Just weeks before prime minister Narendra Modi is due to visit Nepal, China and Nepal visibly demonstrated their strengthening bilateral ties by exchanging high-level visits in quick succession. The focus of the visits was on enhancing security cooperation. China simultaneously sought to expand direct ties with Nepal’s political parties including by offering material assistance. Beijing had earlier, ignoring objections from the Nepal government, established direct links with Nepal’s Army and police. These efforts have been accompanied by stepped-up efforts inside China to reinforce controls in the border areas, monitor Tibetans more closely and enhance stability inside Tibet.
Noteworthy were the visits of Nepal’s vice-president Parmanand Jha to Lhasa in late September, deputy prime minister Bam Dev Gautam to Beijing and Lhasa in mid-October, and of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) chairman Lobsang Gyaltsen to Kathmandu later that month.
Jha and his entourage, who were invited to the First China-Tibet Tourism and Cultural Fair, arrived in Lhasa on September 24, and were received by TAR party secretary Chen Quanguo and chairman of the TAR people’s government Lobsang Gyaltsen. Jha also met Deng Xiaogang, who as TAR deputy secretary and secretary of the TAR politics and law committee heads Tibet’s security apparatus, and vice-chairman of the TAR people’s government Jiang Jie.
Chen Quanguo recalled the long friendship between both nations and observed that they will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties next year. TAR would adhere to the policy of an amicable, secure and prosperous neighbourhood, he assured. Jha asserted that Nepal believes in the “one-China” policy and considers Taiwan and Tibet to be inalienable parts of China. He assured that Nepal would not allow any “anti-China” activities in its territory and “around the Nepal-Tibet border”. Speaking at the Tibet Tourism and Culture Fair in Lhasa on September 26, Jha hoped the Tibet railway can be extended to Nepal to boost bilateral trade and tourism. Pointing to the “tremendous potential” for cooperation in trade, tourism, agriculture, energy and minerals, he added that better road and rail connections would help Nepal further explore the Chinese market and raise the number of Chinese tourists visiting Nepal.
The fifth Nepal-Tibet Trade Facilitation Committee also met in Lhasa on September 25-26. The Chinese delegation led by TAR deputy secretary-general Ciden Nanjie confirmed China’s agreement in principle to extend the Qinghai-Tibet Railway to Nepal’s border. Jib Raj Koirala, joint secretary of Nepal’s ministry of commerce and supplies and leader of the Nepali delegation, said “the Chinese side has agreed to forward our proposal to the central government in Beijing”.
The strategically important 253km Lhasa-Shigatse section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was operationalised in October and work has commenced to extend it another 540km up to Kyirong on Tibet’s border with Nepal. Both countries have agreed to develop road and other infrastructure along their western borders.
Bam Dev Gautam visited Beijing in mid-October. During his meeting with China’s minister of public security Guo Shengkun on October 17, the latter pledged to provide communication equipment for the Nepal Police and immediately implement the earlier agreement for establishing an Armed Police Force training centre. He assured support for enhancing the capabilities of Nepal’s home ministry, Nepal Police and the armed police force. They agreed to finalise an extradition treaty and enforce agreements for mutual legal assistance and support.
Lobsang Gyaltsen arrived in Kathmandu at the head of a six-member delegation on October 27. Measures to curb “anti-China activities” were high on his agenda. In separate talks with Bam Dev Gautam, also the minister for home affairs, and foreign affairs minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey, he said measures be put in place to curb “anti-China activities”. He stressed the need to strengthen security along the Nepal-Tibet border and sought better coordination and communication among security agencies on both sides of the border. Nepal home ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal said the TAR chairman “urged us to curb anti-China activities and take stern action against those involved in such activities”. In an apparent toughening of stance towards Tibetans, the TAR chairman asserted that “China doesn’t have any refugee as such” and those crossing the border into Nepal are “illegal”. Both Bam Dev Gautam and Pandey assured Lobsang Gyaltsen that Nepali soil would not be used against its neighbours.
Pushing forward China’s agenda for ensuring secure borders, Lobsang Gyaltsen briefed Nepal’s deputy prime minister Prakash Man Singh on plans to expand the assistance being provided by TAR to 15 northern districts of Nepal. TAR’s assistance includes essential supplies and funding for some infrastructure and social projects.
The TAR chairman also met Nepal’s president Ram Baran Yadav, prime minister Sushil Koirala and minister for culture, tourism and civil aviation Dipak Chandra Amatya. Sushil Koirala briefed the Chinese delegation about the progress in drafting the constitution and accepted the invitation to visit China.
Lobsang Gyaltsen also consolidated China’s contacts with Nepal’s political parties and had a series of meetings with their leaders. Meeting Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chairman of the Unified CPN-Maoists, he pledged 100 desktop computers to the UCPN-M. Hinting at annoyance in some quarters, Gopal Bahadur Thapa, former chief of protocol at the ministry of foreign affairs, said such assistance should be provided with the ministry’s consent and could “set a bad precedent for other countries who could also extend such assistance to political parties bypassing the government”. Lobsang Gyaltsen also met UML chairman K P Oli. The TAR chairman was quoted by Nepal’s media, saying “we do not have any objections over federalism here and we do not want to interfere in the internal affairs of Nepal”.
China is continuing to co-opt Nepali politicians while strengthening its security relationship with Nepal and trying to bring the districts bordering Tibet under its influence. Extension of the railway from Lhasa to Kathmandu and onward to Lumbini, which is being discussed, will have serious strategic implications for India. If Chinese plans for the development of Lumbini and building an airport materialise, that will add to India’s discomfiture as will the establishment of any Chinese settlement on India’s borders.
The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the cabinet
secretariat, Indian government.