Nepal has increasingly become a place of great power competition between its neighbors India and China. Both the decision not to allow the Tibetan refugee population to vote for its government-in-exile in March of this year and the recent visit of the Chinese army chief who promised a military aid package worth $19 million indicate strong Chinese presence. As India moves to counter Chinese actions, political progress in Nepal will be undermined.
To most, Nepal may look like a peaceful place. Right at the foot of the Himalayas, there is indisputably some romanticism about it. But as its political background reveals itself, such an impression quickly becomes an illusion. Torn by a decade-long conflict between government forces and the Maoist insurgency, Nepal has only recently begun to pursue a more democratic path. The monarchy was abolished and the Federal Republic of Nepal officially declared in 2008. Yet the recent visit of the Chinese army chief, which has sparked Indian concerns over China’s strategic encirclement, indicates that Nepal’s future is likely to be overshadowed by great power competition.
While having strong cultural ties to Nepal, India’s influence in the country faded throughout the 2000s. The first signs of deteriorating relations between the two neighbors appeared after Nepalese King Gyanendra acceded to the throne following his brother’s violent death in 2001. New Delhi did not get along well with the new monarch, and when tensions were rising in the country, the Indian government decided to halt arms export and shift support to more democratic forces. Eventually, this led to an agreement between the Maoists and other political entities. Yet when the Maoists actually won the elections in 2008, India had difficulties in constructively engaging with the new political force as it faces itself a communist insurgency in several regions.
China, aware of the waning support for India in Nepal, took advantage of the emerging rift. In a largely symbolic event, the King was invited to Beijing in July 2002 and met with then-president Jiang Zemin. During that encounter, a trade agreement was signed between the two countries, only one of the many events which have strengthened economic ties over the past years. The King was supported by China until he lost popular support, and only then was dialogue with political parties initiated.
2. Shared interests?
India and China’s interests in Nepal are only remotely overlapping. In the case of China, the primary security concern with regard to Nepal is the Tibetan refugee population of around 20,000 which is perceived as a threat to China’s stability. That the Nepalese government is receptive to Chinese demands became clear in March of this year, when it decided not to allow the refugees to vote for their government-in-exile. Moreover, during the visit of Chinese army chief Chen Bingde to Kathmandu at the end of the same month, Nepalese defense minister Paudel gave assurance that no anti-Chinese activities on or from Nepalese soil would be tolerated.
India has been concerned that Nepalese Maoists might team up with their Indian counterparts, the Naxalites. Indeed, links between the two groups, and the mutual support of weapons and the like across an open border, have existed for quite some time now. In 2005, New Delhi reportedly called upon Beijing to stop supporting the King, as it feared an escalation of Maoist-led violence that would spill-over into India. Yet, what Peter Jones has labeled “strategic altruism”, that is, taking into account the security concerns of other states in the region in national decision-making processes in the interest of the acting state, has been absent on both the Chinese and Indian sides with regard to Nepal. While both are interested in a stable Nepalese state, the way in which they envisage such an objective varies considerably. This is also influenced by other factors; it is relatively easy for China to take a practical approach. Paradoxically, India, because of its cultural ties with Nepal, has a more difficult job to do.
3. Diverging responses
Nevertheless, this common security concern is far from being manifested in concerted actions. This is the case because of the larger geostrategic picture. Nepal is the last buffer zone between India and China, since the latter invaded Tibet in the 1950s. This invasion reduced Indian strategic territory, which now needs to be ensured by maintaining control in Nepal while trying to limit Chinese influence. Concerns about Chinese strategic encirclement of India have indeed become stronger as Beijing continues to foster its relations with the other states in the region. The most prominent expression of these concerns was the notion of the “string of pearls,” coined by a Department of Defense subcontractor in 2004 and then taken up by different military scholars in the US, ultimately fuelling doubts about what China asserts to be a peaceful economic expansion. In a talk recently given in Paris, former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal pointed out that the “string of pearls” was more than a PR-concept aiming at fueling fear of China’s rise, thus suggesting that competition in the Indian Ocean was likely to gain momentum in the years to come. Nepal might not be an Indian Ocean state, but Chinese actions there are regarded by the Indian defense establishment through the same lens. Mistrust abounds, China’s advancement in India’s neighborhood causes headaches in New Delhi.
The provision of a military aid package worth $19 million to Nepal, announced by the Chinese army chief during his visit, is a largely symbolic move. The sum, while important for Nepal, is insignificant for China. It is yet another episode of Chinese posturing. But as coverage in the Indian press suggests, it fulfills its role by unsettling the government and the defense establishment in New Delhi. India is up to play the game. In fact, just as the Chinese army chief was leaving Kathmandu, a parliamentary delegation from India arrived.
Underneath all the symbolism, this great power competition threatens to endanger political progress in Nepal. The country is currently struggling to adopt a new constitution that was due on May 28, 2011. On May 13th, the government of Prime Minister Kahlal announced an extension of the deadline. With China and India both having a stake in domestic politics and aiming to exclude one another from the influence-seeking game, it may take more time until Nepal will be able to move forward.
Radu Botez (Guest-contribution)
Radu Botez is managing editor of InFocus, a student-run international affairs magazine and partner of IFAIR.
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