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Reversal of Role: Is China playing 'Nepal Card' now?

March 6, 2009

By Anand Gurung
Nepal News
March 5, 2009

In a meeting with a visiting Chinese delegation led by Assistant Chinese Foreign Minister Liu Jieyi in his office last week, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal said he wanted to make his upcoming China visit "a historical one" and set a "new milestone" in Nepal-China relations.

He, however, need not go that extra mile, to cite an appropriate phrase, to set this "new milestone" he is talking about in the century old ties between the two countries, and stir India’s suspicion and possibly also invite its fury. For the most part, the groundwork for this diplomatic feat is being laid in Nepal by China itself, something that will be symbolised by Nepal and China signing a Peace and Friendship Accord during PM’s scheduled visit to China in the second week of April or first week of May this year.

Observers say that China proposed for a new Friendship Treaty -- the draft of which has already been handed over to acting foreign secretary by Chinese special envoy Jieyi - in order to "address the changed political situation after the abolition of monarchy in Nepal”. The first Friendship Treaty between Nepal and China was signed in 1960.

The new Friendship Treaty has been proposed at a time when the Maoist-led government wants the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which has long been seen as detrimental to Nepal’s sovereignty and hence unequal, be scrapped and a new pact negotiated with India.

That China, a global superpower, has now set about to change its traditional way of looking at Nepal with the new treaty has made India, which sees Nepal as its "diplomatic backyard" and time and again asserts its influence in the country, very anxious.

It has reasons to be. Until six months back India, basking in the glory of engineering Nepal’s smooth transition from a constitutional monarchy to a republic on the basis of the 2006 Delhi agreement it helped forge between the mainstream political parties and underground rebel Maoists, had stopped getting concerned about the purported “growing Chinese influence” in Nepal. India had valid claims in the Nepalese peace process as its rigorous behind-the-curtain negotiations and mediation had bear fruit. But all that changed after Maoist chairman Dahal was elected as the first prime minister of republic Nepal on August 15 following his party’s triumph in the Constituent Assembly election.

Interestingly, on the day Dahal was elected to the top post through parliamentary voting, Kathmandu saw the largest anti-China protests by exiled Tibetans calling for ‘Free Tibet’. Although it might just have been a coincidence that the two events took place on the same day, but its significance could not be overlooked. This was because three days later it became clear that PM Dahal will visit China for his maiden foreign tour to take part in the concluding ceremony of Beijing Olympics.

This was a clear break from the tradition, as hitherto it was rare for a Nepalese prime minister choosing a country other than India for his first trip abroad. And that too when India was the first country to invite the new PM for an official visit. This led many in India to cry foul, but for the first republican government of Nepal traditions meant little.

The visit by PM Dahal to China, even if it was just to attend the closing ceremony of the Olympic games, made two things clear. Firstly, it now made it clear that China, a former adherent of monarchy in Nepal, wanted to reach out to Unified Maoist party, the namesake of the revered Great Helmsman Mao Zedong. Secondly, China wanted to use this opportunity to send a clear-cut message that it wants the new government to severely clamp down on the growing anti-Chinese demonstration in Kathmandu by exiled Tibetans.

Subsequently after his China visit, PM Dahal went to New Delhi in what he described as his "first official foreign trip." There he emphasized Nepal’s commitment to a policy of equidistance with both neighbors. But the skeptics in India were still deeply suspicious with Dahal and could not forgive him for violating the established traditions.

The days after that saw India and China competing to woo over the Maoist government of Nepal.

Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav and his Chinese counterpart Jiechi exchange signed document on economic and technical cooperation between Nepal and China after a discussion at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday.

It was not out of nothing that PM Dahal said the two neighboring countries India and China "cannot leave Nepal languishing in under-development while they continue to march towards prosperity." Because a week after coming from his second "fruitful" India visit where he was assured India’s “continued support” for the peace process, constitution-making process and economic development in the form of greater Indian investment in the hydropower sector, a high-level Chinese military delegation led by a Major General of the Chinese Army arrived in Nepal. The delegation was mainly here to request the government of Nepal to manage its open border between India so as to check the increasing movement of Free Tibet activists from India to Nepal and discuss possible military assistance to Nepal. However, what really irked India was Deputy Prime Minister Bamdev Gautam telling the Chinese military delegation that the Kalapani border dispute could be settled through trilateral understanding between Nepal, India and China – a sort of an open request for Beijing’s involvement in the resolution of the dispute. At the same time it was known that the Foreign Ministry was preparing for the visit to China by PM Dahal, and Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav in which, according to reports, the two countries were expected to review past treaties and agreements and China could provide Rs 79 billion worth of loan for hydropower development in Nepal.

Three days later Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee arrived in Nepal on an official visit to hold bilateral talks on a range of issues including the ongoing peace process, economic cooperation and review of treaties and agreements. The visit by Indian FM was "fruitful and productive”, as was claimed by Nepalese officials, what with India, for the first time, saying it was ready to replace the “old treaties” between the two neighbors with "new ones" and agreeing to assess the progress of commitments it made to Nepal. But more than anything it was the timing of Mukherjee’s visit – India was holding state elections at that time – that made India’s growing anxieties apparent.

In between this period a British cabinet minister and army chief arrived in Nepal, but it was of such little consequence that it just received a passing mention in the Nepalese media.

As if India and China were playing a cat and mouse game in Nepal, not even a week after Mukherjee’s visit, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi arrived in Kathmandu in a first such visit at the senior most level from China following the establishment of republic and formation of Maoist-led government.

The Chinese minister thanked the initiatives taken by Nepal government to control the demonstrations against China during and after the Olympic games and handed over an invitation to PM Dahal for a China visit. As a sign of China’s appreciation to Nepal’s longstanding stance on "one China” policy, the Chinese Foreign Minister also signed an agreement to provide Rs 1.2 billion aid to Nepal to boost the country’s economic condition. Later, in a meeting with President Dr Ram Baran Yadav he pledged China’s support for protecting Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The growing Chinese engagement in Nepal didn’t come down well with US, as Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Richard Boucher shelved his scheduled trip to Nepal on the day Chinese FM was hobnobbing with top leaders of the country. This was a major setback for Nepal as Boucher was expected to announce the withdrawal of the terrorist tag his government had imposed on the Maoists.

The nightmare didn’t end here for India and the US. Close on the heels of the visit by FM Jiechi, Beijing sent a delegation of senior military officials led by deputy chief of its army to Kathmandu to hold talks with Nepalese officials on military cooperation and security. During a meeting with Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, the Chinese general pledged to provide the Nepal Army with Rs 200 million worth of security assistance to be utilized in buying non-lethal military equipment. During the same time Defense Minister Thapa also asked China to extend help for integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants and the Chinese delegation was reported to be “very positive” towards lending help on the issue.

The Sino-Indian tug-of-war was again seen in pretty much similar manner when foreign secretaries from both India and China visited Nepal recently.

In what clearly appeared to be India’s desperate effort to show that it is least concerned by China’s growing interest in Nepal, Indian foreign secretary Shiv Shanker Menon said his country has no problems regarding the bilateral relations between Nepal and China and that India’s only concern was “stability, peace and democracy in Nepal”. This even though Bharatiya Janata Party alleged the Indian government of being mute spectator to increasing Chinese influences in Nepal.

Then a week later Assistant Chinese Foreign Minister Liu Jieyi arrived in Kathmandu to urge the Nepalese government to check possible anti-China activities in March when Tibetans are planning to observe the 50th anniversary of their uprising against Chinese occupation of Tibet.

What one after another high-profile Chinese visits to the country, according to some analysts, clearly shows is that China is now trying to use the "Nepal card" -- of its growing political, economic and military engagement in Nepal -- to send a crystal clear message to the US that China wants to pre-empt any future Tibetan stir with its stern support for a more radical communist party in Nepal.

The writer can be reached at: andygurung@yahoo.com
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