By Choodamani Bhattarai, Leesburg
28 December 2016
Last week, Nepal’s deputy prime minister and finance minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara hosted a dinner in honour of visiting Chinese leader Liu Qibao. The minister for foreign affairs, Dr. Prakash Saran Mahat, did not attend the official reception. According to sources, Minister Mahat had completed his scheduled talks with a Mongolian government minister by the time the party would have kicked off; and he did not have further engagement for rest of the evening. He nevertheless chose not to attend despite the finance minister’s repeated requests.
Mr Mahat’s conspicuous absence is believed to be a curt response to the Chinese leader’s snub to the ruling Nepali Congress party, specially its president Sher Bahadur Deuba. Mr Qibao had apparently belittled the former prime minister by sending his junior to a scheduled meeting. By doing so, China wanted to send a clear message to hint its displeasure with the party Mr Deuba presides over.
It is no secret that China is extremely sensitive on any issues related to the activities of Dalai Lama’s government in exile and other Tibetan refugee organisations. China regards meeting the Dalai Lama or his cabinet ministers as an anti-China activity. The Nepali Congress president Deuba was embroiled in a major controversy regarding this issue last month. Mr Deuba was invited to attend India Foundation’s programme where the speech of Dalai Lama was broadcast through a video conference. He later claimed that the meeting with Lopsang Sange, the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile , during the programme on 6 November 2016 in Goa was not anticipated. Though the programme was planned and set by India, Mr Deuba failed to distance himself from the event; he could have cited Nepal’s One China policy for instance. Many believe he fell into the trap of Indian government and its think tank organisations. To appease the Chinese, Mr Deuba would later refuse meeting Mr Lopsang in Goa and he repeatedly claimed that Nepali Congress had not changed its ‘One-China’ policy. It did not work.
Growing Chinese influence in Nepal’s political landscape has become a major headache to India. It is always apprehensive of growing Chinese presence in the region. India has been making efforts to counter China in Nepal through local political leaders. Mr Deuba, the Prime Minister of Nepal in wait, was used this time as a pawn to send a message to China. The recent Chinese fury towards Nepali Congress and its leaders is also because of Home Minister Bimalendra Nidhi who reportedly disregarded Chinese concerns about an art exhibition held at Babarmahal in Kathmandu. The Embassy of China in Nepal had informed the local government in an effort to stop anti-China displays at the exhibition held on 7 November 2016. Though Foreign Minister Mahat tried to allay Chinese concerns, the home ministry remained utterly irresponsive. To utter consternation of the Chinese, the art exhibition had Dalai Lama’s flag in prominent display – an act China normally does not expect to see in Nepal. In the end, the home ministry ordered the removal of the Tibetan flag.
Despite these diplomatic tussles, China has not stopped increasing its diplomatic and business activities in Nepal. It continues to work towards establishing closer ties with various sectors in Nepal. The new Chinese policy is to establish an enhanced people to people relationship with Nepal, a la Indo-Nepal relations. This is becoming increasingly evident from the frequency of Nepal visits by Chinese leaders and high-ranking government officials. They all aim to expand their influence in government and nongovernmental sectors of Nepal.
Mr Liu, on his recent meeting with Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, expressed concerns about the implementation of the previously sealed agreements of mutual cooperation. The previous government led by CPN UML chairman KP Oli had signed (in March 2016, during KP Oli’s China visit) a ten-point agreement with the Chinese government. But his government was soon dislodged. As expected by many, the new government lacked Mr Oli’s enthusiasm for northern alliance. So the agreed agendas between the previous government and the communist nation were lost in the country’s never-ending political squabbling. Most telling about Nepal’s reluctance is a set bilateral trade meeting which remains postponed.
China is spreading its influence across South Asia through various direct and indirect diplomatic moves. The Global Times, considered the mouthpiece of Chinese foreign policy, is frequently critical about India’s role in Nepali internal political affairs. China aggressively reacted to India’s view about Chinese freight train towards Nepal. The Global Times stated that the train towards Nepal is for Chinese business and it warned India of a negative impact on Indo-China relations if it took it otherwise. The publication asserts that China started the train to carry goods imported by Nepali businessman from sea ports to near Nepal border, five times a week. Reacting to this, India said the Chinese were invading Nepal’s free market. Only weeks earlier, China responded by warning India not to force Nepal to take sides and to stay away from Nepal-China relations.
The Chinese inclination towards South Asia came through Nepal. When ex-king Gyanendra-led government officially proposed China to be an observer country of Saarc, India wasn’t happy. Even Pakistan, China’s all-weather friend and ally, had not dared raise the issue. This proposal was clearly against Indian interest in South Asia. So India responded immediately by propping the then agitating political parties (seven main political parties agitating against ex-king Gyanedra Shah’s direct rule) that ultimately finished off 240 year old monarchy of the Himalayan nation. Since the abolition of monarchy, China has been seeking for a reliable partner in Nepal and has been cultivating ties with all political and non political forces in the country. China once had deep ties with Pushpa Kamal Dahal after it found him to be anti-India and a nationalist leader. He did try to appease the communist superpower by officially lobbying the Chinese agenda of setting up a tri-lateral mechanism between China, India and Nepal but India rejected it outright. That cost him his prime ministership. The repercussions did not stop there; his party split into various groups resulting in a poor performance in the second constituent assembly election.
It seems Mr Dahal, alias Prachanda, learnt his lessons. After the dismissal of the Oli government, though China has made several attempts at building ties with Mr Dahal, he has displayed a clear pro-India tilt. Despite Mr Dahal’s southward inclination, the Chinese are still moving forward to expand their influence across South Asia by engaging with other powerful entities. Hence, the first ever joint military exercise between the People’s Liberation Army and Nepal Army early next year. A development which speaks volume about the unstoppabel Chinese advance and influence in the region.
Choodamani Bhattarai is a Nepali journalist currently based in the USA. (The southasia.com.au is not responsible for any aspect of this article or the opinions expressed therein.)