Nepal trusts India much less than China!

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli (left) inside the Great Hall of the People Monday, on March 21, 2016 in Beijing, China. Photo. : Lintao Zhang via AP.

– Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal      30/1/2018

Like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, Nepal is also, in recent years, tilted towards China, especially for economic, rather than military or even strategic reasons although all of them have made any collative effort on any regional or international issues.

Nepal, the landlocked country, which is surrounded on three sides by India and China on one side over the Himalayas, depends on neighbors for its prosperity and also diversifying the sources of key supplies was very important for the successful conduct of its policies. Nepal is trying to find a way to ensure manageable risk regarding resources it gets from other countries.

 

Extra pressure from New Delhi forced Nepal to move towards China.  

Constantly tormented by the necessity of pursuing a neutral policy to effectively balancing between it’s immediate but antagonistic neighbors China and India, Nepal has been striving to figure out how it is related at multiple levels to both countries.

Extra pressure from New Delhi forced Nepal to move towards China. to effectively balancing between it’s immediate but antagonistic neighbors China and India, Nepal has been striving to figure out how it is related at multiple levels to both countries.

China and as well as Indian exerts tremendous influence on Nepal to toe their lines, however, Katmandu is keen to be a partner of Beijing. While China is a UN veto power and world economic power, India is an emerging economy with its limitations.

However, Hinduism playing a mediating factor, India has extensive political and economic influence over Nepal, and thus far it provides much of Nepal’s supplies. In 2015, India withheld supplies, especially fuel, to the country after the devastating earthquake by blocking traffic because of a political dispute. Here Beijing stepped in and supplied fuel along the mountainous routes and became a trusted partner.

Rise of leftism

A Left parties’ alliance formed a new government in Nepal after a landslide victory, seen as a triumph of China over India regarding influence in Kathmandu, with pro-Chinese nationalist leader K.P. Sharma Oli expected to be prime minister. The alliance has an ideological affinity with communist China. Its top leaders, Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, both ex-prime ministers, also have a personal rapport with top Chinese and party officials.

Leaders of the coalition in Katmandu said the new government would launch five or six mega projects aimed at spurring development and job growth, including revisiting the Chinese company-funded Budhi Gandaki dam project, which was canceled on the eve of the election.

After the elections, Oli visited a border point with Tibet where a trans-Himalayan railway project is under review, further indicating future collaboration with China. Oli pledged to bring in Chinese investment for key infrastructure projects and to return a US$2.5 billion hydropower project to China’s Gezhouba Group after the current government scrapped the deal citing contract “irregularities.”

While Chinese communist ideology seems to be close to Nepalese political and intellectual classes, India under BJP government tries to use Hindu religion to exert more influence the on the Nepalese mindset than China.

Nepal’s newly elected Left Alliance is not doing Beijing’s bidding but seeks to balance relations between China and India to promote economic growth and political stability. The sweeping victory of the Communist CPN-UML and Maoist Party alliance in Nepal’s election this month has raised alarm bells. The primary concern in the international press seems to be that a communist government will allow China a greater role in a region India sees as its backyard.

Earlier, the centrist Nepali Congress-led incumbent government played a role in slowing Beijing’s economic advances in Nepal. Not one project has yet been pursued under the “Belt and Road Initiative,” eight months since a framework agreement. Breaking with the tradition of visiting India first upon taking office, Dahal chose China as his first port of call in August 2008. Oli signed a slew of deals, including on transport and transit, when he arrived in Beijing as Nepal’s leader in March 2016. These treaties not only ended Nepal’s sole dependency on India for trade but also diversified the Nepalese market for petroleum imports, crucial for a landlocked nation that has faced three economic blockades by India.

Once considered close to New Delhi, Oli became vocal against India when it pressured Nepal over its constitution in September 2015, then imposed a five-month blockade, and tried to bar Oli from becoming prime minister. But, he is not against seeking Indian investment for development. No government in Nepal can ignore one neighbor at the cost of another. Nor can it afford sole dependency on either.

With China surpassing India on the list of Nepal’s largest donors and investors, India’s unease has deepened. The problem is India still sees Nepal as its “backyard”; it welcomes Chinese investment but expresses deep suspicions when it comes to its neighborhood.

There is speculation, mostly from Indian sources, that China has been pulling the levers behind the scenes to help the two major left parties come together. Western media have repeated the claim, with the alliance depicted as a pro-China force and Chinese activities held responsible for India’s diminishing influence in Nepal.
If India’s traditional dominance in Nepal has waned, it is more because of India’s reckless diplomacy and it new hate politics. After India imposed an effective blockade against Nepal in 2015-16 for refusing to write a constitution on its terms, Nepal was cut off from fuel and essential supplies for more than five months. Nepal has since looked north for development, and diplomatic balance and China readily obliged its red neighbor.

India may not accept developments in Nepal as the aspirations of a landlocked, sovereign neighbor to diversify its trade, transport and transit dependencies. India’s clout would not count greatly if it continues to try to reverse the logical trend but on the contrary, would only help steer China’s speedy footprints in Nepal.
But India must honor its earlier infrastructure commitments to Nepal, while admitting that China is a reality, not a choice, for Kathmandu.
Logic
It is geographic logic that geared Nepal towards the south, but economic and geopolitical logic means it now also engages China. There is now a consensus across the political spectrum on the need to end Nepal’s particular southern orientation and develop better trade and transport links with China.

Study of China and its language are becoming popular in Nepal. The students of Nepal are also taught about contemporary China, including the government’s claim that it is the home of the “four great new inventions,” including shared bicycles and high-speed railways. The number of Chinese tourists traveling to Nepal is also swelling, rising 20 percent in 2016 to 104,000, according to figures from the Nepal Tourism Board. The sharp rise has coincided with an increase in the number of Chinese businesses in Kathmandu, including hotels and restaurants in the so-called Chinatown in the city’s Thamel district.

Since opening in 2015, Nepal has organized dozens of events promoting Chinese culture. In fact, the Classrooms have sparked controversy in some countries because of their links to the Chinese government, and the perception that they support Beijing’s political objectives and fail to tackle sensitive topics. There are more than 1,000 such classrooms in primary and secondary schools around the world.

While China’s cultural clout in Nepal lags far behind that of India – with which Nepal shares a 1,700km open border – opportunities for Beijing to shift that balance were given a huge boost when Nepal’s Communist alliance, which is seen as friendlier to China, secured a landslide election victory.

Totalitarian China has restrictions placed on religions, especially Islam and controls over the internet and blocks many websites which might carry content that is religious and not exactly critical of the ruling Communist Party – including Google and Facebook – but also religious contents.

Political economy

The left win in Nepal was good news for China, given Nepal’s strategic location as a buffer with India and proximity to Tibet, an autonomous region of China with lingering tensions over its sovereignty.

Nepal’s communists have been adherents of the market economy since the establishment of democracy in 1990, and many leaders have close relationships with India. Most domestic forces have sought help from India and China to gain political leverage, and both countries have attempted to influence political processes. Their involvement is as effective as local dynamics allow. No country wields absolute power over politics in Nepal.

China is Nepal’s largest foreign investor, and in the past financial year alone has invested 8.36 billion Nepalese rupees (US$81.89 million) in the country, an increase of almost 35 percent from the year before, according to Nepal’s Department of Industry.

More than US$80 million of investment is helping Beijing to win hearts and minds in its tiny, but perfectly placed neighbor Nepal. Much to the annoyance of New Delhi, Beijing has poured huge sums of money into infrastructure projects in Nepal – a landlocked nation with China to its north and India to its south – under its trade and infrastructure development plan known as the “Belt and Road Initiative.”

The impact of Chinese investment in Nepal is visible in its roads and motorways, hydroelectric projects and railways, as well as the rebuilding projects launched after the devastating earthquake of 2015 that left more than 9,000 people dead. At the entrance to a project, partly funded by Beijing, to restore a tower in front of the old royal palace in Durbar Square, are the flags of both Nepal and China.

China has been making strenuous efforts to increase trade with Nepal. At present, China-Nepal relations are developing at the fastest pace we’ve seen,” said Yu Hong, Chinese ambassador to Nepal. Nepal’s closeness to China, expected to deepen under its New Leftist government, is just a sovereign nation’s wish to secure its interests and India should accept it as such.

In fact, the regional superpower China helps Nepal overcome its over-dependence on India by providing those resources that come from India to the former kingdom of Himalayas. Nepal ended its long dependency on India for internet access recently by opening a fiber optic link to China. Nepal’s information minister Mohan Bahadur Basnet inaugurated the link across the Himalayas at a ceremony in the capital, Kathmandu. Previously, all internet connections in the landlocked country came via three access points in its only other neighbor, India through the cities of Bhairahawa, Biratnagar, and Birgunj in southern Nepal.

The new internet line provided by China Telecom Global extends from Kathmandu to the border point Rasuwagadhi into the Tibet region. It comes after a coalition of two communist parties that are considered pro-China won Nepal’s election last month. The Nepal line is connected via Hong Kong bandwidth, which is not restricted by the infamous “Great Firewall.” The link was scheduled to be up and running by the middle of last year, but it was delayed due to the difficulties of working at high altitudes above 4,000 meters.

Work on a communications link to China was finished in December 2014, but it was destroyed in a devastating earthquake in April 2015. A land transport route through the Tatopani border point to China is still closed.

Chinese influence can be seen across Nepal, Beijing still has some way to go, especially in the area of people-to-people relations, which are still not sufficient. Cultural relations and the people-to-people relations are the vehicles for strengthening bilateral relations
This visible presence is a concern for India, which regards China as a strategic competitor and views the influx of Chinese money with a geopolitical edge. There are also perennial concerns over China’s soft power regarding sovereignty.

Helplessness

Any country would like to have complete sovereignty and freedom to decide its course without any pressure or force from any other big nation. Nepal feels for that ambiguity and inability.

Nepal is pursuing a long history of trade and cultural connection with China that was broken after the British incursion. What the India/West axis sees as Nepal is breaking away from its fold, but Nepal sees as a much-needed rebalancing.

Nepalis strongly desire to break free from the shackles of political and economic domination from both Indi and China. They have seen Asian countries transform themselves in a matter of decades and are eager for similar change. They have seen the rise of China and how the Chinese have lifted millions out of poverty. They have seen in their own country how almost 70 years of Western development aid has done little in comparison.

There is a great disillusionment against what is widely perceived as the proclivity of the Indians and Westerners to get mired in domestic politics, and social engineering Nepal is not a “security instrument” to contain China, nor a battleground in the new great game. It is easy to see why the Chinese model, with its strictly economic terms of engagement, is preferable to many, even with concerns about “debt entrapment” among countries dealing with China.

Anyone in China’s neighborhood is going to be aware of the gravity of China’s pull and the amount of influence it could potentially wield. But many in Nepal appear unconcerned, focusing instead on China’s massive economic development and the spillover benefits it could have for their country. Ten years down the road, Nepal’s economy will have largely benefited because of the Chinese economy.

Obviously, Nepal will benefit from the growing Chinese economy, and the Chinese protection would ward off any threats from India.

Abdul Ruff
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