Sunday, February 12, 2006

Tang Tied

The postponement of State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan's three-day visit has set off wild speculation over whether Beijing might be abandoning what is perceived to be its steadfast support for King Gyanendra's government.
Beijing refused to criticize the monarch's seizure of full executive powers last year, describing it as an internal matter, when the rest of the world was up in arms. The palace was not too eager to dispute the equation of Chinese silence with support for the royal takeover.
Ever since, each gesture of Chinese support – apart from the visits of Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and other senior officials – was announced by the Nepalese side. News of Chinese financial support and military assistance emanated from Nepal. As King Gyanendra spent his first year in power derided for having flashed the "China card," the other principal protagonist remained conspicuously silent.
China, resentful of the way in which Nepalese insurgents have misused their late leader's name, refuses to recognize the rebels as Maoists. China has come long way since the days of Mao Zedong. Many Chinese today wish to forget the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and forced collectivization of agriculture. Officially the Chinese government believes Mao was 70 percent right.
Long anxious to prevent Nepal from becoming a launching pad for pro-Tibetan groups, China has also been voicing concern that the kingdom could become a base for Islamic separatists active in its north-western Xinjiang region. The open Nepal-India border, furthermore, exposes China to such undesirable elements as criminals and drug traffickers. The apprehension behind China's silence was all too apparent.
Tang was set to visit the kingdom against the background of Beijing's candid reiteration last month of the need for reconciliation of all political forces. China's vote in favor of referring Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council, a pronounced departure from its penchant for abstaining, encouraged many in the anti-palace camp to advance Beijing's sudden emphasis on pragmatism.
The purported shift in China's Nepal policy is traced to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Kong Quan's response to a correspondent's question at a regular briefing last month. As Maila Baje noted last week, the transcript of the January 24 briefing shows that Nepal figured in a two-part question that also sought details on Saudi King Abdullah's visit to China. It was politically expedient for the anti-palace camp to project Kong's remarks as articulation of a policy shift.
The inaccuracy of that claim appeared to be strengthened by the reason cited for Tang's postponed visit, again by the anti-palace camp in the Nepalese and Indian media. The fourth session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) -- in view of which Tang delayed his visit by a month – is scheduled to begin in March.
Clearly, the all-important session would have been scheduled long before Tang's itinerary had been drawn up. Moreover, Tang would have departed Nepal long before the formal opening of the NPC session. What explains this discrepancy?
Perhaps the NPC session acquired heightened sensitivity considering, among other things, the Pentagon's recent Quadrennial Defense Review, requiring Tang's full participation in pre-session deliberations. The Chinese government has expressed its firm opposition to what it describes the Pentagon's attempt to play up the "Chinese military threat."
The suggestion that Tang postponed the visit at the request of Nepal, principally because King Gyanendra objected to his eagerness to meet with top opposition leaders and to issue a formal statement for reconciliation before departing is ludicrous.
The Indian media in particular has gone overboard in reporting that such meetings would have been an embarrassment to King Gyanendra, especially with so many opposition leaders under detention or house arrest. Clearly, Tang would be meeting top leaders of the parties, most of whom are roaming free.
During his visit to Nepal in 2001, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji met with an array of opposition leaders (when Tang was foreign minister). Even after King Gyanendra took executive control in October the following year, the Chinese Communist Party has invited top Nepalese leaders to Beijing as part of its policy of building cross-party ties with friendly nations.
All the same, the inanity of the ongoing speculation does not detract from the significance of the postponement of the visit. Maila Baje believes there is a very pragmatic reason: US President George W. Bush's visit to India in early March. Bush made the announcement over a week ago, after Tang had scheduled his Nepal visit.
It would be prudent to view this development in the context of Washington's evolving "transformational diplomacy." Expanding on the subject, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed last month that the fundamental character of regimes now matters more than the international distribution of power.
Among the threats to U.S. security she identified were terrorism, pandemics, arms proliferation and failed states, all of which she said could only be countered by cooperation with regional powers and access to trouble spots. Within these stark parameters, Nepal would certainly seem to be a prominent candidate for American concern.
In India, the "regional power" most relevant to America's South Asian strategy, there seems to be emerging a greater recognition of the inevitability of broader international involvement in resolving the conflict in Nepal.
According to some reports, the United Nations has offered to India the contours of a potential mission in Nepal. Under the U.N. plan, the reports continue, the king would remain the constitutional head without executive powers – which would be temporarily vested in the world body. The U.N. insists that the political parties and Maoists should get ready to fight elections, ultimately paving the way for the restoration of full Nepalese sovereignty and democracy.
Under the U.N. plan, New Delhi worries, the king would still retain greater influence than the political parties. The U.S. eagerness to see India take the lead role in resolving the conflict is matched by New Delhi's discomfiture at acquiescing in a palpable diminution of such a role.
Any official U.N. involvement would require getting China – a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council – on board. How far Beijing would be ready to go toward supporting a U.N. operation in Nepal – especially in view of the undesirable precedent it could set for its own restive regions -- remains to be seen. Clearly, Beijing would want to see how Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh address the Maoist insurgency first.
From China's perspective – and perhaps also from the royal regime's -- the rescheduling of Tang's visit would fit into this imperative. He is, one must not forget, considered by many the de facto foreign minister of China.