Chinese ambassador at Nepal embassy
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By Shubham Kumar

New Delhi, September 22: Deng Xiaoping in 1975 asserted that America has limited role to play in Nepal. Three years later in 1978, on his visit to Kathmandu, he was vocal in predicting that days when Nepal would ask China to compete with India in providing aid are over.

India inaugurated its maiden aid mission in Nepal in 1952. Nepal is also placed as one of the biggest recipients of Overseas Development Assistance from India. Recently, China has surpassed India to emerge as the largest FDI source for Kathmandu. These developments coupled with the BRI inroads add a layer to the widening Chinese influence in Nepal.

While economic and geo-strategic factors lay at the forefront, there are many facets to Chinese keenness in Kathmandu. Chinese interest in Nepal has a profound cultural root and its contemporary quest for dominating a polarised world only aids its association with Nepal.

While India has always perceived a cultural commonality with Nepal, historically Buddhism has been the link directing the interactions between Nepal and Tibet. These ties with Tibet naturally matured to a communication with China after latter’s accession of the former.

The initial interaction of Tibet and Chinese mainland with Nepal was apolitical and confined itself to trade and religion only. The 8th Dalai Lama was born in Himalayan valley, east of Kathmandu in the late 17th century. Nepal was consequently placed crucially in Beijing’s calculation of managing the uprisings in Tibet.

Naturally, it has spent great diplomatic energy in dealing with Tibetan refugees who widely moved into Nepalese territories. The presence of thousands of refugees from Lhasa, currently, will draw Chinese eyes onto Nepal.

Several historians have pointed that Nepal has been placed geographically in a manner that it finds itself at crossroads of various Asian influences namely Southern, Eastern and even central. China, with its historical Buddhist linkages to Kathmandu, is no alien to this.

Expectedly, it attributes Nepal a key role in attempts to gradually widen the footprints in South Asia. China has ensured that Nepal is partnered with its flagship Belt and Road initiative. Nepalese assent on the Chinese visualisation of One Belt One Region is vital in this regard.

Beijing has used its economic clout to pour multiple aids and economic grants to Nepal. In 2016, Nepal signed an agreement with China on Transit Transportation. In line with Chinese strategic characteristic, further support to Nepal in form of a military grant of 32 million came the next year.

The strategic ties between Kathmandu and Beijing have rightfully emerged as a major irritant in Indo-Nepal relations. China has been accused of promoting anti-India campaigns in Nepal. Protests over Pancheshwar multipurpose projects are some instances of such connivance. China has, also, worked actively on reducing Nepalese reliance on India.

In 2019, China granted Nepal access of four seaports. It further plans to extend its rail link to the Nepalese border. Encircling India, with its evergreen friendship with Pakistan, and growing influence in Nepal would seem a natural course for thinkers in Beijing.

The meeting of Chinese diplomats with Nepalese political parties and their influence over the national politics is noticeable.

Xi Jinping in his remarks to Russian President on the sidelines of SCO Summit held recently, said that China is ready to “assume the role of great powers, and play a guiding role to inject stability and positive energy into a world rocked by social turmoil”.

The Chinese intention is hidden to none. Great power politics would easily explain Chinese uneasiness over fruition of India’s attempt to bind Nepal and other Asian like-minded states into an integrated economic network. Beijing would not seek a rising power at its doorstep with it envisions a world that it dominates.

Global domination for China would, however, mean a growing conflict with the United States of America. The MCC and BRI tussle in Nepal symbolises the same. In response to Chinese inroads with BRI into Kathmandu, America’s Millennium Challenge Corporation has ratified the much awaited 500 million grant agreement in 2017. Nepal has emerged, consequently, as one of the many flashpoints for the powers to compete. Chinese keenness on the nation is therefore natural.

While trends have been incremental, Chinese involvement in Nepal has not been smooth. Its state-media has lamented the Nepali cunningness of using ‘China card’ to deal with India with no significant follow-ups or developments independently.

Moreover, unsettling India’s cultural and traditional economic influence in Kathmandu would be an uphill task for China. India, on the other hand, must rejuvenate its ties with the Nepal and its new generation which is unwilling to rely on overused traditional narratives.

India must emerge as a reliable economic partner for the neighbours lest it misses the bus to the Chinese omnipresence.

(Author is interning with Public Policy Research Centre)

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