Monday, September 17, 2007

New Delhi To Beijing Via Kathmandu?

He came. He saw. But did he conquer?
Winding up his talks in Kathmandu, Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon stood firm on the constituent assembly elections being held as scheduled on November 22. Everything else – such as an immediate declaration of a republic by the interim parliament – remains an internal matter for Nepal. Southern non-interference at its best, perhaps.
But there’s that larger question. Did Menon arrive to patch things up among the fractious eight parties in power? Or was he in town essentially to prepare for the next phase of his country’s strategic dialogue with China. Menon’s Chinese itinerary, it may be recalled, was flashed as he was landing in Kathmandu.
The 123 Agreement between India and the United States on civilian nuclear cooperation has brought some interesting Chinese perspectives germane to Nepal. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has been most vocal in admonishing New Delhi against annoying Beijing. The public face of this “China’s-interest-is-our-interest” lobby is none other than Sitaram Yechuri, the man instrumental in bringing about the Seven Party Alliance (SPA)’s 12-point agreement with the Maoists.
Yechuri’s Chinese activism coincided with the intensification of Beijing’s concerns over the quadrilateral strategic interaction involving India, Japan, the United States and Australia. China, needless to say, views this enterprise as one aimed at countering its naval power and presence in the Bay of Bengal/ Indian Ocean region.
New Delhi knows that The New York Times and The Economist have been more critical of the US-India nuclear deal than the Chinese media. Yet South Block is still to recover the pre-shock from President Hu Jintao’s visit to India last year. The Chinese, to recall, had adopted a sharp tone on the border issue, especially on Tawang. The Chinese ambassador in New Delhi asserted his country’s claim on the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. That cast a dark shadow over a visit that was marked by a reaffirmation of the world’s two most popular nations’ intent to bolster ties. In the cooperation-competition-confrontation paradigm, New Delhi remains clueless as to Beijing’s motives and methods in South Asia.
What’s China up to in Nepal? The tealeaves are too crumpled to decipher. India’s “free” newspapers convey the official quandary with great candor; China’s “controlled” media relishes in fueling the guessing game.
The fact that Chinese Ambassador Zheng Xianglin became the first foreign representative to present his credentials to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala raised an important question. Was the gesture a symbol of a monumental policy shift on the part of Beijing, which has traditionally backed the monarchy over pro-Chinese communists? Or was it an affirmation of Beijing’s recognition of the interim constitution? (In which case the term “interim” becomes operative.)
Days later Ambassador Zheng began reaffirming Marshal Chen Yi’s Nepal Doctrine in a way not heard since, well, the original articulation decades ago. The premium put on Nepal’s sovereignty came out loud and clear, regardless of whether the country remained a kingdom or became a republic.
From New Delhi’s vantage point, Beijing’s stance vis-à-vis the Maoists remains nebulous. Ex-rebel supremo Prachanda had demanded at least one of the four major ambassadorships. Considering China’s policy of pragmatism that led to its growing ties with the Maoists, Beijing would have been the logical capital for our comrades to camp in. But, no, the Maoists relented.
Are our northern neighbors still testing the bona fides of the Maoists? That sudden slip into Silguri or Sikkim – wherever it was – couldn’t have earned Prachanda high marks. Prachanda’s audience with President Hu could still be on the cards. For now, Delhi seems more interested in Beijing’s eagerness in becoming a steady supplier of petroleum products.
So Menon and his doubly divine partial namesake heading Delhi’s sprawling mission in Kathmandu have left things in limbo. The saving grace, of course, was Prachanda’s newfound enthusiasm for a legislative declaration of a republic to be endorsed by the constituent assembly. As Nepalis try to sort out this internal matter, all we can do is wait for the next couple of moves on the regional chessboard.