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A handshake from Beijing

Chinese army chief’s Nepal visit has a bigger,strategic significance

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire |
April 2, 2011 2:17:05 am

A Chinese army chief does not undertake a visit to Nepal routinely. General Chen Bingde was in Nepal for three days in late March — the first in 11 years by a chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). And the message that he has given has implications not only in the bilateral context of Nepal-China relations but also the larger regional context.

Chen,who led a 15-member delegation,signed an agreement with the Nepal army,not with the defence ministry as the host government wished. China promised a grant of 160 million yuan for modernising the military hospital in Kathmandu and for army construction activities. Not only has China substantially increased its assistance to the Nepal army,but it has also conveyed keenness on army-to-army relations with Nepal.

In the absence of the monarchy,that China trusted in the course of its 55-plus years of diplomatic relations,perhaps it has come to realise the significance of the Nepal army. In a country going unpredictably anarchic,many institutions have been largely politicised.

Chen said China is keen to expand its assistance to the Nepal army as “its economy grows”. In his close interaction with the top brass of the Nepal army,Chen chose not to conceal China’s resentment with the EU,the US and India — either for “instigating Tibetans” or for too much interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. He was slightly more diplomatic during his interaction with President Rambaran Yadav and Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal,referring only to EU “instigaton” of Tibetans,and extracted an assurance that “Nepali territory” would not be permitted to be used against its neighbour. Chen,who appeared in a jovial mood during that meeting,said China would not tolerate a third country coming in the way of the friendship between Nepal and China. He said good relations were vital for regional peace and stability.

Although the PLA has been cultivating Nepali Maoists and inviting several delegations to China,Chen chose not to meet any Maoist leader,fully sensitive to the strained relationship between the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN-M) and the army. He brought a message from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to his Nepal counterpart,wishing the peace and constitution-writing process success.

In contrast to India’s oft-repeated stance that it is always ready to extend any kind of help that Nepal wanted to complete these processes,China’s message was meaningful: “China wants Nepal to complete the peace and constitution-making process on its own,and we believe it is capable of doing it.” Analysts say China wants to be seen as favouring an assertion of Nepali sovereignty.

China,like India,is aware of a situation in which a constitution might not be delivered and also understands the role the army would then play. It has been able to convey that China will continue to be a player in its south,and would not like too much meddling from other countries,including India. All at a time when India is not only getting unpopular in Nepal but is largely blamed for the prevailing uncertainty and chaos — as the one that brought various political parties,including the Maoists,together.

There is a fear that the current political dispensation may not be able to hold the country together as a demand for federalisation on ethnic and caste lines has created divisive trends. More political parties at home,except the Maoists,are turning towards the army,calling it the only hope to address the emerging crisis. And President Yadav has come out in open confrontation with the government dominated by Maoists,often criticising them for their laxity in completing the peace and constitution-making process on time. He obviously hopes that the army will at least support him should the executive responsibility fall on his shoulders when the constituent assembly misses yet another deadline (May 28).

The army chiefs of India and Nepal are honorary generals in each other’s country and the Nepal army has also been the recipient of the largest volume of assistance,including arms,from India — nearly 70 per cent in grant — in the past. Often India has resisted a direct dealing by the Nepal army with a third country without keeping it informed. General Chen’s gesture and promise of support is definitely a test case. As China builds inroads to Nepal and befriends its army,it is not leaving the mountain country to India alone any more.

Incidentally,the supply of arms and ammunition to the Nepal army that India suspended in February 2005,in protest against the royal takeover,continues even now as no government in the past four years has written to India demanding a resumption.

Nepal’s army still remains anti-people in the eyes of the Maoists who dominate the government and parliament,and other parties are too week to go against the Maoist will. China understands what a warm handshake and promise of increased support to the Nepal army at this crucial juncture means.

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