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Nepal's Maoists take a wary step out of India-China shadow

September 22, 2008

KATHMANDU (AFP) - Landlocked, impoverished Nepal has always struggled 
to punch above its diplomatic weight, but its new Maoist leader has 
lost no time in shaking up ties with giant neighbours India and China.

In office for barely a month, Prime Minister Prachanda, a former 
warlord, has already visited both countries, signalling his desire for 
closer ties with Beijing and a stronger voice in dealings with 
traditional ally New Delhi.

In an apparently calculated snub to India, Prachanda broke with long-
standing precedent by visiting China first.

Past Nepali leaders have always made New Delhi their first port of 
call and Prachanda's move ruffled official feathers in India which is 
extremely wary of any regional shift that might complicate its 
difficult relations with China.

"His China visit broke a long tradition and sent a message that the 
Maoist-led government wants to change position," said Gunaraj Luitel, 
an editor with New Republic, an English language daily in Nepal.

Although Prachanda insisted that his attendance at the closing 
ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games did not constitute an "official" 
visit, he did meet with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

His subsequent official visit to India was a warm one, but on his 
return to Kathmandu, Prachanda explicitly laid out Nepal's aspirations 
for a diplomatic realignment.

"In the past Nepal has had closer connections with India ... I am of 
the view that Nepal will now build equal relations with both 
neighbours," said the prime minister, whose real name is Pushpa Kamal 
Dahal but who prefers his nom-de-guerre Prachanda, meaning "the fierce 
one".

While in New Delhi, Prachanda also pushed for the re-negotiation of a 
treaty that has governed bilateral relations for more than half a 
century.

Many Nepalis argue that the 1950 Indo-Nepal pact allows India an 
excessive say in their country's political and economic affairs -- 
most notably a clause preventing Nepal buying arms and weapons from a 
third country without Indian permission.

Some analysts say Prachanda's efforts to project the image abroad of a 
more assertive Nepal are largely aimed at appeasing nationalist 
sentiment at home, and that his overtures towards China are little 
more than an unsubtle bid to gain more leverage in dealings with India.

"Playing India off against China ... has never really worked in the 
past," said one Western diplomat here.

The fact is that Nepal's landlocked status makes it hugely dependent 
on India, which supplies all of the Himalayan nation's oil products 
and the vast bulk of its consumer goods.

This severely restricts Prachanda's room for manoeuvre, and provoking 
any serious rift with New Delhi could result in a repeat of the 
crippling economic blockade imposed by India in the late 1980s 
following a dispute over transit rights.

"The Maoist-led government may try to decrease Indian dominance in 
Nepal but it won't happen anytime soon because we are not yet 
politically stable and we are economically dependent," said researcher 
and political analyst Basker Gautam.

Gautam also suggested that the new prime minister's pro-China leanings 
were partly motivated by a desire to underline his party's 
"revolutionary image".

For the 20,000 exiled Tibetans living in Nepal, however, they pose a 
very real threat. Last week, the Nepalese Ministry said any Tibetan 
who did not have any official refugee papers would be deported.

The move followed large protests by the exiles in Kathmandu over a 
Chinese crackdown in Tibet.

"This is one area where the new government has made a change to keep 
China happy," said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of the weekly magazine, 
Samay.
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