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Nepal A Rare Opportunity To Strengthen Sovereignty

Nepal: A Rare Opportunity To Strengthen Sovereignty

By Krishna Singh Bam

A crucial element of developments in Nepal in the aftermath of King Gyanendra’s Feb. 1 takeover of full executive powers is the speed with which the kingdom is struggling to break free from India’s stifling embrace by expanding ties with its other giant neighbor, China.

Weeks after describing the royal takeover as an "internal affair," China sent its Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing to Kathmandu for talks. A more forceful reiteration of Chinese support came last month during King Gyanendra’s meeting with Jia Qinglin, the chairman of National Committee of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Meeting on the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia conference in southern Hainan province, the head of China’s top advisory body assured the monarch of Beijing’s full “support” and “friendship” in its hour of crisis.

On the ground, too, events have been moving swiftly. The first direct passenger bus service linking Kathmandu and Tibet began earlier this month. Efforts at developing Nepal as a transit point between China and India have received a fresh impetus. Nepal expects to provide the transit facility with the objective of expanding its service sector and physical infrastructure development. A Nepalese government study has identified three alternative routes linking the three countries.

A Chinese delegation was recently in Kathmandu to expand cooperation in investment, tourism promotion and infrastructure development. Both sides have agreed to hold trade fairs in Kathmandu and Lhasa.

Nepal expects China's modernization of Tibet will assist the development of its own mountainous northern districts. Specifically, the kingdom hopes to benefit from a railway project linking China with Tibet’s heartland, which Beijing plans to complete this year, two years ahead of schedule. Chinese officials say the railway will bring in 5.64 million tourists to Tibet over the next five years. The Lhasa-Kathmandu bus service is likely to benefit.

Kathmandu is planning to set up a special economic zone in its north with Chinese cooperation. Both governments will have special laws, special taxation structure and special investment policies in an effort to ease the access of Nepalese products to Chinese markets.

Nepal and China have taken special interest in developing the kingdom’s vast hydro-electric power potential. China and Australia will invest in West Seti Hydropower project, the biggest hydro-electric project of Nepal with the capacity of 750 megawatt, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported last week. The construction of the $1.2 billion project, likely to begin in September, is scheduled for completion within five and half years. The power generated will be sold to India. The project is expected to yield $29 million in the first year of operation.

For Nepal, integrating the economy more closely with China’s has been a compulsion for survival derived from the kingdom’s bitter experiences. In 1952, an Indian military mission arrived in Kathmandu to reorganize Nepal's armed forces. In order to bring Nepal’s defenses more in line with India's security requirements, the kingdom was forced to drastically reduce the size of its army. Training and organization, too, were streamlined along Indian requirements. Against Nepalese objections, Indian advisers played an active role in training the civil service and police force. Clearly, Nepal was left to endure this humiliating infringement on national sovereignty.

As Sino-Indian tensions mounted in the late 1950s, Indian soldiers and technicians assisted in staffing some of the checkposts on the border with Tibet. It took Nepal a full decade to persuade India to withdraw those checkposts. Although Nepal did not become involved in the hostilities, the Sino-Indian war of 1962 forced the Nepalese to acknowledge their country's perilous position.

Nepal embarked on assertive international diplomacy as a survival strategy. An active participant at the United Nations and the Nonaligned Movement, Nepal firmly supported the creation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

In 1975, India absorbed the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim following escalating tensions there. Alarmed by India’s regional ambitions, King Birendra proposed that the United Nations declare Nepal a zone of peace. The proposal symbolized Nepal's desire to maintain cordial relations with both of its giant neighbors by placing internationally sanctioned restrictions on the use of military force. New Delhi interpreted the proposal, which went on to win the endorsement of 116 countries, as an egregious Nepalese effort to pull itself out of India’s sphere of influence.

Matters came to a head in June 1988, when Nepal concluded a secret arms purchase with China, under which Beijing would supply obsolescent air defense artillery at bargain prices. India protested vigorously that Nepal’s action had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of a1950 peace and friendship treaty. Admittedly, a limited number of vintage air defense weapons hardly could have represented a threat to India. Hawks in New Delhi interpreted the sale as a dangerous precedent that could not go unchallenged.

In bilateral discussions, India went on to raise the issue of Nepal's supposed insensitivity to India's vital interests. Nepal continued to insist it had the sovereign right to determine its own defense requirements. Nepalese officials pointed out that that use of air defense assets against India would never arise as long as Indian fighters respected Nepalese air space.

In March 1989, the Nepal-India trade and transit agreement came up for renewal. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi refused to extend the agreement unless Nepal agreed to meet India's commercial and defense concerns. After allowing the agreement to lapse, India closed 13 of the 15 border checkposts that regulated most of Nepal's trade with the outside world. The blockade was a severe blow to Nepal because there were no other reliable transit routes. The Chinese railway ended 800 kilometers short of the Nepalese border, and the road linking Kathmandu and Tibet was closed much of the year by avalanches and monsoon landslides. Pakistan and Bangladesh were hardly in a position to supply major assistance because their only land routes to Nepal traversed India.

Nepal simply did not have the military, diplomatic, or economic clout to withstand the Indian blockade, which was gradually eased following the installation of pro-Indian parties in power in 1990. The refusal of the United States and other Western powers to come to Nepal’s aid exposed their acquiescence to the assumption that Nepal is an exclusive area of Indian influence.

The blockade was a manifestation of India's policy of isolating and subjugating its smaller neighbors – a policy Nepal is not alone in perceiving or reacting against. Pakistan has been expressing such concerns ever since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Recent border clashes between Indian and Bangladesh forces exposed the flaws in Indian diplomacy. True, India was instrumental in the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971, but taking relations for granted is fraught with danger.

Some 15 years ago, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for an independent homeland for the island nation’s Hindu minority joined hands with the country’s armed forces to chase out Indian peacekeeping troops sent to protect the Tamils.

As for Nepal, it is instructive to note that India’s relations with the world’s only Hindu kingdom reached one of their lowest points in history when the assiduously pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party was leading the government in New Delhi.

The United States and Western democracies would do well to recognize that the flip side of Nepal’s aspirations for democracy is the desire to exercise full sovereignty as an independent country.

Admittedly, close historic, economic, social and cultural links will still allow India exercise a dominant influence on Nepal. New Delhi asserts that its reaction to the royal takeover is guided by this reality. However, India’s flip-flop on the issue of military assistance raises serious questions. Is India worried that the Nepalese have lost their democratic freedoms or are the noises emanating from New Delhi merely a bargaining tool to recover ground it perceives it has lost in the country through the marginalization of political parties?

Like its smaller South Asian neighbors, Nepal fully understands that China and India have some mutual interests that tend to transcend their rivalry. With the United States increasingly viewing containment of China as a major foreign-policy imperative, Beijing cannot afford to see New Delhi slip away into Washington’s orbit. To believe that the two Asian giants, which have seen a dramatic improvement in bilateral ties, have a convergence of opinion on South Asia, however, would be a monumental misreading of geopolitics.

For Nepal, the much-maligned “China card” – in the words of the Indian press – is merely a quest to assert its sovereign right to define its relations with its two powerful neighbors. The royal takeover has facilitated that process. This historic opportunity must not be squandered.


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