Sunday, January 27, 2013

Too Many Tea Leaves To Take In

China’s decision to recall Yang Houlan as ambassador to Nepal before he completed his customary three-year term has set off zealous speculation at a variety of levels.
Yang is the third successive ambassador Beijing has called back early after Nepal’s headlong march toward a nebulous newness in 2006. Significantly, this has been a period in which Beijing has exercised uncharacteristic assertiveness in Nepali affairs. Maila Baje thinks a summing up is warranted to better grasp what might be happening.
In mid-2007, Zheng Xianglin became the first foreign ambassador who did not present his credentials to the king (who was, in the politically correct terminology of the times “in suspension”). When Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, who served as acting head of state, received Zheng’s letters, the gesture was perceived as Beijing’s firm acknowledgement of the new realities on the ground here.
Zheng’s candid assertions, particularly concerning Nepal’s inability to contain the 2008 Tibetan protests, exemplified a transformation away from Beijing tradition of quiet diplomacy. When China recalled Zheng later in the year, it was surmised that his bosses were doubly displeased by his inability to anticipate the scale of the pre-Olympic protests and then effectively address them.
Zheng’s successor, Qiu Guohong, hit the headlines for having begun political consultations even before he had formally taken up his position. The Indians, it seemed, had finally met their match.
Over time, Qiu’s pronouncements on Nepal’s independence and sovereignty were becoming reminiscent of the pre-Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong era. While Qiu’s tenure saw a flurry of official Chinese visits, political and military, there was also a conspicuous spurt in assertions of Beijing’s soft power.
The Chinese Embassy, as the prevailing narrative held, shrewdly facilitated the seven-point pact between the CPN-UML and UCPN-Maoist and a new government under Jhal Nath Khanal, as President Ram Baran Yadav was on an official visit to India holding consultations on how to proceed with the protracted deadlock stemming from Madhav Kumar Nepal’s resignation.
Qiu’s tenure had its share of downs. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s government collapsed after an abortive attempt to sack the army chief. Moreover, the Maoists’ fall came after the leaking of a draft Chinese treaty that, among other things, envisaged a tightening of Nepal’s commitment to a One China policy.
The Krishna Bahadur Mahara cash-for-votes telephone controversy was not one of Qiu’s proud moments, either. In the end, according to news reports at the time, Qiu had lost out to the military attaché at the embassy. The military man, said to rank higher than Qiu on the ladder that really mattered back home, considered Qiu too lackluster in his approach to the Tibetans.
When Yang Houlan replaced Qiu in 2011, he was welcomed as the consummate diplomat, whose solid academic and professional backgrounds indicated that Nepal had risen up several notches in China’s foreign policy priorities.
Yang immediately embarked on an intense public diplomacy campaign, which his superiors readily appeared to endorse. Almost every meeting Yang held with almost anyone in Nepal was played up on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website. One some days, there were multiple pictures and captions ostensibly underlining the growing breadth of the bilateral relationship.
Yet Yang’s tenure was also marked by a long unexplained absence, perceived as Beijing’s expression of displeasure with the palpable southern tilt of the Baburam Bhattarai government. The confusion surrounding the leaked itinerary of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s proposed visit to Nepal and the strange abbreviated nature of the actual trip did not reflect well on bilateral relations.
Sections of the Nepali press became outspoken in criticizing Yang’s perceived arrogance. Claiming that the Chinese had lost ground to the Indians, some commentators called for his recall, something unprecedented concerning Nepal’s northern neighbor.
Yang’s successor, Wu Chuntai, comes from the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of External Security Affairs, which happens to be headed by Qiu, the former ambassador to Nepal. Before assuming the post of deputy director in the department, Wu served at embassies in other countries. Nepal is his first ambassadorial appointment.
The Americans and the British, too, have recalled their ambassadors early in the recent past. The Chinese seem to have set a pattern of sorts and raised new questions. All this may be a normal part of the reshuffling of responsibilities in an administrative/bureaucratic state, especially in view of the government leadership change in March. Or Beijing might be seriously seeking ways to recalibrate its position in Nepal after having invested so much in the post-2006 years.
Or perhaps it could be a manifestation of prudent deployment of diplomatic resources. Yang is reportedly being appointed as ambassador to Myanmar, where the Americans have gained political ground at the cost of the Chinese. Zheng, for his part, is ambassador in Brunei, a region at the center of the strategy Beijing perceives Washington has stepped up to contain its rise.
Ambassador-designate Wu’s current position might provide some answers. The Department of External Security Affairs originates in the office that was set up to deal with the Falon Gong challenge. Beijing sought to enhance its ability to predict and respond to non-traditional foreign policy threats by, among other things, coordinating the administration of activities of foreign non-governmental organizations in China.
The department, according to the official website, “reports on external security issues and makes policy recommendations, coordinates and manages relevant work, guides the related operation of China’s overseas diplomatic missions.”
Could Wu’s appointment then mean that the Tibet challenge emanating from Nepal is going to feature more prominently in that intersection of foreign policy/national security priorities for China as the Dalai Lama steps deeper into the twilight of his life?
Or, on a grander geo-strategic scale, does the “overseas interests” dimension mean China is working feverishly to respond to the Asia pivot of the Barack Hussein Obama administration, with Wu expected to checkmate any common front the Indians, Japanese and Australians might build with the Americans in Kathmandu to counter China’s assertiveness?
The Chinese always give us too many tea leaves to properly understand what their motives and expectations are. And they easily recognize the advantages inherent in these ambiguities.