Nepal has been struggling eternally to find strategic equilibrium between its two giant neighbors. When complementarities pertaining to India find prominence and Nepal’s relations with its southern neighbor seem to acquire a semblance of steadiness, the Chinese find something somewhere and intimate their displeasure.
When newer manifestations of technology, transport and trade mesh with tradition to promise a rejuvenation of Nepal’s relations with China, the Indians make their concerns apparent, often in immensely punitive ways. The counsel Nepal then tends to get from the Chinese is to build better relations with India.
Oftentimes, Sino-Indian dynamics not immediately relevant to Nepal force themselves upon us with utmost mercilessness. At other times, anxieties and apprehensions over how unfolding global trends might impact the relationship between the Asian behemoths unleash forces that inevitably push us further into the corner.
When Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ visited China last month, it was hard to ignore history. During his last term in office in 2008, Dahal made Beijing his first foreign port of call. Dahal stepped back from his initial contention that his visit to China was a demonstration of new Nepal’s new diplomacy, to subsequently assert that his first official visit was indeed to India. (The China trip was merely to attend the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games.) The Indians, unimpressed by the invocation of that technicality, never forgave Dahal for this breach of protocol.
Although this time Dahal was technically up north to attend the Boao Forum for Asia, he did meet with President Xi Jinping in Beijing. During that meeting, Xi urged Nepal to maintain good relations with India. Not a bad thing to say, right?
Consider the context. Reports suggested that the Chinese government had declined to give a more official cloak to the visit – which Dahal desperately needed to dispel his burgeoning pro-Indian reputation – citing lack of time for preparations. Still, Xi was also perceived to have played his version of tit-for-tat. After all, Dahal had declined to do bilateral deals with Xi on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Goa last year.
The clear bruises on Nepali pride should have made the Indians even more happy with Xi’s latest exhortation. In the past, when Chinese leaders made such statements, New Delhi was quick to interpret them as China’s abdication of any aspiration or interest in Nepal in the interest of expanding far more important ties with India. (In fact, Premier Li Peng gave precisely such advice during his visit to Nepal at the height of India’s 1988-89 trade and transit embargo.)
Not so this time. Indian media reports, the best gauge of official thinking down south, noted that Dahal left for China after meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, who arrived in Kathmandu at the head of a high-level military delegation. And that, too, days before the new Indian Army chief, Bipin Rawat, was scheduled to arrive here for his investiture as an honorary general of the Nepal Army as part of a longstanding reciprocal tradition.
Consider this specific reaction. “Despite New Delhi’s efforts to cement its economic relationship with Nepal”, the Indian Express editorialized the other, “Beijing’s raw economic muscle will make it hard for India to maintain the choke-hold it has long had over Nepal’s strategic destiny.” The newspaper added: “India will need to find new, adroit strategies to maintain its strategic leverage.”
Maybe the Chinese should be mulling something else. What mellows someone like Dahal? The realization that he was left out to hang dry in 2008-09? Or could it be that President Xi keeps postponing a visit to Nepal that he says he is so interested in? Or is it that much-hyped railroad link with Tibet that keeps receding into an indeterminate future?
After meeting with President Xi, US President Donald Trump may or may not abandon his campaign-era desire to challenge the core tenets of Washington’s ‘One China’ policy. Beijing has every right to pursue every option, including attempting to woo India away from any putative formal US-led structure to contain China.
“Using barbarians to control barbarians,” the aphorism up north goes. But using a ‘near’ barbarian to defeat both ‘near’ and ‘far’ barbarians simultaneously? What heaven would mandate such hardhearted inversion of tradition?