Sunday, April 29, 2012

China’s Silence: Alienation Or Activism?

Chinese Ambassador Yang Houlan’s prolonged absence from Kathmandu has set off considerable speculation over Beijing’s approach and attitude toward recent developments in Nepal.
One set of Indians players and their Nepali protégés initially found considerable room for maneuver. The Munis and Mehtas, along with their local acolytes, appeared to have salvaged some of the hope they thought they had injected into the November 2005-April 2006 phase of India’s grand review of its Nepal policy. The wayward Maoists seemed to have been sufficiently tamed. Political affirmations on the inevitability of Nepal’s march toward a nebulous newness began to pervade the national scene with uncharacteristic conviction.
What are the Chinese really up to? Could Yang’s absence be related to something inherently personal to the man and his family or could it be an indication of Beijing’s displeasure over our general state of affairs.
In the latter instance, are the Chinese so peeved by the Nepali government’s ostensible inability or unwillingness to pursue the One China policy vis-à-vis the Tibetans in Nepal that they are ready to ignore the other dimensions of the relationship? (After all, Maila Baje recalls, the Nepalis and the Tibetan government in exile can’t seem to agree on something as simple as whether or not a Tibetan minister was denied entry into Nepal.)
Sure, the Bo Xilai affair has preoccupied the Beijing leadership. The ostensible travails of Zhou Yongkang suggest a widening political crisis as the Chinese leadership prepares for a power transition. (To recall, Zhou is the public security minister who, during his visit to Nepal last year, made news by, among other things, visiting the family of the late Sinologist Niranjan Bhattarai.)
Yet could Beijing’s silence on Nepali affairs really be linked to internal developments. For one thing, we do not know the extent of the seriousness of the crisis. A power struggle of sorts may be going on, given the stakes involved amid the absence of a single dominating figure in mold of a Mao Zedong or a Deng Xiaoping. But could the Chinese Communist Party’s factional dissonance be so pronounced as to reverse the political, security and economic assertiveness of the recent past in Nepal.
Inexorably, perceptions of Chinese apathy have created sudden frustration in the peace process. The latest political consensus has been marred by the fingerprints of the Muni-Mehta school of thought. Beijing’s public indifference has heightened the perceived risk that any new constitution might be construed as having come in its entirety from India. In the aftermath of China’s pointedly abstruse reaction to India’s latest Agni missile test, New Delhi’s latest move has apparently run its course.
After the Maoists came up with their new proposal on federalism, the talk has shifted to a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai. Former prime minister and CPN-UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal – who not too long ago threatened to jail former king Gyanendra – has been reduced to suggesting that a partial draft of the constitution might be the key to another extension of the constituent assembly.
Could there be a more plausible interpretation of Beijing’s public composure vis-à-vis the latest developments? For example, could the Chinese have decided to let the Indians and the Europeans square off on their expected return on investment under Japanese inspection before assessing the emerging ground realities? After all, even the neo-cons in Washington are now seriously contemplating whether the India-US alliance has been oversold.
Ultimately, who can really read China’s moves, which – to paraphrase Henry Kissinger – contain so many layers of meaning that the brilliantly painted surface is the least significant part?