Yubaraj Ghimire, October 17, 2019
It was by all account a Royal welcome to the Executive Head of the world’s largest Republic. From President Biddhya Bhandari to Prime Minister K P Oli and their entire cabinet, all lined up at the Tribhuvan International Airport when Air China aircraft carrying Chinese President Xi Jinping, landed Saturday afternoon.
A Chinese President arriving in Nepal after a gap of 23 years in itself was a big diplomatic account. But what makes this visit more significant and meaningful is the current perception and reality about China in the international arena including South Asia compared to when Jiang Jemin visited Nepal in 1996. Moreover, Xi’s visit took place when Nepal turned north for its international trade and transit after India imposed an economic blockade for nearly five months on Nepal for defying Indian pressure to delay the delivery of the new constitution way back in September 2015.
Xi flew down to Nepal straight from Southern Indian state Tamilnadu soon after the two-day informal summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi where crucial regional issues including Nepal’s prolonged transition apparently figured apart from bilateral matters.
But China has given a clear message to Nepal as well as to the world outside that it views Nepal independently and supports Nepal’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and its right to choose developmental course based on its own real conditions. Over the years, especially after Nepal became a secular Republic from a Hindu Kingdom in 2006 arguably with pro-active support of India, European Union and the United States, China has enhanced its interest and investment as it feels all these forces together may instigate Tibetans living in Nepal to foment trouble in its soft belly — Tibet.
Around 50 people suspected to be ‘Free Tibet’ activists were rounded up and security vigilance stepped up in Bouddha, Swayambhu and Jawalakhel area with concentration of Tibetan population during Xi’sstay here, and the entire 7-KM route from the Airport to the Soaltee Hotel patrolled by the security agencies, as Nepal government took no chance fully appreciating the sensitivity of the Chinese authorities.
Ceremonial and formalities of welcome, no doubt, were unprecedented. But the Chinese President visibly refused to get flattered. He gave a clear prescription of where China Nepal relationship should be in the years to come, as immediate neighbours as well as development and strategic partners and issued subtle warning to the Nepali comrades that their lifestyle should be clean and they should work for the people. The widespread and near transparent level of corruption at the top level of the ruling party and the impunity the leaders enjoy was an issue that the visiting dignitary chose to raise as he probably wanted to ensure that the grants and easy loans for multiple projects that China would be offering is not bungled.
Around 20 agreements and Memoranda of Understanding were signed between the two sides for larger cooperation in multiple fields that included Energy, infrastructure building, roads, rail and air connectivity, setting up Chinese language centres. But the most significant assertion that China made was to have Nepal sign the treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) on Criminal cases, seen as apre-cursor of the Extradition between the two sides.
During his brief meeting with Prime Minister K P Oli, Xi chose to assert that China will crush any forces wanting to divide or create unrest in China. Why did he make this point with Oli?
Oli is perceived more as pro-west taking Nepal into the fold of the Indo-Pacific strategy. He promised to sign the Extradition Treaty shortly after that meeting despite the fact that he had avoided doing so in the past soon after his official visit to China in the aftermath of the Economic blockade by India following severe warning from the Americans. Extradition treaty and the MLA will make Nepal mandatory to extradite any Tibetan or other nationals if China felt they were involved in Free Tibetan or anti-Chinese activities. The country in general and the ruling Nepal Communist Party in particular is yet to get the response of the west, especially the US and the EU, but after having signed the MLA treaty and promised to have the extradition treaty soon, there is little space for retreat. And the response of the west will not be a pleasant one for Nepal.
That means Oli will have tread carefully in future, balancing each and every big power like India, China and the west present in Nepal as stake holders in its politics and development. But post Xi’s visit China will have much larger presence and investment. Protection of the magnified interest will also require China to cultivate the regime of the day and having communists in power in Nepal will for now make things easier for China. However, a faction ridden ruling Party appears even more divided and angry with the Prime Minister with Oli and President Bidhya Bhandari –earlier belonging to the same faction of the Party—stealing the limelight. Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, Co-Chair of the ruling Party and the erstwhile Maoists, even did not get the opportunity to have a separate meeting with Xi and he had to be content with a group session of secretariat members of the Party for about 15 minutes.
Nevertheless, Xi came at a time when India’s stock and influence in Nepal is down to an unprecedented level. China’s enlarged presence in Nepal was no doubt triggered or provoked by the larger presence of the US and European Union ostensibly in support of democracy in Nepal, but China sees it more strategically aimed at creating troubles in Tibet.
Xi, in an article ‘Toward Greater Progress of China-Nepal Friendship across the Himalayas’ front-paged in the government owned The Rising Nepal on the eve of his arrival not only categorically stated that China was keen to support Nepal in four areas—Trade and Investment, Energy, post disaster reconstruction as well as Tourism—but also said Nepal and China need to enhance the security cooperation.
The MOU and agreement signed not only were in conformity of what Xi wanted, the two sides also agreed to increase the defense contact along the border, move equipments and set up offices to check ‘activities’ with China wanting to provide training to Nepal’s law enforcing authorities. The joint military exercise between the two sides is already in place for the past six years.
China in the past, especially when Nepal faced problem with India that dominates Nepal’s trade and supply, would invariably advice Nepal that it is not in a position to substitute India and that ‘Nepal must establish good rapport with the South.”
But with India aligning with the west and ceding its almost monopoly influence to the west, China no more thinks that way. Xi’s visit will remain milestone in that sense, but the days to come will show how the ruling communist Party will counter-balance the international forces that have more decisive strength than the Nepali people in setting country’s political agenda.