The Dragon’s cub

chiran-jung-thapaBy Chiran Jung Thapa, Kathmandu
27 November 2016

Filipino President – Rodrigo Duterte has hogged the limelight for his draconian measures against drug peddlers and users, and also for his erratic antics, and a penchant for expletives which even included a derogatory slur aimed at the President of the United States. More gripping was his volte face on the United States – a long time patron and ally through an overt and ostentatious tilt towards China. Before Durete’s Sino leanings, however, another South Asian country had leaned towards China. When Nepal promulgated its constitution in 2014 with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, it surprisingly became unpalatable to Nepal’s southern neighbor – India. Enraged by Nepal’s snub to its diktat on the constitutional tenets, it strangled Nepal with a menacing blockade. Left with only one dignified alternative, the government at the time led by K.P. Oli was compelled to tap China to liberate Nepal from India’s suffocating grip.

Even before Oli’s overtures, China’s concern and interests in Nepal had already increased exponentially after the abolition of the Monarchy in 2008. The unsurpassed number of high level Chinese delegations to Kathmandu exhibited that concern. Previously, China’s engagement and approach in Nepal were founded on two premises. First, the Mandarins regarded the Palace as the primary source of power in Nepal and remained assured that the Palace would safeguard Chinese security interests.  Second, it acknowledged and embraced the notion that due to various cultural and religious affinities, Nepal fell under the Indian sphere of influence. Following the abolition of Monarchy, however, those considerations abruptly ceased. Bereft of any trustworthy partner, the torrent of Chinese delegations became unrelenting. Driven by their perpetual pursuit of ensuring their national security interests, the Mandarins have continued to flock to Nepal in hordes to cultivate ties with the new power players of Nepal and jockey for influence.

nepal-chinaChina is widely known to have two primary interests in Nepal.  First and foremost, it regards the Tibetan activism abetted and fanned by the Western and Indian patrons as its primary security concern in Nepal. Second, the revving and insatiable Chinese economy now warrants Nepal to be viewed through the economic lens as well. Nepal is widely known to be endowed with handsome amounts of high grade Uranium, oil, gas and many other minerals; that potential still remains untapped. China is ravenously salivating to explore and extract those resources to feed its mammoth economy.

Unlike in the past, China has also begun to dabble more proactively in Nepal’s political realm. Jhalnath Khanal’s prime-ministership is often attributed to the Mandarin maneuvers. India’s displeasure somewhat validates the Chinese role because India has always officiously sought to get every Nepalese prime minister to visit Delhi immediately following his ascendancy. Mr Khanal, however, remains the only Nepalese Prime Minister not welcomed in India. The leaked audiotape of the conversation between the current Finance Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara and a Chinese representative where Mr Mahara is heard soliciting an extortionate amount to buy off parliamentarians also revealed China’s involvement. More recently, there were sensational reports about how India was hell bent on stopping K.P. Oli from becoming prime minister after Sushil Koirala. While India overtly backed Mr Koirala, the Chinese too were busy stitching an alliance of the willing political forces in the Parliament which ultimately resulted in Oli’s victory. When Prachanda was about to break off the alliance with Mr Oli last March, it was reported that he initially refrained from pulling out at the behest of the Chinese. Reports of Chinese influence over Terai-based regional parties that are widely known for their Indian linkages and leanings have also come to the fore. There are even reports that Chinese representatives often attend internal deliberations of these Terai-based regional parties as invited observers.

Dragon’s dexterity

Adhering to its sacrosanct national mantra of peaceful rise, Chinese comportments in Nepal have been subtle, surreptitious and suave. While each and every Indian pursuit in Nepal evokes suspicion and subsequent condemnation, the Chinese pursuits are executed speedily, stealthily and with a whole lot of finesse. To illustrate, in the aftermath of Nepal’s earthquake, India provided the most support to the rescue and relief operations. The Chinese, however, gained more gratitude and adulations for their contributions. Hundreds of blue tents emblazoned with white Chinese characters were pitched in the heart of Kathmandu (adjoining Nepal Army’s HQ where the multi-national force coordination center was housed). Media representatives that converged at NA HQ for updates on the relief operations could not ignore the blue tents housing thousands of victims. In a largely symbolic act, hundreds of Chinese security personnel also marched across the border into Nepal with shovels in their hands to clear the roads that had been clogged due to landslides. Cognizant of Nepalese affection for superstar Jackie Chan, they even managed to fly him in for a day to meet the earthquake victims. Chan’s visit helped boost the dreary spirits of the victims who thronged to see the superstar. Although India did the most, a mound of opprobrium was heaped on them particularly due to the insensitive reporting by Indian media. In contrast, the Chinese, highly attentive to symbolism, basked in the plaudits by simply being contextually sensitive and astutely taking advantage of every opportunity.

In several quarters, the impeachment motion filed in the Parliament against the head of Commission of Interrogation of abuse of authority (CIAA) – Lokman Singh Karki is also being linked to the Chinese nudge. One particular news report even claimed that the Indian envoy had pointed fingers at the Chinese for orchestrating the impeachment motion. There is some merit to Indian envoy’s claim because irrespective of whether Karki is retained or impeached, India is poised to lose some points in this game. If Karki is impeached and removed, the loss will be propagated as a loss for India because it is widely reported that India ensconced him in that preeminent pedestal. Apparently, he was installed for the strategic purpose of controlling Nepal’s power-bearers almost all of whom were or are enmeshed in corrupt practices. Even if he is retained, allegations against Indian interference and manipulations will most certainly reverberate in the Nepalese parliament, media and social media which would only further malign India’s already malevolent image.

Similarly, the most recent controversy surrounding Sher Bahadur Deuba is also rumored to have some Mandarin paw prints. Deuba, the presumptive successor of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s was pummeled by reports that alleged him of meeting Tibetan leaders while in India. Upon arrival talking to reporters at the airport, a fuming Mr Deuba rubbished all these allegations. However, when pictures of him sitting next to the Tibetan Prime Minister (in exile) at an event surfaced, it put him in an even more compromising position. Later, media reported that he had met the Chinese ambassador at his residence and had profusely denied the meetings with Tibetans and affirmed his resolute stance on one China policy. This incident displayed Chinese sensitivities matter more than ever. It also displayed the subtle Mandarin maneuvers and conveyed a stern message that any anti-China activity in Nepal would be untenable and intolerable.

Chinese assertiveness vis-à-vis Nepal has also come through other subtle signals. Initially, there were plans afoot to welcome the Chinese premier but the current government scuttled the plans to obsequiously please India and instead welcomed the Indian President. Dismayed with the Nepalese government for having reneged on its earlier commitment it countered by sending a highly symbolic message by means of neighboring Bangladesh. During a stopover following the BRICs conference in India, the Chinese President signed deals worth 20 billion dollars with Bangladesh which happens to be ten times more than the 2 billion credit line provided to Bangladesh by India. Many interpreted the Chinese largesse as muscle flexing at its best to browbeat India. But, the unmistakable message was to simultaneously entice and penalize Nepal for its north and south oscillations.

Sino sway in security services

General Chen Bingde, the then General Chief of Staff of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reportedly made an outstanding pledge to the Nepalese Army (NA) during his visit to Kathmandu. He assured the NA brass that China would from then on provide military assistance to Nepal in consonance with China’s GDP growth rate and if that rate somehow remained stagnant or plummeted, the PLA would itself find alternative sources to compensate for the shortfall and continue to provide to the NA.

Even before that pledge, however, Chinese influence had been subtly permeating across all the security agencies particularly following the political upheaval of 2006. Chinese influence in the security agencies has greatly increased through its largesse and the trips and courses offered to security officials. Almost every senior security official in Nepal has visited China. The hospitality accorded to the visitors is reportedly lavish and unparalleled. More importantly, the security officials return from their trips marveling at China’s accomplishments and preponderance. The Nepali recipients also develop a sense of indebtedness towards the host for a gratifying Mandarin hospitality. As a consequence, the perception germinating in the psyche of Nepali security officials is that Chinese preponderance far supersedes Indian abilities and only rivals the Americans. Furthermore, the most conspicuous Chinese assistance rendered to the security agencies until now is the Armed Police Force Academy being built in outskirts of Kathmandu. The scale of infrastructure is grand and is incomparable to other edifices owned by any other security agency in Nepal. There is a great likelihood that after its completion, it will leave the other agencies coveting for Chinese assistance. Another glaring fact is that NA Generals graduating from China’s National Defense University already outnumber graduates from other countries by a ratio of 4 to 1. Senior security officials concede that China is apparently open to providing whatever the security agencies demand and it is the Nepali side that has been unable to extract much from that generous offer.

Sino shackles

Despite a palpable surge in the Chinese interest and influence in Nepal, there are two intractable limitations for the Mandarins. First, there is a significant linguistic and cultural barrier to surmount for both sides. There are very few Nepalese officials and nationals that speak the language and the Chinese culture is still foreign to most and same goes for the Chinese. Irrespective of the Confucius centers mushrooming across Nepal and a large number of Nepali students going to China for higher education, deciphering the Chinese idiosyncrasies is still a grueling affair in Nepal.

The second barrier pertaining to the credibility and reliability of the Mandarins is far knottier. Despite the visceral distaste for the Southern neighbor entrenched in the Nepalese psyche, many in Nepal’s strategic community still find it difficult to trust the northern neighbor. China’s reliability and credibility as a trusted partner is still questionable given its pusillanimous past in Nepal. Beholden to India for its cardinal role in institutionalizing the multi-party system, the Nepali politicians in the 90s slavishly pandered to India by offering the largest market share in Nepal. Therefore, they strategically dismantled the exclusive and all profit making industries established with Chinese assistance. Trolley bus, Bansbari leather factory, Janakpur cigarette factory, Harsiddhi brick factory were some of industries that were made defunct. China, however, meekly and mutely remained an insouciant witness to it all. More seared in the national memory is the incident when Nepal purchased anti-aircraft guns from China back in the late eighties. For that procurement, India vindictively imposed a blockade on Nepal. China did not come to Nepal’s rescue, as it remained impuissant. This led to the downfall of the Monarch led Panchyat regime. During the Dhaka SAARC summit in 2005, the then Nepalese Monarch King Gyanendra had brazenly proposed China as an observer in SAARC. A miffed India instantaneously cobbled an anti-establishment coalition within a week following the summit. The coalition labeled as seven party alliance (SPA) even comprised of the Maoists who were until then branded as terrorists both by Nepal and India. That very coalition launched an uprising against the monarch led regime and ultimately uprooted the monarchy. China phlegmatically invoked the non-interference clause then and let it all play out. Most recently, when India yet again put a chokehold on Nepal by imposing a crippling blockade, the previous government led by KP Oli instead of tapping out, opted for the northern option. In an unprecedented departure from the southern tilt, the government signed a trade and transit treaty with China along with nine other pacts hoping to unfetter Nepal from the shackles of India’s market tyranny. The Oli led government, however, met a similar fate as the two previous monarchs. It too was dislodged as a result of the India machinations. Once again, there were no definitive Chinese counter maneuvers to buttress the Oli-led government.

Recently, there have been innumerable commentaries about how there has been a paradigm shift in Beijing’s outlook towards Nepal. Clearly, Nepal is more than just a neighbor in the Chinese geopolitical thought. Its overtures and activities are beginning to attest to that. Following the trade and transit treaty and other pacts signed between the two countries, China’s national interest and repute are now more inextricably intertwined with Nepal. More importantly, the Chinese who are high on symbolism can now ill-afford to take Nepal’s northern tilt during its distressed hour flippantly because optics and acoustics do matter in the geopolitical realm. It also comes at a crucial juncture in its history because China in the final stages of its metamorphosis into world’s preeminent power. China understands that its predominant status in the global order necessitates an assembly of willing allies like Philippines and Nepal who have gone and sat in the dragon’s lap for their own reasons. While it is too early to tell how the dragon will nurture this new dynamic in Nepal, all are left to decipher the symbolism in the appointment of a lady envoy to Nepal and the recent welcome accorded to the dethroned Nepali Monarch in Beijing. Will a lady’s touch have a different bearing on bilateral relations and has the former monarch just become an indispensable variable in the mandarin calculus for Nepal? Only time will tell.

Mr Thapa is a Kathmandu-based Security and Defense analyst.

Opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the writer.

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