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Sanjay Upadhya: China’s ‘Nepal Card’?

China’s ‘Nepal Card’?

By Sanjay Upadhya

A week that began with the Economist magazine attempting to make sense of China’s emerging robust diplomacy -- aimed at creating what President Hu Jintao calls a “harmonious world” -- ended with one more display of Beijing’s finesse. The Chinese army, according to news reports, escorted eighteen trucks carrying arms and ammunition to Nepal’s border where plain-clothed Nepalese troops took over.

Ever since King Gyanendra dismissed a multiparty government and took over full executive powers in February, sparking strident global condemnation, China has loomed large over the kingdom. India, Nepal’s preponderant neighbor to the south, and Britain responded to the takeover by seeking to ostracize the royal regime. The United States appeared to give the king – who argued he was compelled to act because political parties failed to control a 10-year-old Maoist insurgency -- the benefit of the doubt.

Beijing, for its part, refused to criticize King Gyanendra’s takeover, describing it as an internal matter. For the international media, that was tantamount to unqualified support for the monarchy. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao left out Nepal in his South Asian itinerary, the omission was interpreted as evidence of Beijing’s unwillingness to undermine its vital relations with Washington and New Delhi. But Beijing dispatched Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing to Kathmandu in late March to enhance bilateral relations. The occasion may have been the 50th anniversary of Sino-Nepalese diplomatic ties – a period that has seen at least three systemic convulsions in the kingdom – but the implications of Li’s visit were broader.

On the eve of Wen’s arrival in New Delhi in May, Indian officials briefed reporters that Nepal would figure high during his talks with his host, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Barely anything of substance figured in news coverage of the talks, as far as events in Nepal were concerned.

Since his takeover, King Gyanendra has visited China to attend an economic forum of Asian nations. Unconfirmed reports suggest a formal visit may be on the cards. Several Nepalese ministers and the chief of the Royal Nepalese Army have visited Beijing. A host of delegations at lower levels have exchanged visits, eager to explore newer avenues of cooperation.

Although perennially wary of traditional rivals China and Pakistan seeking to exploit any vacuum in the kingdom, India firmly rallied behind the anti-palace camp. Many Indian analysts were confident that Nepal’s effort to play the “China card” – shorthand for Kathmandu astutely playing off one giant neighbor against the other -- was doomed in view of the improvements in Sino-Indian relations.

By the time Nepalese Foreign Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey returned from Beijing in August with a pledge of $12.3 million in Chinese budgetary support, New Delhi had already begun an overt effort to forge an alliance between opposition parties and Maoist insurgents against the palace.

In a significant statement last month, as India stepped up efforts to redraw Nepal’s political alignments, China’s Ambassador in New Delhi, Sun Yuxi, announced his government’s readiness to help India crush its own nagging Maoist insurgencies in several states. Some Indian analysts immediately deciphered the statement as a cover for an intensification of Chinese military support for Nepal’s battle against Maoist insurgents, who draw significant support from allies in India.

When Royal Nepalese Army chief Pyar Jung Thapa, returning from talks in China last month, announced that Beijing had pledged military assistance worth almost a million dollars, Washington, too, began taking a harder line against the palace.

Nepal’s effort earlier this month to have China included in South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation as an observer evidently rattled New Delhi. It prompted Washington, which has been coordinating its policy on the kingdom with India and Britain, to revise its view that the Maoists could not be trusted as a legitimate political force.

U.S. Ambassador James F. Moriarty flew into New Delhi for official consultations, where senior Nepalese leaders were already huddled in negotiations with Maoist rebel leaders through active Indian mediation. Moriarty emerged from talks with Indian officials to say that King Gyanendra had “tough choices” to make and backed efforts to “mainstream” the Maoists.

Moriarty rejected the possibility of China taking advantage of the flux in Nepal, saying Beijing had assured Washington that it wanted Kathmandu to have better relations with New Delhi. Before the full implications of that cryptic assertion could emerge, Chinese military supplies began entering Nepal.

How far those 18 truckloads went in goading Washington to summon Moriarty for consultations remains unclear. A key element of China’s robust diplomacy, however, was on full display. Gestures of Chinese support relating to more sensitive aspects of Nepal’s security and stability have been announced by Kathmandu.

Such discretion has not stopped Nepalese leaders from criticizing China. United Marxist-Leninist general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal, for instance, has emerged as the principal China critic in recent weeks. Given his central role in the New Delhi conclave, the Chinese could hardly have expected him to express anything inconsistent with India’s views.

What Is China Up To In Nepal?

During India’s trade and transit embargo in 1988-89, China had failed to come in direct support of Nepal. After all, it was Nepal’s decision to buy Chinese arms that had precipitated that embargo. Premier Li Peng arrived on a visit to Nepal as India’s stranglehold was tightening. At a news conference, Li suggested that Nepal resolve its differences with India – an assertion that jolted the palace, which had taken a confrontationist course with New Delhi.

Obviously, Beijing was unwilling to jeopardize its warming ties with New Delhi over events in the kingdom. When the embargo morphed into a pro-democracy campaign, the beleaguered palace-led partyless system could hardly have counted on support from Chinese leaders, already on the defensive for their violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square student protests.

In the early 1990s, the perception that China had abandoned Nepal to India’s sphere of influence appeared to deepen as top Chinese leaders became increasingly candid in acknowledging the kingdom’s traditional multifaceted ties with its giant southern neighbor.

By mid-decade, as Nepal struggled to sustain multiparty democracy, a sudden shift was palpable. Chinese leaders began describing Nepal’s open border with India as a security threat to their own country. Reports that the Karmapa Lama – widely seen as the third important religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism -- had escaped to India via Nepal heightened Chinese concerns.

The spread – and increasing lethality – of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal triggered repeated Chinese condemnation of the espousal of terrorism in the name of Mao Zedong. Having once served as a base for U.S.-armed anti-Chinese Tibetan fighters, moreover, could an unstable Nepal become a staging ground for Muslim Uighur separatists?

A New Paradigm

Changes at the global level had their impact. The post-9/11 period saw a marked improvement in Sino-American ties – in sharp contrast to the tensions that characterized the first nine months of the President George W. Bush’s administration. The Chinese, nevertheless, could not have been oblivious to the return of Cold War-era terms like “containment” and “encirclement” in Washington.

By the time Hu Jintao, a former governor of Tibet, became president in 2003, China had already begun boosting ties with Asian, African and Latin American nations, many of which had fallen out of Washington’s favor.

Despite the hysteria gripping certain sections in Washington, China, by most accounts, will remain militarily incapable of blocking the projection of American power. Moreover, China’s economic miracle is fueled by exports; it must maintain acceptable relations with its largest trading partner. So what drives China’s diplomatic ebullience?

A white paper released in Beijing last year offered useful insights. Noting that "new and profound readjustments have taken place in the relations among the world's major countries," the paper observed that a confused pattern had emerged. "While cooperating with and seeking support from each other, [these countries] are checking on and competing with each other as well," it added. Beijing clearly conveyed its desire to use this cooperation-competition paradigm to pursue its perceived interests.

In South Asia, China has been willing to set aside long-running border disputes with India in the interest of building stronger trade and business ties between the two countries. On other issues, such as the recent U.S.-India pact virtually acknowledging New Delhi as the world’s sixth official nuclear power, Chinese media have warned that other powers could make "nuclear exceptions" with their friends and weaken the global non-proliferation regime. Obviously, the message was aimed at audiences both in Washington and New Delhi.

In reality, China’s Nepal card – not vice versa – should be of greater interest to all those paying attention to the relentless twists and turns in the kingdom.


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