Monday, December 12, 2011

Wen Jiabao: A Tale Of Two Trips

As the nation prepares to welcome Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, we cannot but ponder how spectacularly things have changed on the geo-strategic front. Seven years ago, Wen studiously left Nepal out of his South Asian itinerary in deference to India’s sensitivities. This time, he is scheduled to arrive as part of his country’s sustained drive to challenge India’s traditional predominance in Nepal.
After chiding the Nepali government for prematurely announcing Wen’s visit in violation of accepted diplomatic practice, Beijing subsequently has been leaking bits and pieces of information that are clearly aimed more at arousing the interest of audiences in India. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Nepal was never really a blip on the regional radar screen whose importance successive monarchs exaggerated for their vile ends. What is certainly new is that the Chinese have come forth in acknowledging Nepal’s importance with ever-greater candor after the country became a republic.
In February 2005, when King Gyanendra seized full executive control, China stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the world by calling it an internal matter. The royal regime, if not the monarch himself, sought to portray the stand as Beijing’s support for the takeover.  The Nepalese opposition and key sections in India sought assiduously to reject the notion that the Chinese were in fact supporting the king.
In a flush of revisionist history, some Chinese experts, too, contended that the royal regime was needlessly reading too much into China’s traditional tenet of non-interference in foreign policy. But lest we forget, two months after the royal takeover, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Wu Dawei told a news briefing in Beijing that his government supported the king and the government of Nepal to ensure national stability and reconciliation and for economic development. But Wu did not stop there. “The international community should respect the choice made by the Nepali people,” he counseled.
Wu’s forthrightness, however, could scarcely mask Beijing’s wider ambivalence. This was a time when the Chinese were miffed by the growing Indian and American involvement in the Tibet issue through the exile community in Nepal. Keeping quiet posed a problem for China. But openly backing the monarchy while New Delhi and Washington were both opposed to the royal intervention risked bringing the two largest democracies closer.
If the Indians could countenance greater American involvement in a country they jealously considered their exclusive sphere of influence, in the Chinese perspective, then that could only bode well for the evolving partnership between Washington and New Delhi to contain Beijing.
Anxious to keep the Indians away from the Americans, Wen decided to skip Nepal. But Beijing sent Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing to Nepal on a stand-alone mission, whose utterances backed the royal regime.
Since the real fight in Nepal was not over democracy, but a contest among disparate external players to deepen their foothold in a strategically sensitive region of the world, it formed weird alliances. India and the West were pitted against the Chinese, Pakistanis and Russians. Democracy gave a veneer of legitimacy for intervention for one set of players. Suddenly, the Maoists gained greater acceptability as responsible partners while still branded terrorists (assisted no doubt by their shrewd assurances on a wide range of often-contradictory “international” issues as Christianity and homosexuality.)
Washington and New Delhi, to be sure, were still not on the same page. But they felt it would be far easier to compare notes this way than having the Chinese to spoil things. The Americans and the Chinese continued to hold bilateral consultations on Nepal within the framework of their strategic dialogue. New Delhi, ever mindful of maintaining its strategic autonomy, kept Nepal on its formal consultations with Beijing.
Despite the growing warmth in relations between the Asian giants, China believed India was not being reciprocal. Less than three months after Wen’s much-touted visit to India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to Washington and signed a document that established New Delhi on a path towards military and security partnership with the Americans.
The suave Shyam Saran, former Indian ambassador in Kathmandu turned foreign secretary, flew in to Beijing in early 2006 with assurances that New Delhi was not out in a grand campaign to contain China. The Indians shrewdly fed the Chinese information on Nepal that aroused some alarm in Beijing. The quid pro quo was a go-slow on the US-India nuclear deal, which the Chinese anyhow believed their Indian surrogates in the Indian political left would be able to derail. State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan gave the first intimation of a rethink of his government’s Nepal policy by postponing his visit to Kathmandu.
To Beijing’s disappointment, during a March 2006 visit to India, US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Singh signed a nuclear cooperation agreement dramatically reversing long-standing US policy punishing India for its nuclear programs and its non-membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Worse, from Beijing’s perspective, the agreement allowed India to strengthen its civilian nuclear capabilities even while building a credible minimum nuclear deterrent aimed in large part at China.
When Tang did arrive in Kathmandu, it was too late for Beijing to walk back. Tang seemed to equate the royal regime with the alliance protesting it (by which time the palace had revitalized channels with Washington, which was queasy about the New Delhi-brokered 12-point alliance between the opposition parties and the Maoist rebels).
 New Delhi, for its part, had hoped to pressure Beijing into settling the long-standing territorial dispute and failed. The Indians who pushed that approach today are openly calling for the deployment of the Tibet and Taiwan issues for that precise purpose. The game continues. Those political forces who railed against the monarchy for playing one neighbor off against the other in order to secure itself in power today find themselves able to do little else as a matter of daily survival.
It would seem audacious to some that an already weakened Nepalese monarchy was somehow a chip in the larger strategic rivalry of the times. Yet Maila Baje thinks it is within this framework that we can comprehend our current plight with a plausible degree of sanity.