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China Intensifies Tug of War With India on Nepal

February 19, 2010

By JIM YARDLEY
The New York Times
February 18, 2010

KATMANDU, Nepal -- For years, Nepal never
bothered too much with policing its northern
border with China. The Himalayas seemed a
formidable-enough barrier, and Nepal’s political
and economic attention was oriented south toward
India. If Nepal was a mouse trapped between
elephants, as the local saying went, the elephant that mattered most was India.

But last week a Nepalese government delegation
visited Beijing on a trip that underscored, once
again, how China’s newfound weight in the world
is altering old geopolitical equations.

As Nepal’s home minister, Bhim Rawal, met with
China’s top security officials, Chinese state
media reported that the two countries had agreed
to cooperate on border security, while Nepal
restated its commitment to preventing any
“anti-China” events on its side of the border.

Details of the meetings were not yet known, but
the two countries were expected to finalize a
program under which China would provide money,
training and logistical support to help Nepal
expand police checkpoints in isolated regions of its northern border.

The reason for the deal is simple: Tibet.

At a time when President Obama’s decision to meet
with the Dalai Lama has infuriated China, Mr.
Rawal’s meetings in Beijing could have greater
practical effect on the lives of Tibetans.
Prodded by China, Nepal is now moving to close
the Himalayan passages through which Tibetans
have long made secret trips in and out of China,
often on pilgrimages to visit the Dalai Lama in his exile in India.

If it once regarded Nepal with intermittent
interest, China is now exerting itself more
broadly toward its small Himalayan neighbor,
analysts say -- partly because of its concern
that Nepal could become a locus of Tibetan
agitation, partly as another South Asian stage in
its growing soft-power fencing match in the region with India.

"Nepal has become a very interesting space where
the big players are playing at two levels," said
Ashok Gurung, director of the India China
Institute at The New School. "One is their
relationship with Nepal. And the second is the
relationship between India and China."

In the broadest sense, India and China share
similar goals in Nepal. Each wants Nepal’s
political situation to stabilize and is watching
closely as the country’s Maoists negotiate with
other political parties over a new constitution
that would fundamentally reshape the government.
Each is also worried about security, as India is
concerned about political agitation on the
Nepalese side of their shared border, as well as
the possibility that terrorists trained in
Pakistan could transit through Nepal.

But India is also paying close attention to what
many India experts consider newfound Chinese
activism in South Asia, whether by building ports
in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, or signing new
agreements with even the tiniest South Asian
nations like the Maldives. An expanding Chinese
presence in Nepal would be especially alarming to
India, given that India and Nepal share a long and deliberately porous border.

"India has always been concerned about what
access China might have in Nepal," said Sridhar
Khatri, executive director of the South Asia
Center for Policy Studies in Katmandu. "India has
always considered South Asia to be its backyard, like a Monroe Doctrine."

 From China’s perspective, Nepal’s geopolitical
significance rose after Tibetan protests erupted
in March 2008, five months before Beijing hosted
the Olympic Games. Those protests began inside
China, in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and other
Tibetan regions, but also spread across the
border to Katmandu, where an estimated 12,000 Tibetans live.

Even as Chinese officials were able to block
international media coverage of the crackdown
under way in Tibet, the protests in Nepal
attracted global attention as photographs
circulated of the Nepalese police subduing
Tibetan protesters. In a few cases, media outlets
mistakenly identified the photographs as coming from inside Tibet.

"There was a shift after March," Mr. Gurung said.
"The Chinese realized that Nepal is going to be
an important site where they could potentially be
embarrassed on Tibetan issues."

V. R. Raghavan, a retired general in the Indian
Army, said that China for years had tacitly
allowed Tibetans to cross into Nepal, many of
whom were making pilgrimages or attending
universities in India. But the March protests
made China realize that it had a "southern
window" that needed to be closed, he said.

"Every movement of important personages and
priests and others from Tibet has taken place
through Nepal," said General Raghavan, now
director of the Delhi Policy Group, a research institute.

Chinese officials tightened security on their
side of the border in the name of preventing
pro-Tibet agitators from slipping into, or out
of, the country. They also pushed Nepal to become more vigilant.

Last fall, Mr. Rawal announced that Nepal, for
the first time, would station armed police
officers in isolated regions like Mustang and Manang on the border with Tibet.

Meanwhile, Tibetan advocates say the tightening
border security has already sharply slowed
movement. Until 2008, roughly 2,500 to 3,000
Tibetans annually slipped across the border,
according to the office of the Dalai Lama. By
last year, the number dropped to about 600, a
change that Tibetan advocates attribute to closer ties between China and Nepal.

"As they get closer," said Tenzin Taklha,
secretary for the Dalai Lama, "it is becoming more difficult for Tibetans."

In fact, many Nepalese believe that moving closer
to China is in the best interests of the country.

For more than a half century, India has been
deeply influential in Nepalese affairs and
remains Nepal’s biggest trading partner and
economic benefactor, even as some Nepalese resent
India’s role in their affairs. Nepal’s currency
is pegged to the Indian rupee, and citizens of
the two countries are allowed to pass freely
across the border. More than one million Nepalese
work in India, sending back remittances.

But trade with China has quadrupled since 2003,
according to government statistics, and Nepalese
business leaders want to increase economic ties.

In recent years, Chinese airlines have opened
routes into Nepal as the number of Chinese
tourists has risen steadily, and Nepalese
officials also want China to extend rail services
to the border so that Nepal can be linked to the
same high-altitude line that connects Beijing to Tibet.

Kush Kumar Joshi, president of the Federation of
Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said
his group was trying to establish special
economic zones to lure Chinese manufacturers to
Nepal -- and for Indian companies, too.

"We need to have both countries as our development partners," he said.

Mr. Khatri, the analyst in Katmandu, said that
India would remain Nepal’s dominant neighbor, but
that China’s expanding global reach would
inevitably make it more engaged than before. To
assume that China would not exert itself more in
South Asia and Nepal, he said, "would be to neglect the reality."
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