BY P K BALACHANDRAN
There is an apocryphal story that the Nepalese believe that they have two elder brothers – the first, an interfering, censorial and patronizing one, namely India, and the second, a non-interfering, benign and respectful one, namely China.
The dichotomy mentioned above is but a product of history.
New Delhi, covertly, and sometimes overtly, claims a patron-client relationship with Nepali magining itself to be the successor to the British Raj. But China, on the other hand, has no such pre-determined basis to build its relationship with Nepal. It has a clean slate to write its Nepal policy on, untrammeled by the past.
Not being hemmed in by history as India is, China is free to be creative in its dealings with Nepal. And China is using this freedom to the hilt.
However, it is also a fact that strained relations between Nepal and India have helped shape China’s ties with Nepal. The built-in strain gives Beijing an opportunity to emerge as an alternative, as the most credible alternative, in fact, given its size, resources and clout which India cannot match.
Being deeply apprehensive about India’s intentions (given innumerable instances of Indian meddling in Nepalese politics) the Nepalese themselves have been turning to China.
Given its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and its willingness to disburse billions of dollars for infrastructural development, China is viewed in Nepal as a benign power and not a coercive power.
Besides giving development funds, China is also using its “soft power” to draw Nepal into its embrace. It is exploiting Tibetan Buddhism to establish cultural and religious ties with Nepal, using the fact that till the turn of the 19th. century, Nepal had close cultural, religious, business and even kinship ties with Tibet. Nepal-Tibet ties were closer than ties with India at that time. Nepal is predominantly Hindu, but it has a Buddhist population. And, Nepalese Hinduism has a strong Buddhist streak. The Buddha is part of the Nepalese Hindu pantheon.
The thoughtless support which New Delhi gave to the Madhesis’ political struggle against the powers-that-be in Kathmandu, and the support it extended to the Madhesis’ blockade of the India-Nepal border in 2015, paved the way for China’s entry into Nepal in a big way.
The blockade gave the then Communist Prime Minister of Nepal, K.P. Sharma Oli, an opportunity to sign a Transit and Transport Agreement with China which, in principle, ended India’s monopoly over the supply system.
The Northern rail line connecting Nepal and China is expected to cost U$2.6 billion to build, and the East-West line is to cost around US$7 billion. Nepal does not fear a debt trap because it says it can get a loan from the ADB and the World Bank at one percent interest.
The Northern Lhasa-Kathmandu railway and the East-West railway will contribute a lot to Nepal’s tourism industry. As on date, Chinese are the second largest group of tourists in Nepal. They could flood the area if these rail lines come up.
Nepal-China trade will also greatly increase. Nepal has formally become part of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Nepalese government and private firms signed four separate MoUs with China on hydropower projects, which aim to produce 900 megawatts, thus ending India’s monopoly over Nepal’s hydropower projects.
A US$ 13 million project to manufacture 3000 mt of cement per day was signed between the Investment Board of Government of Nepal and Huaxin Cement Narayani Private Ltd.
Nepal has been having the grouse that projects involving India have not kept to the timetable, which is another reason for looking to China for help.
According to Xinhua, China has contributed around 87% of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) commitments secured by Nepal during the first 10 months of the fiscal year that began in mid-July 2017.Nepal had received FDI pledges of US$ 396 million from China by 2017. India’s FDI was just one tenth of this.
China has admitted Nepal to its Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and given it the “dialogue partner” status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
The Nepalese reportedly feel that being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China could come to its aid when India threatens it.
Sino-Nepalese Military Ties
China’s military ties with Nepal rivals India’s. In December 2008, China gave military aid worth US$ 2.6 million. During the Chinese Army Chief General Chen Bingde’s visit to Nepal in 2011, China announced military aid to the tune of US$ 7.7 million. During State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s visit to Kathmandu in June 2013, China pledged Nepal Rupee (NPR) 3.6 billion for the construction of the Armed Police Force training academy in Kathmandu.
China also increased the number of seats and scholarships in its various training colleges for Nepali bureaucrats as well as at its National Defense University. It has also supported joint exercises with the Nepal Armed police in Tibet.
In March 2017, the Chinese Defense Minister and State Councilor, Gen. Chang Wanquan, paid a three-day official visit to Kathmandu, during which China offered a grant US$ 32.3 million to the Nepal Army to strengthen its capacity to deal with natural calamities and providing it equipment for the UN peacekeeping missions.
Interestingly Chang’s visit took place a day before the then Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda’s visit to China. More importantly, it occurred amidst Nepal’s continuing political turmoil over the new constitution with the pro-Indian Tarai people agitating for new territorial units.
China has created a constituency for itself within the Nepalese Army. The pro-China feeling in the army grew when in 2015, pro-Indian Madhesis of the Terairegion blockaded the Nepal-India with the tacit support of New Delhi. The blockade made life in Nepal miserable and anti-Indian feeling went sky high.
Use of Soft Power
China is also using soft power in a big way in Nepal. Chinese Confucianism and the Chinese language have been gaining in popularity among Nepalese. Beijing has set up Confucius Institutes and China Study Centers in Nepal. Over a hundred Nepalese schools offer free Chinese language courses. It is reported that a large number of youths prefer to go to Chinese universities for higher studies. Online dating has resulted in many Nepalese men marrying Chinese.
China is cultivating the Sherpa community in Nepal which is Buddhist. Many Nepalese are given permits to go to Tibet and purchase modern goods which are cheap and available in plenty there thanks to Chinese rule.
In 2011, China entered into an agreement to modernize Lumbini, a place on the Nepal-India border, where the Buddha was born. The US$ 3 billion Lumbini project was a substantial part of Nepal’s GDP was $35bn.
The organization behind the project was the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), a quasi-governmental organization in China.
China’s aim is to make Lumbini attract tourists from all parts of Asia and bring together various schools of Buddhism. What India could have done, China is doing. China has not ignored the Hindus either, as the Hindus are the majority in Nepal. China facilitates pilgrimages to the Hindu holy places of Mt. Kailash and the Manasarovar Lake in Tibet.