Monday, December 03, 2012

Trilateral Reality Check

So we now have it on sound authority that China is in regular contact with India on ways to stabilize the situation in Nepal.
The fact that the man making that assertion happens to represent the government that has traditionally been the most circumspect in its public posture provides added significance of some kind.
True, sections in the Nepali media have dismissed the comments Chinese Ambassador Yang Houlan made at the Reporters’ Club the other day as the surliness of someone whose tenure in Kathmandu has not lived up to his stature in Beijing’s diplomatic establishment. Others tend to see the remarks as an admission by China that its recent activism and assertiveness in Nepal has, for all practical purposes, failed.
Maila Baje, however, thinks the kind of trilateral cooperation that Yang expressed a predilection for is credible harbinger of things to come. This is because it is a culmination of a process – viewed in retrospect – that has driven Nepal’s post-2006 change.
After the royal takeover of February 1, 2005 – which the rest of the world was busily portraying either as a Chinese-backed coup or a power-hungry monarch’s brazen flaunting of the ‘China card’ – Nepal was trying to regain the geopolitical equilibrium it had lost after the first People’s Movement.
As Nepali opposition parties veered closer to the once-pariah Maoist rebels over several phases, New Delhi remained in consultation with Beijing on developments in Nepal as part of their formal strategic dialogue.
The reality that India proceeded to take a hard line against the monarchy after the palace assiduously backed China’s entry into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as an observer was interpreted exclusively as a demonstration of New Delhi’s thinning patience. Prominent Indians, at least in public, tried to portray precisely such an image.
Deeper down, however, the move was likely a culmination of consultations between Beijing and New Delhi. Tang Jiaxuan, a former Chinese foreign minister who was then a State Councillor, provided enough indications during his March 2006 visit to Nepal, which have acquired greater clarity with the passage of time.
The collapse of royal rule and the ascendance of the Seven Party Alliance-Maoist combine did not seem to have assured New Delhi, notwithstanding the reality that the Indians actively drove that change. Privately, leading Indians with an abiding interest in Nepal still wondered how the Maoists – whom their country had more than sheltered – might proceed to redefine Nepal’s geopolitical identity vis-à-vis the north. The overall realignment had gathered such a pace that then-premier Girija Prasad Koirala, at the New Delhi SAARC summit in 2006, pushed for China’s inclusion as a full member of SAARC.
The fact that China moved to step up its influence in Nepal at a time when Nepalis were almost exclusively focused on India’s stifling hand turned out to be a superficial reading of events.
When India and China agreed to UNMIN, the United Nations peace mission in Nepal, you were generally dismissed as a cynic for thinking that the Asian giants might have wanted the world organization to fail so miserably in Nepal that it would never dream of hovering around issues like Tibet and Kashmir. Cynicism has proved too contagious for critics to chuckle today.
Through an adroit admixture of cooperation, competition and confrontation, China and India have succeeded in maintaining basic stability in overall bilateral relations. Their carping and caviling has not stopped them from collaborating where they can.
They have used similar prudence in addressing their historically overlapping spheres of influence. Even while warning the Indians against the folly of joining the Washington-led containment bandwagon, Beijing tends to laud India’s foreign policy tradition of strategic autonomy.
Although the Indians continue to voice anxiety over China’s growing inroads in South Asia’s smaller states, New Delhi also seems more sympathetic to Beijing’s insistence on these states’ right to chart an independent foreign policy. When the Indians choose not to react too uncharitably to Bhutan’s reminder that China has become a reality in our region, you get a sense that great power ambitions do require a public demonstration of some – authentic or artificial – humility.
Simply put, there are far too many pressure points in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship to allow room for third-country/party collusions. Paradoxically, Ambassador Yang, given his vaunted diplomatic skills, might choose to become even less circumspect in the days ahead.