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China Adjusts Fast to the Situation in Nepal – Implications

The 240-year old monarchy in Nepal has ended; a new ‘Federal Democratic Republic’ of Nepal is born. The changes have apparently come about from the cumulative impact of three landmark events on the country’s domestic politics – dissolution of coalition government and seizure of power by the King (February 2005), restoration of parliament by the King (April 2006) and the victory of the Maoists in the elections to the Constituent Assembly (April 2008). In reality, however, the root cause for transformation has been the rise of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) as a major political group, preferring now a parliamentary path in place of its 10-year old revolutionary line of capturing rural bases and encircling cities for attaining power. It is natural that all eyes are set on the responses to the developments coming from Nepal’s two powerful neighbours – China and India. This paper seeks to address China’s case and its implications for India.

Government-to-Government Relations

In analysing the evolution of China’s position on Nepal, the month of March 2006, appears to be the dividing line, as it is seen that prior to this period, Beijing had exclusively been relying on the King for peace and democracy in Nepal. In the view of Dr Jaya Raj Acharya, former Nepal’s permanent representative to the UN, such an approach was visible even during the cold war period of 60s, 70s and 80s.[1] In recent period, the King’s “Special and Important” role in promoting bilateral ties, came under the praise of Chinese President Hu Jintao himself[2]. Also, Beijing did not criticize the King’s February 2005 action, stating that it was only “an internal matter” of Nepal[3]. As another evidence of China’s support to the King, Beijing during 2005- early 2006 period, reportedly offered arms- rifles and grenades and military aid (US$ 1 million) to Kathmandu, to fight the Maoist guerillas[4].

As second stage, signals that China is moving away from its exclusive dependence on the King started appearing in March 2006. Beijing’s new formula has been in favour of ‘reconciliation’ between the King and Nepalese political parties. Echoing the same, the visiting PRC State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan met in that month Nepal’s opposition leaders, marking first such official contact, and asked ‘all constitutional forces in Nepal to work through dialogue’. The spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry followed it up by welcoming King’s efforts ‘to realise political reconciliation’ in Nepal[5].

The post-April 2008 period has marked the third stage of development in China’s position; the same continues till today. Naturally, the King out of power, no longer figures in the Chinese calculations. As one China scholar puts it, the end of the monarchy in Nepal was a natural occurrence.[6] Beijing’s oft-repeated stand on Nepal[7] now at the level of the Party, Military and Government is as follows:

“ China will adhere to the principle of non-interference into the internal affairs of other countries and respect the choice made by the Nepalese people on their country’s social system and development road in light of its own national conditions. China is ready to make joint efforts with Nepal to promote bilateral friendly relations and cooperation”.

Symbolic of the urgency felt by Beijing to forge close ties with the new dispensation in Nepal, a nine member Chinese official delegation, led by He Yafei, Assistant Foreign Minister, paid a visit Nepal soon after the elections.

Party-to-Party Relations

As seen in the case of government-level ties, the same period of March 2006, distinguishes the nature of relations between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the CPN (Maoists). Prior to this period, Chinese officials and organs under the Party and State, followed the practice of making no reference to CPN-Maoists by name, calling the latter only as an ‘anti-government guerilla- group’. The PRC envoy in Kathmandu accused the Maoists in Nepal of ‘misusing’ the name of Mao Zedong (2002) and described the nomenclature of ‘Maoist’ as aimed at ‘tarnishing the image of Chairman Mao’ (2003). The PRC Foreign Ministry went to the extent of declaring that China had nothing to do with Nepal Maoists and ‘felt indignant’ over the latter’s ‘usurping’ the name of Mao[8] .

The post-March 2006 period saw a beginning to a positive appraisal of CPN-Maoists by China. Most important has been the recent indication to the establishment of the CCP-CPN (Maoist) party-level ties by the PRC Ambassador to Nepal, Zheng Xianglin. He has mentioned the CPN-Maoist by name and remarked that ‘China is willing to develop friendly relation with all political parties in Nepal including the CPN-Maoist[9] . Authoritative think tanks and journals in the PRC, on their part, have argued simultaneously that the Maoists in Nepal are not ‘terrorists’ and that they represent the aspirations of the people, adding that the CPN-Maoist has emerged as a party qualified to conduct negotiations with the government on an equal footing, supporting now the path of reforms and opening up for Nepal. A Chinese advice to the CPN-Maoist and the CPN (UML) to merge so as to achieve the unity of communist movement in Nepal has also been forthcoming[10] . A strategic affairs journal has found that ‘Maoism’ of CPN-Maoist and ‘Mao Zedong thought’ of the CCP are both justified, considering the class character of the societies to which they were applied – the former under the ‘feudal monarchy’ and ‘Indian monopoly capitalism’ and the latter in a ‘semi-feudal colonialist era’.[11]

Also of interest have been the emerging personal contacts between the CCP and CPN-Maoist leaders. A top CCP International Department official Liu Hongcai, visited Nepal in November 2006, to be followed next year by the Chief of the same Department Wang Jiarui, who met various political leaders including the Maoists. Professor Wang Hongwei of the Chinese Academy of Social sciences, a veteran Nepal watcher of China, presumably a CCP intermediary, visited Nepal some time in 2008 at the invitation of CPN –Maoist Chairman Prachanda. Significantly, Wang took care to point out that his contacts with Prachanda have happened only after the CPN-Maoist party came out into open[12] . Other instances would include the visit of the son of Prachanda to Shanghai, Beijing and Shaoshan, Mao’s birthplace in 2007, at the invitation of the CCP. Prachanda has himself expressed a desire to visit Shaoshan and also to learn from China’s experiences in reforms and opening up.[13]

India factor- Chinese fears of ‘Sikkim-isation’ of Nepal

China has of late linked its relations with Nepal with the Sino-Indian ties. The PRC Ambassador to Nepal, Zheng Xianglin has said (Xinhua,5 August 2008) that ‘because of the continuous growth in China-India economic relations, Nepal, a country lying between the two nations, will attract attention’. This benevolent view has however been in contrast to other Chinese opinions in support of Beijing’s prevention of Nepal’s possible ‘Sikkim-isation’. Professor Wang Hongwei (see para above), has said[14] , “China knows very well India’s desire to turn Nepal into a second Bhutan or Sikkim. Moreover, Nepal may enter the process of ‘Sikkim-isation’. But China must not let this situation to occur. China will always lend its support to keep Nepal sovereign, free and united. But, time has not come for China to play an intervening role, as patriotism is still alive in Nepal”. The question arises- is Beijing perceiving a potential for a Sino-Indian conflict over Nepal in future?

Secondly, China appears to be determined to use the possible CPN-Maoist led administration in Nepal, for fighting the ‘anti-China’ activities of Tibetans in Nepal. The Maoists are already fully backing China in this connection. Indicative of its concern over the impact of the free transit of India-based Tibetans to Nepal, taking advantage of the open international border, China has told the visiting Nepalese journalists in June 2008[15] that there is a need to regularise and control the movement across the Indo-Nepal border. Interestingly, the CPN-Maoist also seems to share the view. Its leader Babu Ram Bhattarai has alleged that the open Indo-Nepal border has stood in the way of Nepal’s economic prosperity.[16]

Implications

Both in the past and present, China’s strategic interests in Nepal have remained the same. In the main, China wants a ‘peaceful periphery’ as a guarantee for the success of its modernisation efforts and friendship with Nepal falls under this framework. Beijing also sees in Nepal a gateway to South Asia and needs Nepal’s support for China’s control over Tibet as well as ‘One-China’ policy. Beijing’s current drive to strengthen ties with the post-monarchy Nepal needs to be seen as part of such overall strategy of the PRC. What appears new however is the possibility of CPN (Maoist) leading the government in Nepal, which can usher in a more favourable strategic environment for China, than in the past. What can be expected immediately is further solidifying of China-Nepal economic and trade relations, which according to the PRC envoy in Kathmandu, remains ‘far from satisfactory’, in comparison to bilateral political ties.

What will be the future directions of a CPN (Maoist) led government in Nepal, will be the key question for India. Economic and trade relations and close political and military ties have so far been the two pillars of Indo-Nepal friendship. New Delhi may have reason to watch whether the new leadership in Nepal will allow China to challenge the existing supremacy of India in these fields. Prachanda’s opposition to the ‘unequal’ 1950 Indo-Nepal treaty seems to be receiving Beijing’s indirect support already; Chinese suggestions for movement curbs in the Indo-Nepal border, have been a case in point. Perhaps, instead of that treaty, New Delhi may have to evolve an alternate bilateral mechanism, so that it does not lose its strategic edge over China in Nepal. Secondly, India may have to closely scrutinize the motives behind Beijing’s resolve, conveyed through its well-connected scholars, not to allow any ‘Sikkim-isation’ of Nepal; Important can be the question whether China will accomplish this through military means- say by further supplying arms to Nepal.

Next, New Delhi should understand the implications arising from the Chinese justifications of armed struggle waged so far by the CPN (Maoist), for the situation concerning the Naxalite movement in India. It may have to examine whether China will support the Indian Maoists if they could seize power in a manner similar to what their counterparts did in Nepal. After all, not long time before, an ultra-leftist online website in China, with the blessings of the authorities, had expressed support to Indian Maoists. Yet, another point concerns the attitude of the CPN (Maoist)-led dispensation in Nepal to the Sino-Indian border dispute; the China-India- Nepal tri-junctions in northwest and northeast are yet to be formally defined. Lastly, there is a tendency in China, particularly among scholars[17], to distort history and alienate the Nepalese from the Indian traditional cultural influence, in their attempts to drive home the point that geography, instead of ethnicity, should define the Nepal society. The Chinese experts have over-emphasized the Buddhist links between Tibet and Nepal, at the cost of traditional Indo-Nepal Hindu ties. Nepal’s formal dropping of its ‘Hindu’ identity was justified by them as a result of the unhappiness of broad masses including the Buddhists in Nepal, over the King’s caste based politics. India needs to realize the hidden political significance of such academic trends in China.

(The writer, Mr. D.S.Rajan, is the Director of Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email: dsrajan@gmail.com)

Footnotes

1. Nepal Monitor, National Online, 18 July 2007 2. President Hu Jintao- Crown Prince Paras meeting, Beijing, 17 August 2004 3. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson, 1 February 2005 4. As in footnote 1 5. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson, 25 April 2006 6. Professor Wang Hongwei of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, a known Nepal scholar, presumably intermediary between the CCP and CPN-Maoist, “Kantipur Report”, 30 June 2008 7. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang, 25 December 2007; statement of PRC Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan to the visiting Nepalese Chief of Army Staff, 8 January 2008; Remarks of CCP Politburo member Liu Yunshan, July 2008 and Interview to ‘Rising Nepal’ by Zheng Xianlin, PRC Ambasador to Nepal, 11 August 2008 8. PRC Foreign Ministy spokesperson, 2 February 2005 9. Ambassador Zheng’s interview to Rising Nepal, 11 August 2008 10. “South Asia Studies”, No.2/2006 issue, Statements from Professor Wang Hongwei, 16 July 2006, 25 June 2008 and 6 July 2008; “Luntan”, No.9/2008 issue;Global Times,13 June 2008 and ‘Nanfang’ Daily, 30 June 2008 11. China Institute of International Strategic Studies, 22 June 2008 12. Prof Wang’s interview to visiting Nepalese journalist Sharad Adhikari, Beijing, 6 July 2008 13. Global Times, 13 June 2008 and Nanfang Daily,30 June 2008 14. ‘Kantipur Report’, 30 June 2008 15. Thaindiannews, Sudeshna Sarkar, 29 June 2008 16. Nepal Telegraph, 10 May 2008 17. Professor Wang Hongwei, www.nepalnews.com, 20 October 2000 and “South Asia Studies”, 20 June 2008.

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