By Maila Baje
Having overseen a momentous year in bilateral relations, Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi used the advent of the new decade to chart the contours of the future. Fortified with a hefty dose of facts and figures at a news conference, she invoked imageries of unprecedented partnership.
By taking aim at “some western countries [that] don’t want to see a prosperous China”, she spoke in the tradition of Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones,” Xi had said during his visit to Nepal last year. Hou’s rhetoric was far more restrained. While there was no threat to China’s security and national interests from Nepal, the ambassador said, some elements inimical to the cordial relations between China and Nepal posed a risk.
Describing events in Hong Kong as ‘violent crimes’ that have challenged the bottom line of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and those in Xinjiang as terrorism aided and abetted by domestic and overseas forces, she urged Nepalis to see them as such. Terrorist or freedom fighter, it all depends on the beholder. Moreover, Nepalis can’t be terribly excited about democracy in China, given how our repeated struggles have turned out.
In the past, Chinese politicians and diplomats would repeat their country’s pledge to defend Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Our sovereignty continues to erode and, amid the broader Kalapani dispute with India, China is even seen as complicit in the violation of our territorial integrity. Yet today, Chinese leaders and envoys use Nepali territory to warn third countries against waging anti-Beijing policies.
Perhaps in response to the changing times, China sent a different kind of ambassador in 2018. Hou can dress up and dance in traditional Nepali fashion as easily as she can pose for the camera in Patan Darbar Square in support of our Visit Nepal Year campaign. Her approach to drawing followers on Twitter was, so to speak, business-like.
This projection of soft diplomacy has not diminished her ability to pursue the hard variant. Assignments in Pakistan and the United States, together with tenures in the security and administrative tiers of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Asia Department, have prepared her well for the ambassadorship in Nepal.
Few expected Hou to advise Nepal to reject outright the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant. It was up to Nepal whether to accept the US grant, she said, adding that the Government of Nepal was capable of taking a positive decision. The Phase 1 trade deal between Washington and Beijing must have eased things a bit for China in Nepal as must have India’s preoccupation with protests surrounding proposed changes to citizenship laws. Hou said what she said. We are the ones who have to act. That distinction becomes scarier the more we ponder whether Hou’s reaction is as innocuous as it appears. In other words, we can gauge non-reciprocity in bilateral relations and its perils from our side. Chinese murmurs on Nepali non-reciprocity have grown into a chorus if not out-and-out shouts, as the range of expectations has grown.
Let’s say the MCC wins legislative endorsement and US money starts flowing in ways Nepalis find unhelpful. (Or the Chinese find unhelpful and persuade enough of us that it is against the national interest.) Will Beijing stop after conveying a customary we-told-you-so? Or would the MCC end up being the proverbial straw on the Chinese camel that broke our back?