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Nepal: China Connection -- Chopped Sticks

September 28, 2010

China ups the ante, looks to cut India’s influence in the Himalayan state
Manoj Dahal
Reuters (From Outlook, India)
October 4, 2010 Edition

Dragons On The Prowl

     * 21 visits by Chinese bigwigs in less than three years
     * Sees the Tibetan monasteries in Nepal as a
cockpit of conspiracies, and playing India’s games
     * JVs floated in hospitality sector
     * Successfully bids for hydro projects, till now India’s preserve
     * Warns India and the European Union about interfering in Nepal
     * Forges links with political parties other than the Maoists too

* * *

When former Indian president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
visited Nepal in November ’08, he drove straight
from the airport to the  Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling
monastery, popularly known as Seto Gumba,
throwing into a tizzy his security personnel who
were blissfully unaware of his sudden whimsy.
Kalam wanted to discuss with the abbot, Chokyi
Nyima Rimpoche, the role Buddhism could play in
mitigating hunger and hatred, the two causes of
past and future conflicts. Kalam subsequently
emerged from the discussion to declare that the
abbot’s wisdom and vision had impressed him immensely.

It’s this wisdom that have won the Rimpoche and
other Tibetan monks a huge following in
Kathmandu, which boasts in and around the city at
least 50 monasteries. For China, though, their
wisdom is diabolic, harnessed as it is to their
dream of fomenting unrest in China and winning
freedom for Tibet. To them, the monasteries are a
“cockpit of conspiracies”, arrayed against China.
Their belief matches in nature and fervour
India’s suspicion about the mushrooming of
madrassas along the open Indo-Nepal border, often
viewed in New Delhi as inimical to its security interests.

Last December, the ‘cockpit of conspiracies’,
claimed a prominent media house here quoting
intelligence sources, had become a storehouse of
arms for Free Tibet activisits. The raging
controversy even forced the intelligence
department to come out and deny the report. But
China wasn’t convinced, refusing to believe what
is now the customary response of the Nepali
government to such charges: “We will not allow
our territory to be used against China.”

China’s disquiet at such reports was articulated
during last week’s visit of He Yong, vice-premier
and central secretariat member of the Communist
Party of China (CPC), who was leading a 21-member
delegation here. He told Prime Minister Madhav
Nepal bluntly, "We want this assurance matched by
action." Linking the supposedly growing
anti-China activities to the increasing influence
of the EU and India, he spoke these words, “China
will take any interference in Nepal’s internal
affairs very seriously.” The Chinese delegation
subsequently furnished a list of instances
detailing the massive scale on which Free Tibet
activists were conducting their campaign.

You don’t have to be a diplomat to comprehend the
true import of He Yong’s statements -- that China
no longer views Nepal as India’s sphere of
influence; it fears India and other powers could
exploit the Tibet issue to destabilise China; and
Nepal is on its way to becoming a theatre of the
shadow boxing between its giant northern and
southern neighbours. China’s rising interest in
Nepal can be deduced from this simple fact—He
Yong’s visit is the 21st by China’s commissars in less than three years.

China reversed its perceived policy of
indifference to Nepal following the abolition of
monarchy. All the kings, including Gyanendra, had
nurtured a relationship of trust with the Chinese
leaders, addressing their paranoid concerns about
Tibetan activists whose activities were
stringently curbed. This had often prompted New
Delhi to accuse the monarchy of playing the China
card against India. With the monarchy summarily
voted out, experts say China wants to legitimise
its interests in Nepal and isn’t willing to
subscribe to the traditional view that India
enjoys a primacy of interest in Kathmandu.

And they haven’t been idle. Already there’s
around 75 Nepali-Chinese joint ventures in the
hospitality sector happening. As for the massage
parlours in Kathmandu’s touristy area, Thamel,
the Chinese have taken it over. Beijing has
bagged the Upper Trishuli hydro project and is
close to clinching the Rahughat hydro project in
which it will have an 80 per cent stake. (Till
now, India always sought preferential rights in
this sector over other foreign companies.) In
addition, there has been a flurry of media and
academic exchanges between Nepal and China, which
is providing scholarships to Nepali students in large numbers.

Beijing is also fishing in the veritable
political swamp of Nepal. When India allegedly
helped form the Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party
(TMLP) in ’07, Beijing viewed this as New Delhi’s
attempt to create a “buffer within a buffer"
(Nepal is popularly seen as a buffer between
China and India), detrimental to China’s
interests. In response, China forged close links
with the Madheshi Jana Adhikar Forum (MJF)—its
annual conference last year even had a delegation
of the Communist Party of China participating.
The MJF is also said to have received financial support from China.

Beijing’s desire to play a political role in
Nepal was best illustrated through the
controversial taped conversation between an
unidentified Chinese official and K.B. Mahara,
head of the foreign affairs cell of the Unified
Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN-M). Mahara
allegedly demanded from the Chinese official Rs
500 million to bribe parliamentarians into voting
for a Maoist PM. The Maoists are yet to deny the conversation.

No wonder Sinologists believe China-India issues
will dominate Nepal in the coming years. They say
Beijing’s approach to India in Nepal can be best
summed as a policy of cooperation, competition,
and if the situation demands, confrontation. This
take may not be too far-fetched as China has
linked the mainland to Tibet by the railroad,
which is expected to be further extended to
Nepal. An ‘India-locked Nepal’, a phrase popular
among many analysts here, may find a new opening
through the north. But Bhekh Bahadur Thapa,
Nepal’s most respected diplomat, told Outlook,
“We should get benefits from the world’s two
largest and emerging economies; promoting clashes
between the two countries is premature and will
be unwise. We should also not ignore the fact
that one (China) has the Himalayan corridor, and
the other (India) has an open border.”

All said, India still remains sanguine about its
prospects in Nepal. As Indian embassy
spokesperson Apoorva Srivastav puts it, “It will
be an injustice to see Nepal-India relations
through the prism of a third country. Our
relationship is multi-faceted, government to
government, business to business and people to
people.” In other words, she seems to suggest
that China’s relations with Nepal can never match
Nepal’s multidimensional relations with India.

Perhaps not yet. But there’s no denying that
China has stepped on the pedal, nurturing its own
interests, no doubt, but in the process also
subtly challenging India’s primacy here. As for
Tibetans in Nepal, China’s growing clout could
mean living constantly in the fear of incarceration and  persecution.
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