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China in Nepal: India and China need to work closely on the issues of security

Nirupama Rao, the Foreign Secretary of India is slated to visit Nepal from January 18, 2011. She is expected to access the halted peace process in Nepal and discuss bilateral and other issues of common concern with the caretaker Nepalese Prime Minister, senior government officials and the leader of opposition Maoist Party, Pushpa Kamal Dahel Prachanda. She would also attempt to pull out the jittery relations from the quagmire, which further nose dived in October 2010 in the aftermath of Unified Maoists’ Party cadres hurling several pairs of shoes at the Indian ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood. China would be watching each and every word of the Indian diplomat while in Nepal, as it is considered as the main weight behind the Maoists.

In order to get a better understanding of the present contours of the increasing footprints of the Chinese in Nepal and their implications to India, it is pertinent to go back to the historical background of this triangle at least in the 19th and 20th centuries, for the events that unfolded during this time has changed the entire geo-political situation in these three countries, and the legacy, both the colonial in India and imperial in China continues to haunt us even today. In the early 18th century, Nepal was under the rule of various chieftains, whose governance and culture was highly influenced by Tibet. During 1760s Gurkhas conquered these chieftain states, and emerged so strong that they threatened the surrounding kingdoms including Tibet. Their expansion resulted in overrunning many Tibetan territories in 1788. The Gurkha action against Tibet, which was a tributary state (fushu guo stated in Chinese historical documents) of China, enraged the Chinese emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) so much that he dispatched forces against Nepal in 1791-92, and reduced Nepal to the status of yet another vassal in China’s periphery. Nepal was forced to send tribute to China once in every five years.

When expanded to the south, the Gurkhas met a deadlier foe, the British. The confrontation culminated in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816. Nepal being a tributary of China, requested for help but in vein. The main reason why China refrained from help was its tiny stature, distance from China and dislike for the Gurkhas. Quoting Chinese historical records, Lu Zhaoyi of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the author of British India and China’s South-western Border: 1774-1911(Chinese edition 1996) records that the Qing government considered “Gurkhas as bullies and insatiably avaricious, and held them responsible for fomenting trouble and instability in the south-western frontier” When Nepal threatened to throw its allegiance to the British, China got irked and rebuked Nepal: “if you throw your allegiance to the British, then you would not be entitled to send tributes to the Celestial Empire…As regards dealing with the tribes outside our frontiers, the Celestial Empire will not extend militarily assistance to any of the warring side [referring to the Nepalese  invasion of Sikkim]. The Celestial Empire is least bothered if your country concludes peace or goes to war with the British, approach or eventually throws your allegiance to the British”

Nepal had no option but to conclude the 1815 Treaty of Sugauli with the British on latter’s terms. Nepal had to cede Kumaon, Garwal and some Tarai areas to the British, besides being reduced to a British protectorate. However, Nepal was allowed to send tribute missions to China. The last mission it sent to China was in the year 1908. Between 1854 and 1856, Nepal fought yet another border war with Tibet. The 1856 peace treaty with Tibet heavily weighted in favour of Nepal. The treaty however, agreed to pay their respect as before to the Chinese emperor. The Tibetan agreed to pay sum of 10,000 rupees annually to the Gurkha government. Nepal also offered military protection to Tibet in the event it is invaded by other states, and acquired extraterritorial and trading rights in Lhasa.

By mid 19th century Ranas captured the political power in Nepal and forged good ties with the British. During the early 20th Century, in recognition of the contribution of Nepal during World War I, the “treaty of perpetual peace and friendship,’ which recognised the independent status of Nepal and upgraded the British resident to an envoy was signed in Kathmandu on 21 December, 1923. It was the 1923 treaty that used to govern the Anglo-Nepalese relations prior to the Indian independence; the treaty was replaced with the ‘India and Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship’ concluded on July 31, 1950. Even though the treaty allows the free movement of people and goods between India and Nepal, however, continued to interlock Nepalese economic and security interests with those of India owing to the China factor. In recent years, the treaty has generated a lot of heat in various quarters in Nepal and has been very unpopular, for it is believed that the treaty impinges upon the sovereignty of Nepal.

China’s interests in Nepal

India-Nepal relations during King Tribhuvan’s time were excellent; however, after his death in 1955, his son King Mahendra amidst the deteriorating Sino-Indian relations dismissed the Nepali Congress Government in 1960. The move was considered by India as undemocratic and essentially anti-India. Amidst deteriorating relations with India, China seized the opportunity, and went on to develop “special relations” with Nepal. China accused India of ‘expansionism’ and ‘hegemonism.’ In 1960, China and Nepal signed a peace and friendship treaty and also the border agreement, and commenced the construction of Kathmandu-Tibet highway a year later. China’s another interest in Nepal was to flush out the Tibetan guerrillas who were operating from Mustang Area of Nepal with the help of CIA. The joint Nepalese-People Liberation Army (PLA) operations against the Tibetan insurgents/refugees in the area in the 1960s are well known. However, Shakya, a Tibetan scholar posits that King Mahendra was still sympathetic towards the Tibetans. In 1969 the Crown Prince, Birendra even met the new leader, Gyatho Wangdu in Mustamg camp. After the death of Mahendra in 1972, Birendra continued the equidistance policy of his father. He became the first foreign dignitary to visit Tibet in 1976. Two years later Deng Xiaoping visited Nepal, and consolidated the cultivation of “special relations” with Nepal.

With the improvement in India-China relations during the 1970s, and given the close socio-economic and geographical proximity of Nepal with India, China probably saw the futility of excessive courting of Nepal during the 1980s. This was evident when India imposed economic sanctions and closed 13 of the 15 transit points on India-Nepal border in 1989. India was annoyed, when it learnt that Nepal was purchasing arms and ammunition from China. China attempted to salvage Nepal by transporting some goods for some time, but could not subside the increasing social unrest and cost of goods in Nepal. Moreover, with the change of political command and initiation of economic liberalization, China itself talked less of ‘hegemonism’ and ‘expansionism.’ During Zhao Ziyang’s 1981 visit to Nepal, though Chinese supported the Nepalese proposal of turning Nepal into a Zone of Peace, but talked about promoting cooperation among developing countries. China herself adopted a policy of equidistance towards Nepal and India. In November 1989, during his visit to Nepal, Li Peng expressed China’s inability to extend substantial support, advising the Nepalese leaders to peacefully resolve their differences with India.

China’s ‘excessive’ courting of Nepal and India’s apprehensions

It was perhaps for its international image that China denounced Maoists insurgency in Nepal during the monarchy. It repeatedly stated that Mao’s China had nothing to do with the Maoists in Nepal and India; instead the latter were misusing the name of their helmsman. However, when Maoists formed the government and Pushap Kamal Dahel Prachanda was sworn in as Prime Minister, the first country he visited was China. He was ‘invited’ to attend the closing ceremony of Olympic Games in 2008. It must be reminded that after the successfully concluding the Olympics and showcasing its economic miracle to the world, China adopted an increasingly aggressive and assertive posture internationally, which not only has affected China’s international standing but also its relations with the neighbouring countries.  Prachanda’s visit lasted for five days and the special bonding between the Maoists and China was exposed. There are people who argue that China is not only courting the Nepalese Maoists, but also rendering political as well material support to the Indian Maoist whose ultimate aim is to overthrow the parliamentary democracy through an armed struggle. The sheer political capital of the Maoists, and the anti-China Tibetan protests in March 2008 in various parts of Tibet including Sichuan, underscored the importance of Nepal to China, for Nepal has a sizeable Tibetan community, 20,000 according to one of the representatives of the Dalai Lama. In fact, all Tibetans those who escape Tibet, had to register at the office of UNHCR in Nepal before entering India. It was perhaps in the history of Nepal that brute force was used by the Maoist supported Nepalese government to suppress the anti-China protests.

It has been seen that with the deterioration of India-Nepal relations, Nepal has sought a countervailing force in China. We have mentioned of 1989 episode; in 2005 China further supplied arms to King Gyanendra; in the same year Nepal voiced for the inclusion of China into SAARC irrespective of the fact that India had expressed its reservations; in September 2008, China invited Nepalese Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa as an observer to the military exercise ‘Warrior 2008’, and during his meeting with China’s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie, China announced a military aid package of USD 1.3 million to Nepal. In December 2008, Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotan of the PLA pledged USD 2.6 million in non-lethal military aid to Nepal during his Nepal visit. It could be discerned that there is a close bonhomie between the two sides.

Conversely, in 2007 when India sent non-lethal military assistance to Nepal, it created a furore with the Maoists lodging vigorous protests and accusing New Delhi of trying to sabotage the peace process. Politically, even as Prachanda called for the revision of 1950 Treaty, Nepal accepted the draft of a ‘Peace and Friendship Treaty’ submitted and proposed by Hu Zhengyue, Assistant Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister during his Nepal visit in April 2009. It may also be mentioned that Nepal is reluctant to sign the Extradition Treaty proposed by India in 2008, thus ignoring India’s concerns over terrorists having links in Nepal.

Besides deepening political and military ties, scores of China Study Centres (CNC) across Nepal has also generated lot of apprehensions in India even though Upendra Gautam, the general Secretary of the CNCs Nepal tried to allay the Indian fears by pronouncing that the Centres have been established “with a view to promoting and further strengthening friendly ties between Nepal and China at the people to people level, and firmly upholds the principle of Panchasheel in inter-state relations.”  Another apprehension of the Indian government in Nepal is the reconstruction of the Nepal-China highway by China. The highway was built in 1958 and opened to traffic in 1965. It starts from Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region and ends in Katmandu, capital of Nepal with a total length of 900 kilometres. Of the total length only 100 kilometres is in Nepal. The renovation is expected to consume a whopping 800 million RMB (about 100 million USD), and is likely to be completed in 2010. This would be another milestone for China after the completion of Qinghai-Tibet railway. China predicts rapid border trade development with neighboring countries, especially in South Asia and sees these projects as extremely important landway channels to communicate with South Asia. Besides, China has also handed over the Zhangmu-Kathmandu optical fibre cable project to Nepal in 2008. China is also helping Nepal in the construction of the Melamchi Water Supply Project. The Project is supposed to improve the health and well-being of the people in Kathmandu Valley by alleviating the critical water stress in the region, where 1 million urban dwellers receive piped water for only two hours every two days. The project is budgeted at 294.4 million USD and is expected to be completed by 2014. It is believed that China has invested millions of dollars in Nepal’s hydroelectricity projects.

The way ahead

It is obvious that there is a flurry of diplomatic as well as economic activities between China and Nepal. In 2009 alone, an unprecedented 38 Chinese delegations visited Nepal. With the deterioration in India-China relations, China not only courted Nepal but also other countries in India’s vicinity. Moreover, with China’s increasing economic muscle, its political, economic and diplomatic assertiveness is also increasing. Of late its engagement with Nepal and other countries surrounding us has been multi-dimensional and designed to diminish the Indian influence in South Asia in both short and long run. Why China has been able to change the perceptions of the people in the subcontinent favourable to China calls for introspection, and requires corrective and immediate measures, for India cannot afford to take our historical and cultural ties with Nepal and other countries for granted.

China is aware of the fact that it would be almost impossible to shift the cultural influence of India in Nepal to its favour. Therefore, New Delhi’s approach should be if Nepal wishes to renegotiate the 1950 treaty and delink our national security interests with it, so be it. If it wants close the present open border with India, we should be happy, as we have increasingly declared the border as a ‘hotbed of ISI intrigue.’ Meanwhile India needs to proactively engage and integrate these nations into our economic development, show magnanimity in various disputes and increase out footprints in these countries. This is the policy India not only needs to initiate with its immediate neighbours but also within the fringes of our own borders.

Given China’s military and other quasi-military projects in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan, it is amply clear that China has consistently followed the strategy of pinning India to the subcontinent, and has used our differences with countries in our vicinity to their own advantage with a lethal statecraft. However, the question we must ask ourselves is that do we have the capabilities to undertake the projects the Chinese companies are taking in our vicinity, or is it because of the sloppiness of our government as well as private sector to avail  such opportunities in our neighbourhood? As far as China’s infrastructural development projects in our vicinity are concerned, these may generate multiplier effects and pave way for trade and commerce for Indian companies as well. However, China also must be careful in inciting anti-India rhetoric in these countries and also domestically, for this may prove the ‘string of pearls’ thesis of containing India true, and force India to move closer to the United States as well other countries and regions that are antagonistic to China.  Therefore, India and China need to work closely in their shared neighbourhood on the issues of security, including the maritime security as most of the Shipping Lines of Communication run through the Indian Ocean.

(The writer, Dr. B R Deepak, is Associate Professor in the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own. He could be reached at

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