborated at such a stratospheric level that the ‘China card’, which former king Gyanendra and Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal sought to use, was a mistaken effort. Not so any more, it seems. It is clear that the relationship has been ‘upgraded’ by Beijing from benign amity to strategic friendship.
SOUTH OF THE HIMALAYA
The matrix of Nepal-China relations in the modern era was prepared in Prime Minister B P Koirala’s meeting with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in March 1960, when the Chinese agreed not to make Nepal a playing field for competition with India. Over the next few decades, China remained a stand-offish neighbor whose primary interest was that Kathmandu prevent ‘anti-China, free-Tibet’ activities from its soil. Nepali diplomacy benefited from the discreet counter-balance that Beijing provided vis-a-vis New Delhi.
Nepal reciprocated the Chinese goodwill: Kathmandu paraded its friendship with Beijing when the latter was isolated in the world, lobbying for installing China as the rightful representative of the Chinese people at the United Nations, and for its permanent seat in the Security Council. Kathmandu agreed to settle border matters without acrimony, even at the cost of its own frontier communities whose cultural continuities and access to pastures were affected.
Following the termination of the Nepali monarchy and the arrival of the UCPN (Maoist) into open politics, Beijing has made what appears to be a paradigm shift in its Nepal policy. The global ambitions of an emerging economic super-power, the willingness to turn the heat on India by getting involved in the heart of the Subcontinent, and the search for a reliable interlocutor in Kathmandu – these factors have made China now a proactive player south of the Himalaya. It could also be that the Chinese PLA wants to prevent its own political marginalization by getting involved in neighborhood matters, where earlier only the Foreign Ministry in Beijing was active.
Beijing has never tired of demanding Nepali assurances on the ‘one-China’ policy and against ‘free-Tibet’ activities, but the pressures being brought to bear on the weak Government of Nepal during this time of chaotic transition has begun to border on interventionism. Ironically, Kathmandu governments under whichever dispensation – royalist, democratic or Maoist – would never dare to nor dream of encouraging anti-China activity. Other than the brief interlude in the mid-1970s when Khamba rebels were allowed to operate along the northern rimland with CIA support and Indian complicity, Kathmandu has not encouraged anything remotely anti-Chinese even as it has followed the correct humanitarian policy on Tibetan refugees and pilgrims since the late 1950s.
Indeed, Beijing’s evolved aggressive policy on Nepal has little to do with any act or omission of the Kathmandu authorities. Mostly, they emanate from internal insecurities regarding China’s own burgeoning mutinies in the mainland and in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and TAR (280,000 uprisings in 2010, according to Forbes magazine). Beijing is exporting its insecurities to Kathmandu seeking actions that are out of proportion, demanding a ban on peaceful protests by refugees, being excessively active along the Himalayan frontier, and repeatedly demanding expressions of fealty from a feckless Kathmandu government.
The transformation in bilateral attitude began with the Beijing Olympics of 2008, when photographs of the demonstrating Tibetan monks in Kathmandu tarnished somewhat China’s projection of its ‘arrival’ on the world stage. This made Beijing livid, and the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu went into overdrive. Today, the gentlemen’s agreement on safe passage for pilgrim-refugees emerging from Tibet on the way to Dharamsala is severely weakened, with the Chinese embassy compelling the Home Ministry to prevent even the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, and to incarcerate or inhumanely push back those who cross the high passes.
Beijing seems insensitive to the fact that Nepal’s relationship with the Tibetans goes back millennia, and that Vajrayan Buddhism as well as the Bon Po faith are shared across the Himalayan rimland. Just because the borderland Bhotiya or ‘Himali’ communities have been marginalized by the Kathmandu state throughout its history and do not yet have a united voice does not mean that their sensibility should be neglected by Kathmandu – in terms of faith and crossborder access.
After the passing of Girija Prasad Koirala in 2010, Nepal lacks political leadership with the stature to argue with Beijing on matters of principle, representing deep democratic convictions. Kathmandu’s politicians, busy with the existential matters of constitution-making and the peace process, and held hostage by simultaneous, multi-layered socio-political challenges, are resigned to accept Beijing’s directives.
ENTER THE MAOISTS
Beijing craves stability in its neighborhood, democratic governance being incidental in its reckoning. Since the early 1990s, Beijing’s policymakers have followed with even some disdain Nepal’s experiment with pluralism. At the same time, having chaperoned their society into capitalist-communism as defined by Deng Xiaoping, Beijing’s commissars and generals were not pleased when the Maobaadi started their ‘people’s war’ in 1996. The Nepali rebels were highlighting an era the Chinese wanted the world to forget.
Guided by the dictates of real politic, Beijing’s attitude seemed to shift after the Maoists came above ground and won elections to land feet first in open society. With the kingship abolished, Beijing now sought a loyal intermediary in Nepal, and it has been testing the UCPN (Maoist) and its chairman to see if they can provide a one-window path to authoritarian stability.
Of course, whether aggressive or benevolent, Chinese diplomacy is meant to serve China and not Nepal. The question one may ask is whether Beijing’s ‘stability-first’ policy on Nepal is sufficiently thought-through, given that Nepal’s modern history and plural demography point to nothing less than a democratic future. In other words, a neat authoritarianism led by a radical party may be wishful thinking; no one can push back Nepal’s rambunctious open society, which is our formula for growth, progress – and stability. Given that Premier Wen Jiabao himself has spoken, most recently last month in London, of the need for political reform including “full democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice” in his own country, there should be no grudging what Nepalis have achieved after decades of struggle.
There is another matter Beijing may not have considered: The current leadership of the Maoist party will of course supplicate to Beijing in order to get a firm grip on power. But for all its ultra-nationalist, anti-India posturing, the UCPN (M) leadership could well cosy up to New Delhi and abandon all promises made to Beijing once it captures state power. The lay of the land south of the Himalaya is such that any non-democratic regime in Kathmandu is bound to willy nilly end up in New Delhi’s lap – as happened with the ultra-nationalist, autocratic monarchy so it will with the left-radicals. As things stand, we simply do not know enough to be confident that the Chinese strategists have an understanding of and empathy for Nepali history and society as they become power-players in Nepal.
(Tomorrow in the second & last installment: What is up with China, the Maoists & Lumbini?)