Thus were born new platitudes such as: “China-Nepal ties have entered a new phase” and “From dear friend to excellent partner”. These assertions, Maila Baje feels, are as banal and as cryptic as anything else that is coming out of Beijing vis-à-vis the outside world, as the new communist leadership settles deep inside its Zhongnanhai redoubt.
During his visit, to be sure, Yang extended generous economic cooperation, supported Nepal’s quest to hold elections, and dangled the promise of much prosperity in the future. But he offered no ‘red meat’ that in the past has won China much Nepali admiration at relatively no cost.
Contrast that with the remarks had Yang made during his visit as foreign minister in 2008. He pledged China’s help to Nepal in its effort to strengthen its sovereignty and independence. Furthermore, he envisaged bilateral relations based on ‘real equality’ so that it could become a ‘role model’ for relationships between big and small countries.
Then, Nepal had just elected a constituent assembly and, having abolished the monarchy, was on the giddy road to writing a republican constitution. Now, Yang expressed hope that elections would be the best way for Nepal to strengthen itself.
Something must have happened in the intervening years to bolster China’s confidence in Nepalis’ ability to sort things out themselves. And surely, that something did not happen inside Nepal, because China’s Tibet ‘headache’ – in Beijing’s own estimation – has not receded in these years.
The hardline geopolitical rhetoric China espoused vis-à-vis Nepal then – during Yang’s 2008 visit and manifesting in the expressions of successive Chinese visitors to ambassadors in Nepal – was emblematic of Beijing’s overall international public posture during those ‘years of assertiveness’. The period between 2008 and 2010 witnessed a sharpening of Chinese rhetoric, political disagreements and confrontations bilaterally and multilaterally. Nepal was merely a front where China felt it could flex its political and diplomatic muscles against India.
For our purposes, it remains immaterial whether that harshness came from assertive Chinese nationalism, domestic imperatives in the run-up to the feverish – and we now know highly contentious – leadership transition in a regime facing rising domestic social unrest, hubris over the western financial crisis, or a combination of whatever.
What is important for us is that Chinese commitments are to be viewed for what they are: another nation’s undertaking that it has constructed in its national interest and which it can freely recast in keeping with those interests.
Yang arrived in Kathmandu last week at a time when the new leadership in Beijing is busy recalibrating its international distinctiveness in accordance with the evolving dynamics. Specifically, for our purposes, China needs to keep India away from both an Asia-oriented United States and an increasingly regionally assertive Japan as far as those dynamics could potentially harm China.
Should events evolve differently and Nepal reverts to figuring more openly in China’s public pronouncements on regional strategy, we should not careful not to lose our poise. In an ideal world, Nepal would long to prosper amid growing interactions between the two great Asian civilizations and economic powerhouses. The enrichment powers farther west and east could bring to this engagement is, theoretically, immense. Alas, such utopianism thrives only in the leftist-liberal mindset.
Amid the volatility of the international system, countries like Nepal must be constantly on the defensive, not because of some innate national inferiority complex but because of the realism imposed by the attributes of our existence.
The Chinese, Indians, Americans, Europeans, Japanese, or anyone else for that matter can take turns and accuse us of playing one power or group off against another. They can be forgiven, especially since they are part of the currents we are constantly adjusting to.
We falter when we somehow start feeling we have to apologize for what has become our basic strategy for survival. Thus, we are left twisting ourselves into pretzels trying to figure out what Yang might have meant when he said this or did that…