After Beijing adopted a new policy for the conduct of relations towards its neighbours, or what Chinese analysts call “peripheral diplomacy” last October, Nepal’s importance has grown. Beijing has also broadened the scope of its political interactions and it has now seemingly opted to take on the role of mediator in Nepal’s domestic politics. Since the 1980s Beijing had avoided involvement, or interference, in a country’s internal affairs except, till recently, in the cases of Sudan and Myanmar. Beijing’s new “activism” in Nepal’s domestic politics threatens to adversely tip the delicate balance that Nepal’s political leaders have thus far maintained with India.
The unsettled domestic political situation in Nepal offers Beijing fresh opportunities to deepen and consolidate influence in that country. Considerations of security continue to be among the primary drivers, with Beijing extremely wary that Tibetans settled in Nepal could indulge in what it perceives as “anti-China” activities. Beijing remains apprehensive that Nepal, which has a 1,400km border with the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), could be used as a springboard by “hostile powers”—short-hand for the US—for fomenting unrest inside Tibet.
A succession of high-level visits from various departments of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and government that Kathmandu witnessed over the past year point to China’s steadily growing interest. On an average, at least two Chinese delegations visited Kathmandu each month. The number has increased since October with four important Chinese delegations visiting Nepal in December alone. In 2011, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had, ignoring Nepal’s defence ministry’s advice to the contrary, established direct links with the Nepalese Army during the visit of PLA chief general Chen Bingde.
Two of the recent visits were more important. One was by a 10-member delegation led by Qiu Guoheng, former Chinese ambassador to Nepal and presently director general of external security in China’s ministry of foreign affairs (MFA), to Kathmandu in early December to ostensibly “understand” the new political developments.
The director general of external security in China’s MFA is especially responsible for monitoring activities relating to Tibetans and Uyghurs. Qiu Guoheng’s delegation included officials from the departments of public security, United Front, Tibetan affairs and the MFA. In a separate interview China’s current ambassador to Nepal, Wu Chuntai—formerly deputy director general of the MFA’s external security division—highlighted Beijing’s concern about the activities of Nepal-based Tibetans. He thanked Nepal for foiling any sort of penetration into Tibet via Nepal.
Quite unusually for a delegation led by an official, Qiu Guoheng met leaders of various political parties. Congratulating CPN-UML leader Jhala Nath Khanal for his party’s good performance in the recent elections, he conveyed that following the conference in Beijing last October on China’s “peripheral diplomacy”, Beijing had decided to revise upward the quantum of foreign assistance it gives to developing countries in its neighbourhood. Nepal and Pakistan, he assured, will particularly benefit. He added China would give added emphasis to economic development of the western region that would benefit Nepal.
This reference would be to the south-westerly branch of the old “Silk Road”, now proposed as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor. It begins in China’s Yunnan province and moves through Myanmar and Bangladesh to India’s northeast and across towards Turkey. China had also agreed to consider Nepal’s request for extending the 1,200km Qinghai-Lhasa-Shigatse railway to Kathmandu. Discussions are underway. Once completed, the railway will alter the geostrategic balance in the region.
The other important delegation was one led by vice-minister Ai Ping of the CCP Central Committee (CC)’s international liaison department. His three-day visit in mid-December is significant because he is reputed to be a close friend of UCPN Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda. Prachanda has close links with China and was responsible during his term as prime minister for giving Nepal’s foreign policy its pronounced pro-Beijing tilt. The setback to the UCPN, and Prachanda personally, at the recent elections in Nepal must be a cause for worry to Beijing. Reports state that Ai Ping spent considerable time with senior leaders of the UCPN and CPN-Maoist and urged both parties to work together for drafting the constitution. He told CPN-Maoist founder chairman Mohan Bahidya that relations with China would remain good provided the CPN-Maoist cooperates with the UCPN. He advised Nepali leaders, including Sushil Koirala, that if Nepal has fewer federal provinces it would find it more economical and easier to manage. China is concerned that federalism based on ethnic lines will weaken its influence. It apprehends that this could also create instability in Nepal and spark tension in TAR.
China has advanced its interests on other fronts too and, by the last fiscal 575 Chinese companies had received approval from the department of industry for FDI. FDI from India remains highest totalling `37.6 billion compared to `10.6 billion from China. Huawei and ZTE already have a monopoly in the telecom infrastructure sector. China’s focus is on Nepal’s hydropower, tourism and agriculture. Tourism-related sectors are other areas of China’s interest. Negotiations are also underway for direct flights between China and Nepal by a fourth Chinese airline and China has agreed to give Nepal a concessional loan for the purchase of six aircraft. While the increasing number of Chinese tourists to Nepal would be a major economic incentive, it would also give Beijing additional leverage over Nepal.
At the same time Nepal’s tour operators are unhappy that the government continues to deny them permission for trekking and mountaineering activities in areas like Upper Mustang and Upper Dolpo, because of objections from Beijing. Chinese travel agencies, however, bring tourists to places like Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang.
Meanwhile, Nepal continues to be important to Beijing’s efforts to undermine the Dalai Lama’s authority among Tibetan Buddhists. A visiting senior Chinese official told a Nepalese journalist “we visit Nepal because you have Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha”. Recent reports signal the China Buddhist Association, of which the Beijing-selected 11th Panchen Lama Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu is a vice-president, will take over a project for the development of Lumbini. Originally mooted by a Chinese NGO as a US $3 billion project, it is now less ambitious, but its plans also envisage an airport and allocating land to various Tibetan Buddhist high lamas and sects.
The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the
cabinet secretariat, Indian government.