By M.R. Josse
KATHMANDU: There has been such a flood of florid speeches, overblown write-ups and plainly biased projections of the recent land-mark visit to Nepal of Chinese President Xi Jinping that it may be useful to stand back and, instead, calmly mull over some of its overlooked singularities and curiosities.
For starters, let me refer to Ashok Mehta’s recent piece in The Indian Express which, essentially, argues that India can counter China’s strategic gains in Nepal by winning over the confidence of the Nepali people.
While seemingly innocuous, it acknowledges that there is, in fact, a fierce unspoken geopolitical competition for strategic gains in Nepal between India and China – or, at least, that is the perception of well-connected Indian commentators and analysts who regularly expound on Nepali politics, foreign and security policy.
Though that, per se, is not startling – certainly to Nepalese who regularly monitor such outpourings – it punctures the hoary myth that Sino-Indian relations are in ship-shape condition or even thriving, especially after the first informal Sino-Indian summit in Wuhan; the second of which was held in Chennai on the very eve of Xi’s game-changing state visit to Nepal.
Mehta – a former Indian Army officer and so-called ‘Nepal expert’ – then makes the egregious claim that “Xi’s dream” is to be “the sole leader of the Asian century” which he argues “is attainable, by keeping India anchored in the region using Pakistan, even as Beijing, assisted by Kathmandu, blocks New Delhi’s traditional space in Nepal.”
From the context of the commentary, it is abundantly clear that the good general actually means ‘India’s dominant position in Nepal’, which of course is redolent of India’s transparent hegemonic ambitions and designs in Nepal.
It’s revealing, too, that Mehta informs that, for some thinking Indians, “President Xi Jinping flying straight from Chennai to Kathmandu was provocative.” He does not explain why that should be so: after all, there could be no comparison, in politco-diplomatic terms, between Xi’s two recent back-to-back South Asian excursions.
His trip to Chennai was informal; that to Nepal was a full-blown state visit, with all the attendant bells and whistles!
Here is another outrageous claim – that “Nepal had been waiting for the right timing: for Nepal to have a full-fledged communist government with a massive and unprecedented majority that could allow the Nepal Communist Party leader and prime minister Khadka Prasad Oli, to pick Beijing over Nepal Delhi, the dominant power for decades.”
At this juncture, I would like to remind the stalwart general to re-read the relevant joint statement: there, not only has no joy been expressed by Beijing that Nepal, at this point in time, has a communist government; there is no usage anywhere to any communist jargon. In fact, ‘communism’ and ‘communist’ are conspicuous by their sheer absence!
Incidentally, it may also be useful to note that the “Chinese side reiterated…its firm support and respect for Nepal’s social system and development path independently chosen in the light of Nepal’s national conditions.”
What that, in fact, means is that Beijing’s posture towards Kathmandu is not ideologically driven; that as long as the powers that be in Nepal are committed to genuine friendship with China, Beijing couldn’t care less about the complexion of it’s government.
It may be edifying to recall that the (a) the halcyon days of Sino-Nepalese relations were when Nepal was a monarchy and (b) that the Nepali communists, especially the Maoists, were inspired, nurtured, trained and provided medical and other forms of assistance and support by India in their quest for toppling the monarchy! Recall, too: the regime change blueprint for Nepal, as per the 12-point agreement, was formalized in 2005 in New Delhi – not Beijing!
Coming back to the joint Sino-Nepalese joint communiqué, the claims by many Indian commentators that the reference to China’s reiteration of “its firm support to Nepal in upholding the country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” represents a new high in Sino-Nepalese is simply not true.
Such assertions have not only formed the bedrock of the Kathmandu-Beijing relationship for decades but have been instrumental in injecting a vital strategic dimension to it – and
thereby constituting a road-block to any third-party intervention targeted at Nepal’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
It will be germane to link Mehta’s outlandish claims vis-à-vis Sino-Nepal relations in the context of the recent Xi visit, to the publication on November 2, 2019 of an official India map showing Nepalese land around Kalapani inside Indian territory, and the spontaneous nation-wide outrage that it triggered.
While it remains to be seen what the future holds in that regard, what needs to be noted right away is the Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar’s dark hint that “both sides should guard against vested interests, who are out to create differences between the two countries” on that issue.
It does not take much to tie such “vested interests” to Xi’s sojourn to Nepal – whose timing after his trip to Chennai was described as “provocative” by Mehta – quoting unnamed “thinking Indians”
In that context, one cannot help speculating whether the timing of the publication of the official Indian map referred to above was a delayed reaction to the Xi’s Nepal visit, a concrete manifestation of India’s displeasure. Which to my mind is yet another reason for deep satisfaction at the degree of trust and friendship that the Xi visit helped cement here in Nepal.
Now for some curiosities. First, that the Xi visit was the first from China in 23 years: while technically true, I did not find mention of the fact that, for long years, Nepal has been in a constant state of upheaval and insurrection, leading to regime change – courtesy of a galaxy of foreign interventionists forces. Hardly the climate propitious for the promotion of fruitful or robust bilateral exchanges at the highest levels, I would say.
There has, also, not been commensurate discussion or debate about the fact that Nepal-China relations have a very long history; in recent memory, it was resurrected when diplomatic relations were established between them in 1955. Thus, China is not a Johnny-come-lately in Nepal, as many commentators, including those in India, mischievously suggest, repeatedly.
While Xi’s visit was certainly a high-water mark in the history of our bilateral relationship, let us not ignore the fact that in the past Nepal has been host to such Chinese luminaries as Premier Zhou Enlai; paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, President Jiang Ziang and Premier Wen Jiabao.
Much has also been made of the strategic partnership that has been now been forged. None should forget the fact that the strategic linkages between the two countries were initially established in the past – in the age of King Mahendra and Mao Zedong-Zhou Enlai.
CHINA AS SUPERPOWER
Who can deny that the successful conclusion of a border treaty and the construction of the Kathmandu-Kodari Highway, for example, were imbued with tons of strategic value? So, too, was Beijing’s prompt support for King Birendra’s far-sighted Zone of Peace (ZOP) proposal, following Sikkim’s shady merger with India in 1975.
It will be salutary to remember that ZOP was later unceremoniously ditched, though it had in a decade or so garnered support from more than 100 sovereign governments – with the change of regime, generously assisted by India.
Admittedly, while Nepal’s support to Xi’s visionary Belt and Road Initiative has taken such linkages to a whole new and exciting level, India has objected to this fearing that it would undercut her quest for “dominant status” in Nepal and other countries in South and Southeast Asia.
Regarding the hype about Nepal now been ‘land-linked’ with China: this is just a new rhetorical flourish. After all, Nepal has for long been connected via land bridge with the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China – that, part from the fact that she has also long been air-linked with China.
The latter nexus was initiated during King Birendra’s historic visit to Tibet in 1976, facilitated by the first trans-Himalayan flight across the mighty Himalayas from Kathmandu. It was to be the precursor of the dozens of Nepal-China flights every week that we perfectly aware about today.
Basically, what seems to have unnerved India about Xi’s recent historic visit is that it has taken place when China has been widely acknowledged as the world’s second Super Power and President Xi’s status been transformed into, arguably, a truly world-historical figure.