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Chopped Sticks

China ups the ante, looks to cut India’s influence in the Himalayan state

Chopped Sticks
Reuters (From Outlook, October 04, 2010)
Chopped Sticks

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 railroad to Tibet may extend further to Nepal. An ‘India-locked Nepal’ may find a new opening in the north.

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.

Chinese delegation head He Yong with caretaker PM Madhav Nepal. (Photograph by Bhaswor Ojha)

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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