Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang will be visiting Nepal on August 14, barely nine days before Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba embarks on an official visit to India, his first after assuming the chief executive’s post for the fourth time two months ago. In between, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will be in Kathmandu for the BIMSTEC meet.
Certain political trends at home and China’s pro-active approach to Kathmandu indicate that silence may seem a prudent response, but not perhaps the desirable reaction at this moment for Nepal. Prime Minister Deuba has been advised by some senior diplomats that the joint agreement China and India signed in May 2015 to develop Lipulekh along the Kalapani tri-junction between China, Nepal and India as a trade post should be reviewed. Former Foreign Affairs Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pande claims China has already assured Nepal that it is ready for a review. “With Doklam dispute escalating, the Lipulekh issue must be settled now so that it does not turn into a flash point in the future,” says a senior Nepali bureaucrat. He added that Prime Minister Deuba has been advised suitably.
The Chinese vice premier is expected to encourage Nepal to decide on projects and their execution under the Belt and Road initiative. Leader of the main opposition group and former prime minister, K.P. Oli, who is perceived by India as pro-China, was recently invited to Lhasa and apparently briefed about the Chinese position on Doklam and given the message that China respected the “sovereignty” of both Nepal and Bhutan. Leaders close to Oli believe that China wants to engage Bhutan in a bilateral dialogue over the border issue, while avoiding India.
The Chinese are now forthcoming and candid on bilateral or regional issues when they share the platform with Nepali academics and other individuals. Their remarks include barbed and sarcastic references to India and its “interference” in Nepal’s internal politics. At times, they suggest that the Indian way of dealing with Nepal recalls the “British legacy”. Hu Shisheng, a director at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank with enormous clout on formulating China’s neighbourhood policy, recently presented a paper on the occasion of Nepal and China entering the 62nd year of diplomatic relations. The paper suggests that China and Nepal establish “connections” through railways, pipelines and highways. It also calls for Nepal to link China and India and has a veiled prescription that Nepal should ignore India if it does not cooperate.
Heeding the advice is not easy for Nepal, but China knows that anti-India sentiment is unprecedentedly high in Nepal. China, officially, has been full of appreciation for what Nepal has done to discourage anti-Chinese activities on its territory. In most bilateral academic fora, China takes pride in not having interfered in Nepal’s internal affairs. Hu, for instance, indicates that two treaties Nepal and China signed in the past have settled the British legacy as well as Tibet-related issues. He emphasises that in the absence of the British legacy, Nepal and China can treat each other as “equals”.
China also insists that it never supported the Maoist insurgency. It claims that except for appealing to the Maoists to join the political mainstream at times, it did not mastermind regime changes in Kathmandu, so frequent since 1990. In contrast, India is seen to have promoted the Maoist insurgency and subsequently, brought the Maoists to the political mainstream, sidelining traditional forces and causing the current chaos. China’s reference to the Maoist insurgency is significant since India has been blamed for displacing the Oli regime last year with a coalition of the Maoists led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and the Nepali Congress led by Deuba. Oli, buoyed by the clear lead the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist gained in the recent local bodies election, has started making claims that he would form the government at the Centre when Parliament elections are held by January, as mandated by the constitution. Deuba is also under pressure from powerful political groups in Nepal to tell India that it should either execute the major hydro projects it undertook several years ago or give up. These are signs India must not ignore.
India has lost goodwill in Nepal. Kathmandu knows that if the Doklam issue escalates it will affect Nepal’s life and economy adversely. However, India can’t be assured of Nepal’s support on the issue.