Sunday, August 4, 2013

Nepal claims strategic middle ground

By Brendan P O'Reilly

Nepal's highest-ranking military officer has returned from China with promises of improved relations, disaster aid, and cold hard cash. The trip served to highlight Beijing's growing political, economic, and cultural influence in the Himalayan nation. As New Delhi looks on with trepidation, Nepalese leaders are attempting to leverage their crucial geopolitical position between the Asian giants for their own benefit. 

Nepalese Chief of Army Staff Guarav Shumsher Rana spent 10 days, from July 17 to July 27, touring China, where he visited Beijing, Nanjing, and the mountainous provinces of Yunnan and Shanxi. He spoke highly of Sino-Nepalese ties, saying: "The centuries-old friendly relations between Nepal and China entered a new phase with the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1955. Since then, the mutual high-level political and military visits have been strengthening our relations." [1] 

Shanxi. He spoke highly of Sino-Nepalese ties, saying: "The centuries-old friendly relations between Nepal and China entered a new phase with the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1955. Since then, the mutual high-level political and military visits have been strengthening our relations." [1] 

On the sensitive political issues relating to Sino-Nepalese relations, General Rana promised Nepal would "unswervingly adhere to the one-China policy and will never allow any force to take advantage of the Nepalese territory to engage in anti-China activities". [2] 

This was a rather direct allusion to the numerous pro-Tibetan independence activists in Nepal. As Beijing's influence has grown in Kathmandu, the Nepalese state has taken a harder line against Tibetans who call for separation from China. The number of Tibetans successfully crossing the border into Nepal has plummeted in recent years, and Tibetan protests in Nepal have been met with increasingly stringent police responses. 

General Fang Fenghui, the Chief of Staff of the People's Liberation Army, echoed his Nepalese counterpart's pledges of cooperation. "Nepal and China have [had] bilateral relations since ancient times. Our mutual cooperation, friendship and relations will further deepen in the days ahead." [3] 

While both sides downplayed historical animosities - Qing Dynasty China and Nepal fought a major war - they emphasized the potential for deepening ties. During his trip to China, General Rana received Chinese promises to provide mobile hospitals to the Nepalese army as well as "military support" of 50 million yuan (US$8 million). 

China's widening influence in Nepal is by no means limited to the political realm. The Chinese government is making multi-billion dollar investments to develop hydropower in Nepal, and ambitious residents of Kathmandu are increasingly studying Mandarin Chinese to cash in on the rapid rise in the number of Chinese tourists. Their efforts are being directly aided by the Chinese government, which has sent teachers to Kathmandu under the auspices of the Confucius Institute to promote Chinese culture and language. 

Third wheel in a special relationship?
These developments are of significant concern to New Delhi. Ever since independence from Britain, India has wielded enormous influence over Kathmandu. India and Nepal share a long and open border, with nationals able to reside and do business in either country. Nepal's economy, politics, and military were almost exclusively in New Delhi's orbit until the past decade. 

India has extensive interests in Nepal. Ongoing tensions with Pakistan and the legacy of the 1962 Sino-Indian border war make New Delhi extremely sensitive to fears of strategic encirclement, and India's "special relationship" with Kathmandu provides New Delhi some much-needed geopolitical room. 

However, India's position in Nepal has been somewhat compromised in the wake of Nepal's civil war. The decade-long conflict ended in 2006, when Maoist guerillas allied with democratic parties to overthrow an unpopular king. However, the resulting power vacuum has created deep uncertainty in Nepal, and political parties there remain deadlocked over the drafting of a new constitution. 

India is struggling with its own Maoist insurgency in its tribal hinterlands. Some of the regions most affected by the Maoists in India are on the Nepalese border. Furthermore, contemporary Indian media outlets often complain of Nepalese leaders "playing the China card" in order to extract concessions from New Delhi. 

While General Rana was touring China, former Nepalese prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal was in New Delhi. In words that mirrored the military leadership's promises to Beijing, he pledged:
"We will not allow anyone to use Nepal's territory for activities against India or China. Nepal, like India, has a number of ethnic groups and minorities, all of whom must be included within the constitution. It is a country of minorities who need to be unified to form a strong democratic system, which is where we need India's support." [4]
Beyond trying to reassure his country's powerful neighbors, the former premier sought to serve as a bridge between the Asian giants. He called for improved trilateral cooperation, and a rail link joining the countries. 
"Nepal should gain from this, but all should see the possibility if they will gain from it ... It is not a long way to China. It can be through Nepal. I am worried if Bhutan can provide the road link to China, then why not Nepal?" [5] 

Given China's completion of a train line to Lhasa in 2006, it would be technically feasible to link New Delhi, Kathmandu, and Beijing by rail. The politics of the situation are rather trickier. 

Sino-Indian mistrust runs deep, though relations have improved remarkably in recent years. The two governments share similar concerns over internal separatism and strategic encirclement by hostile powers. Nepal borders politically restive regions of both countries - Tibet and India's tribal heartland. Construction of an international rail line through these areas could open them to potentially destabilizing foreign influences. It could also spur investment, trade, and development that would serve to assuage local grievances. 

Prithvi Narayan Shah, the first king of a unified Nepal, famously lamented that is kingdom was a "yam between two boulders". From a classic strategic standpoint, Nepal's geopolitical position is unenviable. However, such thinking is largely obsolete given the modern realities of globalized capitalism and nuclear weaponry. Nepal stands to benefit immensely from harnessing the economic growth of (and facilitating the trade between) the two most populous nations in the world. 

Nevertheless, this potentially enormous advantage depends not only on Nepal's enormous neighbors but also on the political will of the Nepalese themselves. If Nepal falls back into internal fighting, then New Delhi and Beijing may back rival sides, leading to significant geopolitical risks for all three countries. 

General Rana's journey to China underlines Nepal's flirtations with Beijing, while former prime minister Nepal's visit simultaneously sought to solidify Kathmandu's relationship with New Delhi. However, Nepal needn't be seen as a prize to be selfishly fought over and dominated by its powerful neighbors. If India and China cultivate a tolerant and long-sighted viewpoint, perhaps they can borrow a tradition from the Lamas of northern Nepal. In order to conserve limited land resources in the Himalayas, sometimes two Lama brothers will marry a single woman. Similarly, a polyandrous marriage could be arranged between Beijing, Kathmandu, and New Delhi, ensuring considerable benefits for all partners. 

1. "Nepal army chief return from official visit to China", People's Daily, July 29, 2013. 
2. "China, Nepal agree to deepen military ties", The Hindu, July 25, 2013. 
3. "Nepal army chief return from official visit to China", People's Daily, July 29, 2013. 
4. "Will not allow anti-India activities on territory: Ex-Nepal PM", The Economic Times, July 26, 2013.
5. "Nepal could be link between India, China: Nepal's ex-PM", The Times of India, July 26, 2013. 

Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.

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