Sunday, March 27, 2016

Contending With China’s ‘Nepal Card’

Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has done well to avoid a sense of triumphalism following his return from a weeklong visit to China. The scope of the agreements the two countries signed in Beijing has largely lived up to the pre-departure hype. Whether they mark a geopolitical shift remains in the realm of speculation, no doubt heightened by China’s own sporadic record in Nepal.
Regardless of whether that history served to temper Oli’s public demeanor, Nepali voices articulating an in-your-face ardor toward India remain unrestrained. One body of opinion has openly thanked India for having imposed a months-long border ‘blockade’ and thereby creating the domestic consensus Oli needed to reorient ties with China.
The more dominant sentiment – that Nepal long needed to diversify its relationship with China in keeping with the times and its own sovereign needs – may sound superficially neutral, but it still contains an anti-Indian tinge by implication.
India has chosen to take the moral high ground in its official reaction, stressing that no other bilateral relationship could ever contain the logic of Nepal-India ties. “[W]e are not in the comparison business,” a spokesman for India’s External Affairs Ministry said. “And even if you are, do ask yourself, is there any other country in the world which can have the kind of relationship that Nepal has with India?”
Other voices inside India are split. Some wonder whether geography, economics, culture, and social realities would ever allow China to substitute India as Nepal’s dominant neighbor. Others are worried that even this superficial advantage accruing to Beijing would be inimical to New Delhi and needed to be considered a harbinger of things to come. Some analysts have openly called for sterner – and more punitive – policies on Nepal, with the opposition even chastising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for having mishandled relations with Nepal.
Nepalis, however, must not bury the reality that China has flashed its “Nepal card”, professing, of course, its expectation that Nepal’s relations with India would continue to grow in the days ahead. After all – as has been often stressed in this space – the longer the Indians and others are preoccupied with deciphering the motives and intentions of the Chinese in Nepal, the better it is for the mandarins up north.
Pledges of benevolence and acts of magnanimity make great international headlines against protracted geopolitical contexts but require low investments. Foreign assistance that comes with no strings attached – touted as the singular tenet of Chinese benevolence – tends to cuts both ways. The donor can delay projects or disbursements or quietly pull out altogether on grounds that may not be anticipated or often explicable to the recipient.
What really counts is what happens when the pedal hits the metal. On that score, the experiences of Bahadur Shah, Bhimsen Thapa, Jang Bahadur and Chandra Shamsher Rana, Birendra and Gyanendra Shah and Pushpa Kamal Dahal become instructive. Admittedly, those were individuals with their own values, attitudes, needs and expectations. Still, they did, to one degree or another, represent Nepal and Nepalis in their dealings with China in the fullness of their times and context.
Any game by definition requires a full-fledged partner willing to play on the established terms. Let’s not go into the dynamics of Sino-India relations and the attendant global realities that might have propelled China to flash its “Nepal card”.
A more prudent way ahead for us would be to anticipate whether, when the going gets tough, Beijing’s penchant for “unsentimental pragmatism” might still entail a full disavowal of Kathmandu’s interpretation of and expectations from the bilateral relationship.