'China Card' in Nepal has changed due to India's diplomatic misadventures

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Nepalese counterpart K P Oli in happier times. India believes Nepal is raising the Kalapani dispute at China’s behest (File photo)
The Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu has been going door-to-door canvassing with stakeholders to prevent a split in the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and save Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s job. Whereas India is permanently accused of interfering in Nepal’s politics, its ruling elite seem to be far less perturbed by China’s new role.

Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi has paid visits to NCP leaders, Madhav Nepal, Jhalanath Khanal and Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, all former prime ministers who are demanding that Oli either quit as PM or as Co-chair of the party (shared with Prachanda). Throwing diplomatic protocol to the winds, she even made a direct call on Nepal President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, bypassing the Nepalese foreign ministry. In May too she had held meetings in Kathmandu and succeeded in preventing a split the NCP as rival factions threatened to unseat Prime Minister Oli.

While Chinese interference in Nepal’s domestic politics is blatant, Prime Minister Oli publicly blames India for his woes. He has complained of conspiracies to oust him being hatched in New Delhi and its embassy in Kathmandu. Riding to electoral victory on an anti-India sentiment fanned by India’s economic blockade of 2015, PM Oli knows how to milk this for his own political survival.

Just as his ouster by rivals in the party became likely he escalated long-pending differences over Kalapani with India into a full-fledged dispute. A new map of Nepal was proclaimed through a Constitutional amendment, incorporating the area claimed by both countries. Indian Chief of Army Staff General M Narvane comments that Kathmandu was perhaps raising the border dispute “at the behest of someone else” was deemed as provocative and insulting. The Indian media followed this with irresponsible coverage of the dispute. Diplomatic insensitivity and the worst form of misogyny were on display when a news channel insinuated a romantic connection between the Nepalese prime minister and the Chinese ambassador. Another channel had a Nepalese politician suggesting that the prime minister had been “honey-trapped” (the statement was later retracted)! Following this, Nepalese cable operators ‘voluntarily’ blocked the airing of private Indian TV channels.

This was manna from heaven for a politician like Prime Minister Oli. He used these incidents to ratchet up an existing anti-India public sentiment to rally support within his party. Although India was an expedient target for his own internal survival let no one think that this is simply yet another Nepalese politician playing what is known as the ‘China card’. Because for the first time Beijing is proactively trying to shape domestic politics in Nepal to its advantage.

Earlier various ruling dispensations in Nepal used the ‘China card’ to extract specific concessions from Delhi. Now with the ascendancy of the Communists in the political regime, party-to-party relations have replaced state-to-state relations and China is using its influence to directly undermine India’s interests. Meanwhile, despite catchy slogans like “Neighbourhood First”, India’s peremptory diplomacy towards Nepal, from blatantly intervening in its Constitution making process to facilitating an economic blockade by its Madhesi or Terai population, continues to alienate its ruling elite.

The ‘China card’, initially used by the monarchy and then by opportunistic Nepalese political leaders, was never more than a symbolic threat. Although all Nepalese political visitors to Delhi habitually presented themselves as the only bulwark against growing Chinese influence, the ‘China card’ was hardly actionable given the deep religious, cultural and economic ties between India and Nepal going beyond Kathmandu’s political elite.

King Mahendra first invented the ‘China card’ to counter Indian influence. He established diplomatic ties with China in 1955 and signed a border treaty in 1961--ostensibly normal activities of a sovereign nation. But this was followed by the Chinese constructing the strategically important Kodari-Kathmandu highway. Beijing also became a large donor to King Mahendra’s party-less Panchayat regime—whereas Delhi supported a multi-party democracy.

His son, King Birendra continued to strengthen ties with Beijing. He visited China ten times and purchased Chinese arms prompting India’s first economic blockade against Nepal in 1989. King Birendra’s brother, King Gyanendra, who became Executive monarch after conducting a palace coup, also placed primacy on China against India which refused to endorse his usurpation of political power. China was accorded “Observer” status at the Thirteenth SAARC Summit at Dhaka with King Gyanendra threatening to veto Afghanistan’s entry into SAARC unless this was accepted. He also purchased 24 truckloads of Chinese arms to crush the Maoist insurgency then raging in Nepal.

Today the Maoists are themselves in the ideological thrall of Beijing. When Prachanda became prime minister in 2008, he broke from the tradition of visiting New Delhi first. His party, then the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), cultivated close ties with the Chinese Communist Party and promoted bilateral visits and exchanges. Ideological and institutional closeness continue after the K P Oli led Nepal Communist Party (Unified Marxist Leninist) and Prachanda’s Nepal Communist Party (Maoist Centre) merged to form the Nepal Communist Party in 2018.

Under Prime Minister Oli’s leadership of both the government and the party, closeness to China is being flaunted at an altogether new level. Ahead of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kathmandu in October 2019, the NCP organised a symposium on “Xi Jinping Thought”. CCP leaders addressed their Nepalese comrades in a “knowledge sharing exercise”. Nepal also voted in favour of the controversial Chinese security law being applied in Hong Kong as a member of UN Human Rights Council. Under Prime Minister Oli, Nepal refused to participate in the first ever joint military exercise among the armies of the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) organised by India in September 2018. Nepal’s refusal was interpreted as an explicitly partisan move because BIMSTEC is positioned as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Whether China succeeds in its current endeavours to save Prime Minister Oli’s job remains to be seen. But it is clear that India needs to rethink its various misadventures in Nepal in the recent past and repair a valuable relationship with the only neighbour with which it shares an open border.

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