Good neighborliness wasn’t the primary sentiment driving yours truly. It was a quest for an assurance that Nepal-China relations were moving in a positive direction.
Admittedly, China’s engagement in Nepal has steadily deepened and become more diversified since the collapse of the monarchy. But a palpable negativity has crept into the process.
Regional and international rivalries always simmered and stirred under the current in terms of our bilateral engagements. Yet, during the second half of the 20th century, there was a sense that Nepal and China had crafted and started enjoying relations as sovereign and independent nations.
Measured against the fact that it took 17 years for an Indian prime minister to return to Nepal, President Xi’s current itinerary is perhaps a bit understandable. How events on the ground can affect high-level visits was borne out in the case of Pakistan, where Xi was forced to put off his arrival amid the country’s political turmoil.
Bold Indian reiterations of New Delhi’s abandonment of its ‘one China’ policy ever since the election of the Narendra Modi government certainly have implications for Tibet and thus Nepal. China’s reluctance to overtly challenge India while having made such remarkable gains in encroaching upon India’s strategic space in Nepal is understandable, even within the ambit of Beijing’s unsentimental foreign policy.
The opportunities and ambiguities surrounding Sino-Indian relations against the backdrop of Washington’s pivot to Asia and India’s warming up to Japan and Australia point to the wider dynamics at play. All these engender tensions that should alarm Nepalis.
The current political establishment long castigated the monarchy for having brazenly played the China card at every opportunity in an ostensible effort to achieve its autocratic ambitions. That canard suited New Delhi well, as it was the principal party aggrieved by growing Nepal-China engagements.
Oppositional elements in Nepal no doubt were instinctively tempted to parrot the Indian line. But perhaps they should have been cognizant of the imperative of preserving their freedom of action if and when they assumed power.
If today’s leaders have allowed the relationship to devolve into one where Beijing feels comfortable in asserting Nepal’s independence and sovereignty only as part of its engagement with India, they have only themselves to blame.
In the best of times, democratic maturity has not automatically translated into geostrategic vision. Amid Nepal’s political puerility, foreign policy foresight remains elusive. After all, who can forget the mishandling of then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit by the Baburam Bhattarai government from start to finish two years ago?
As Beijing makes more demonstrable displays of how higher South Asia has climbed on its diplomatic priority list, Sri Lanka and the Maldives host the Chinese President for the first time. We are still in thrall over what the Indian prime minister said about our duty to constitutionalism without paying much operational heed.
Who knows? Bhutan might end up on the next Chinese presidential itinerary, while we might still be stuck with the interim constitution, condemning our tangible past and chasing a tenuous future.