By Maila Baje
Nepalis are still waiting for Chinese President Xi Jinping to make good on his promise to come a visiting ‘soon’. Well entrenched in his second term as leader of the People’s Republic with powers rivaling – if not surpassing – those exercised by the Great Helmsman, Xi and his cohorts continue to dangle the carrot of a Nepal visit at every opportunity.
As noted in an earlier iteration on the subject, etiquettes of good neighborliness aren’t the primary sentiment driving yours truly here. It is a quest for an assurance that Nepal-China relations are moving in a positive direction. In that spirit, it may be worthwhile to update that earlier post in view of the broader developments that have occurred since.
True, China’s engagement in Nepal has steadily deepened and become more diversified since the collapse of the monarchy. However, a palpable negativity has crept into the process from the outset. Regional and international rivalries always simmered and stirred under the current in terms of our bilateral engagements. Yet, during the second half of the 20th century, there was a sense that Nepal and China had crafted and started enjoying relations as sovereign and independent nations. The monarchy always played a crucial part in that process.
Measured against the fact that it took 17 years for an Indian prime minister to return to Nepal, President Xi’s reluctance to take the plunge is perhaps a bit understandable. Bold Indian reiterations of New Delhi’s abandonment of its ‘one China’ policy since the election of the Narendra Modi government in 2014, with its obvious implications for Tibet and thus Nepal, met with harsh realities at Doklam three years later. From there, the road to Wuhan wasn’t too difficult to build.
The growing convergence of Sino-Indian views on the messy geopolitical fallout from Nepal’s republican, secular and federal order must either crystallize or crumble over time. In the meantime, China’s reluctance to overtly challenge India while having made such remarkable gains in encroaching upon India’s strategic space in Nepal is understandable, even within the ambit of Beijing’s unsentimental foreign policy.
The opportunities and ambiguities surrounding Sino-Indian relations against the backdrop of Washington’s pivot to Asia and India’s warming up to Japan and Australia pointed to the wider dynamics at play. The swiftness with which Nepal has been sucked into the imperative of building a free and open Indo-Pacific cannot be divorced from India’s deepening eagerness to exercise strategic autonomy on the Trumpian doctrine as well as the Quad.
Chinese apprehensions at Nepal’s drift westward may be diminished somewhat by their satisfaction with India’s disquiet. Still, the cumulative tensions being generated should sensitize Nepalis.
The current political establishment long castigated the monarchy for having brazenly played the China card at every opportunity in an ostensible effort to achieve its autocratic ambitions. That canard suited New Delhi well, as it was the principal party aggrieved by growing Nepal-China engagements.
Oppositional elements in Nepal no doubt were instinctively tempted to parrot the Indian line. But perhaps they should have been cognizant of the imperative of preserving their freedom of action if and when they assumed power.
If today’s leaders have allowed the relationship to devolve into one where Beijing feels comfortable in asserting Nepal’s independence and sovereignty only as part of its engagement with India, they have only themselves to blame.
In the best of times, democratic maturity has not automatically translated into geostrategic vision. Amid Nepal’s political puerility, foreign policy foresight remains elusive. After all, who can forget the mishandling of then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit by the Baburam Bhattarai government from start to finish?
Valid as Chinese grievances may be over their persistent inability to trust Nepal to uphold its commitments to the bilateral relationship during these increasingly turbulent times, the mandarins up north should understand that the feeling is quite mutual. Only then may they be able to begin pondering why.