Revolution in South Asia

An Internationalist Info Project

The Politics of Nepal’s Borders and Its Powerful Neighbors

Posted by onehundredflowers on December 14, 2008


This article first appeared in Asia Times.

China sends jitters to India through Nepal

By Dhruba Adhikary

KATHMANDU – Political and economic dynamics might have changed beyond recognition in the past half-century, but geographical reality appears to be something even Nepal’s nuclear-powered neighbors are unable to gloss over. One remains apprehensive about the possible maneuvers from the other, drawing indications through a small neighbor which happens to share borders with both China and India. 

An evolving scenario in this part of Asia reminds analysts of the catchy title of a book an Indian journalist, Girilal Jain, wrote in 1959: India meets China in Nepal. The book was written in an era when Nepal did not have even one road link with China’s Tibet. The situation has undergone a sea-change over time, with alternative overland routes and air services developing between the two countries.

Visitors do come to Kathmandu from the south as well as from the north. But since regulations pertaining to passports and visas are incredibly simple for Indians, their numbers are bound to be higher than those of the visitors from China, who are required to fulfill numerous formalities. 

Besides, those coming from China (including Tibet) are distinct because of their attire and language, and therefore are easily recognizable. In other words, their presence in the capital city and elsewhere in the country becomes conspicuous even if their faces and physical features somewhat resemble those of Nepalis living in the settlements on the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. 

Trends are not very different, even when travelers are foreign dignitaries, as witnessed during the visits of the foreign ministers from India and China. Upendra Yadav, Nepal’s foreign affairs minister, played host to both Pranab Mukherjee of India as well as China’s Yang Jiechi in a span of one week, starting from November 24. 

Each one was an official guest of the Nepal government for three days and both met Prime Minister Prachanda, among others, offering to assist Nepal with the ongoing peace process. The underlying message remained identical, although the first one came from Mukherjee: stability in Nepal would address their perpetual security concerns. (Mukherjee returned to Delhi on November 26, the day Mumbai was subjected to terror attacks.) 

Yang’s visit generated additional public attention, and not without reason. In a speech delivered at an official dinner on the day of his arrival, December 2, Yang offered his country’s categorical assurance of help to protect Nepal’s sovereignty and independence. This statement almost instantly prompted a former foreign minister of Nepal, Ram Sharan Mahat, to raise questions in the National Assembly, asking the premier to explain if the offer was made in response to any request he placed before the Chinese leaders. He also demanded to know where the threat to sovereignty came from. 

Yang’s remarks also included mention of a Chinese undertaking to develop China-Nepal relations on the basis of real equality so that it could become a “role model” for bilateral relationships between big and small countries. 

“All said and done, the Yang visit looks [to be] a bit more than a routine one,” Rajeshwar Acharya, Nepal’s former ambassador to China, told Asia Times Online. His view concurred with Foreign Ministry officials who said that the latest Chinese initiative may work to neutralize the meddlesome behavior of the south. 

In Acharya’s opinion, the Chinese have come to Nepal this time to get reliable assurances that Kathmandu will put an effective check on the “Free Tibet” movement in its territory. They want Nepal’s “One-China” policy translated into action. 

Indian and pro-Indian newspapers and broadcast outlets have reacted with alarm to China’s increased activity in Nepal. This perception in a section of the media is indicative of the jitters that seem to have developed in New Delhi. After all, China’s military strength is formidable and the Indians are aware of this reality. And the Chinese too have found it high time to issue a message to this effect. 

Two days after Beijing’s foreign minister ended his stay in Nepal, China dispatched a military mission to Kathmandu headed by the deputy chief of its army, Lieutenant General Ma Xiotian. At a meeting with Nepal’s defense minister on Sunday, the Chinese official pledged to provide the Nepal army with some non-lethal equipment and training facilities. Earlier, the visiting foreign minister had separately agreed to make an aid offer that would involve carrying out developmental activities. 

One Indian news agency described these latest developments by saying Beijing “stepped up security maneuvers” in Nepal. Surprisingly, the arrival of a high-level military delegation coincided with the start of a China-India joint military exercise in the Indian state of Karnataka. 

This is a clear indication that China places the importance of its relations with India at one level and is simultaneously firm about expressing its security concerns to Nepal. Those concerns were initially conveyed by Major General I Huzeng, the commander responsible for the areas adjoining Nepal, who came to Kathmandu last month. 

Chinese security concerns became more pronounced as they began preparing for the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in August. While protests from Tibetans elsewhere in the world over the ceremonial flame remained largely symbolic, the demonstrations held in front of the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu became a daily show for several weeks. 

The Chinese ambassador found it necessary to hold a press conference to praise Nepali police and denounce external forces for instigating violent activities against China. The Chinese diplomats said “the Dalai Lama clique” was misusing the porous border between Nepal and India, and sending troublemakers from Dharmashala, the seat of so-called Tibetan government in exile based in India. 

Nepali officials became extra careful about Western mountaineers heading to the Himalayas in the pre-Olympic phase to prevent unpleasant activities against the north. One American mountaineer faced instant deportation when police found him in possession of a Tibetan flag he apparently carried with the intention of planting on the top of Everest. 

After India, Nepal has the largest concentration of Tibetan refugees, numbering about 20,000. Most of them fled Tibet in 1959 when the Dalai Lama left his homeland. While the local population usually expresses sympathy for these Tibetan exiles, considerable resentment was seen when they conducted Tibetan politics from Nepalese soil, often obstructing road traffic for several hours. Nepalis also did not like the way the protesters were putting its government in an embarrassing situation. 

Prachanda, who is also the chairman of the Maoist party, is at the center of attention. He is being constantly subjected to public scrutiny within Nepal, and watched by both of Nepal’s immediate neighbors. New Delhi’s concerns primarily emanates from the fact that he heads a political party whose source of inspiration is China’s Mao Zedong. Secondly, Prachanda chose to defy the unwritten code that a new Nepali prime minister’s first visit outside the country has to be to the Indian capital. By embarking on a visit to Beijing to attend the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, Prachanda obtained support from nationalist forces in Nepal for his assertive stand. 

The Chinese were equally pleased to welcome the Republic of Nepal’s first prime minister to their capital. On the other hand, official India was not pleased by that “break in tradition”, as was evident by the absence of its ambassador in the crowd gathered at the airport to see Prachanda off. In what looked like a balancing act, Prachanda headed to New Delhi immediately afterwards, making pledges and promises he, as the head of an interim coalition government, is incapable of fulfilling. The current popular mandate given for drawing up a constitution for a republic ends in May 2010. 

It is the porous, uncontrolled border between Nepal and India where security concerns of both India and China are focused. Beijing wants Nepal to effectively regulate the border so that Tibetan exiles in India cannot easily sneak into Nepal. India too complains that Pakistani agents frequently abuse the Nepal-India border, but surprisingly it opposes the idea of regulating it, saying that an open frontier is a symbol of the close and unique relations that New Delhi and Kathmandu enjoy. This contradictory Indian position has been the stumbling bloc for keeping Nepal’s territory safe and secure, as it could help assure both neighbors that Nepali soil would not be allowed for misuse or abuse by any quarter. 

Is Beijing comfortable with the fact that Nepal now has a Maoist leader as its prime minister? In normal circumstances it would be. But Nepal’s present situation is anything but normal, with coalition members on a collision course. And Beijing is also aware of the method and the route the Maoists employed to enter the India-brokered 12-point agreement which played a pivotal role in ending their decade-long armed insurgency. Prachanda and his comrade-in-arms Baburam Bhattarai spent eight of their 10 years of insurrection in hideouts in India. Had Beijing found Nepal’s revolutionary leaders dependable, say some analysts, it would not have sent one high-level visit after another. 

Nepal’s relations with its immediate neighbors need deft handling. But what exists today in the form of political leadership is an amorphous force. This has lately become a matter of grave public concern – a concern expressed by a respected diplomat, Yadunath Khanal, in 1999, “Nobody, however friendly, can think for us about our relations with India and China and the sensitive balance implied in it. Our relations with India and China, always difficult and taking even a more difficult turn in the nuclear age, have been made more complicated today by politicians of loose thinking and loose tongue.” Khanal, who passed away a couple of years ago, had the distinction of being ambassador to India, the US and China – in that order. 

Can Prachanda steer the boat into the harbor? This is the stinging question that is now exercising the minds of Nepal’s intelligentsia.

Dhruba Adhikary, a former head of Nepal Press Institute, is a Kathmandu-based journalist.




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