Chinese checkers in Nepal: The burden of history

June 28, 2021 1:45 PM

Nepal and China relations date back “to the middle of the fifth century BC when traders, scholars, soldiers, philosophers, artists, and adventurers travelled exchanging news, gifts, inventions and commercial opportunities.

nepal china tiesChina's main interest in Nepal has always been led by its concerns over Tibet, which has been ruled by China since 1950. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Lt Gen Shokin Chauhan, 

“During a visit to China in August 1979, King Birendra, in his speech at the banquet in his honour, explained”: “Nepal’s foreign policy is founded on her desire to safeguard her independence and sovereignty and the related quest for peace. Our commitment to the institutionalization of peace in Nepal and our appreciation of your support for the objective is as strong as ever.”

Nepal and China relations date back “to the middle of the fifth century BC when traders, scholars, soldiers, philosophers, artists, and adventurers travelled exchanging news, gifts, inventions and commercial opportunities.” In fact, it was a Nepali architect, Arniko, who is supposed to have created and supervised “the construction of the White Pagoda in 1278 during the Yuan Dynasty”. This Pagoda created by Arniko, in Beijing still stands in Beijing today and is a standard of architecture in China, Korea and Japan. The Highway which connects Kathmandu with the Tibetan border and continues on to Lhasa is called the Arniko Highway in memory of this great architect. This road runs first along the Sun Kosi or “Golden River,” then the Bhote Kosi or ‘Tibet River.’ “It was built through China’s assistance in the 1960s, after the Sino-Indian war of 1962.

Many Chinese philosophers and learned Buddhist monks travelled the Silk Route seeking intellectual and spiritual exchange with other scholars along the Ganges plains to South India and Sri Lanka. Huen Tsang (603-664 A.D.), in particular, left records about his visit to Nepal.”

The “18th century saw the advent of the modern state of Nepal with the unifier, King Prithvi Narayan Shah and his successors expanding its territory towards the West, North and the South which included forays towards Tibet. The Chinese intervened in favour of Tibet and defeated the Nepali armies, thus forcing Nepal into signing the Chinese-Nepali Treaty of Betrabati in 1792, that ensured tribute-paying missions to the Emperor of the Chinese Kingdom every five years (till 1908). This treaty became symbolic of the Chinese political and cultural supremacy over Tibet.” Later, during the Anglo Nepali war of 1834, when the King of Nepal asked the Chinese Emperor for military assistance against the British East India’s armies, he was refused. Keeping in mind the superiority of the British Colonial army, the Chinese emperor effectively surrendered its control over both Tibet and Nepal to the expanding British Colonial power.

Later, when Nepal again invaded Tibet in 1854, China once again intervened militarily and forced the Kingdom of Nepal to sign the Treaty of Thapathali in March 1856. This treaty explicitly recognised China’s influence over Tibet and further forced Nepal to give a yearly tribute (until 1953) to China and committed Nepal to assist Tibet in the event of any foreign aggression. However, “towards the end of the 19th century, Nepal changed her policy and aligned herself with the British Raj in India, which it perceived to be stronger. Further Nepal contributed immensely to the colonial armies” that fought in both the world wars as well as assisted the British to suppress the innumerable small rebellions that were emanating within the numerous Indian Kingdoms. Nepal interestingly also assisted their military expeditionary force into Tibet. In 1904, the British army marched to Lhasa in order to prevent Russia from extending its influence into Tibet.

The “Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906 had recognized Chinese sovereignty over the region. However, when China sought to claim Tibet in 1910, Nepal sided with Tibet and Britain. Nepal then broke relations with China after Tibet drove the Chinese forces out in 1911, in the wake of the Chinese Revolution (the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 which led Emperor Puyi to abdicate). China then concentrated inward, on its revolutions, civil wars, invasions, famines, the Second World War spreading onto its territory and the ultimate creation of the Communist People’s Republic. Until 1949, Tibet remained independent from all such events and their influence.”

Nepal’s China policy “is best understood in relation to events linked with India: two years after the end of the Second World War, India gained its independence and the British Raj left the Indian subcontinent. Three wars between India and Pakistan and the continuing countless skirmishes, particularly in the northwest (Kashmir), have kept India in a heightened state of conflict in the region for over 70 plus years. Independent India continues to be surrounded by real or potential foes. The security of India depends largely on her ability to outwardly and inwardly manage her neighbours.” In the early 1950s, “Indian military missions included the provision of training for Nepali troops and the posting of Indian military personnel along the northern border (in 1951, also in response to China annexing Tibet. This military mission withdrew on the request of Nepal in 1969).”

In July 1955, China and Nepal established diplomatic relations based on the principles of ‘Panch Sheel’. This was followed in December 1955 by its admission to the UN as a full-fledged member. In March 1960, China and Nepal signed an Agreement of Peace and Friendship. In 1962, Nepal and Pakistan signed the protocol for instituting full diplomatic relations. This was the beginning of the outward thrust by Nepal, an international outlook that saw little advantage in clinging to regional alignments. Further, Indian continual support to democratic and pro Congress elements in Nepal and its perceived overbearing attitude alienated King Mahendra considerably. He dismissed the parliament system of democracy in December 1960 and strengthened his relations with China at India’s expense. By October 1962, a few days prior to the Sino-Indian war, King Mahendra returned from a visit to Beijing where the vice PM assured him that if any forces attacked Nepal, the Chinese people would stand by Nepal. A year earlier, in October 1961, both countries had signed the Boundary Treaty by which Nepal had gained some 300 square miles of territory.

There was little doubt that Nepalese leanings towards China were a tilt, historically validated as a balance of power gambit. The Indian defeat in the 1962 war against China marked a significant change in the attitude of Nepal towards India and China. The main concern in Kathmandu was that a powerful China posed, possibly, a much larger threat to Nepal than India could militarily. Also, if India couldn’t protect itself, how could they expect India to protect Nepal?

The intrinsic strengths of China in the North and India in the South was not lost on policy makers of Nepal and this was borne out by the advice of Prithvi Narayan Shah to his successors, “the kingdom is like a yam between two boulders. Maintain friendly relations with the Emperor of China, great friendship should also be maintained with the emperor beyond the southern seas”. This balance has continued since.

Like the policies of the Kings of the past, the democratic governments of Nepal, since 2008, too sought to reduce India’s influence in Nepal, with the Maoists (before the split) projecting India as an enemy state in their manifesto.

After becoming the prime minister of Nepal, breaking the tradition of visiting India first, Prachanda visited Beijing to underscore Nepal’s sovereignty and independence. Although he undertook his first official visit to India, his first foreign trip to Beijing had indicated that the Maoists would prefer China to India. During his visit to the Nordic countries in March 2009, Prachanda articulated the view that sustainable peace was not possible in Nepal without economic prosperity and support from the international community. He requested Norway to invest in hydropower development and other sectors of mutual interest. Even after his resignation, the Maoists mobilised international support to come back to power and continued to project India as an ‘interventionist power’. This Maoist policy of equidistance was also followed by the succeeding coalition government led by Madhav Kumar Nepal of the CPN-UML, but with some moderation in policies vis-à-vis India. Nepal visited India soon after assuming office but interestingly, his visit to Beijing in December 2009 was a high-profile one and the two countries agreed to further strengthen their relationship. China took the visit very seriously; since this was the first official visit of the Nepalese Prime Minister to China after it became a Republic. One of the longest and most detailed joint statements was issued at the end of that visit.” The two countries agreed to “lift their bilateral relationship to a higher level by establishing a comprehensive partnership of cooperation”, which hinted at taking the relationship to a higher level from the previously stated “good-neighbourly partnership” to “closer ties between China and Nepal”. China’s top legislator Wu Bangguo, during an interaction with Madhav Nepal, clarified that the objective of the comprehensive partnership was “strategic”. This joint statement further widened the window of opportunities for China in Nepal. Madhav Kumar Nepal’s successor Jhalanath Khanal further facilitated Chinese presence in Nepal. One scholar observed that: “Although both Madhav Nepal and Prime Minister Khanal belong to the same party [CPN-UML], the latter became prime minister through a secret deal with Maoist Chairman [Prachanda], and this was perceived more positively by Beijing.”

To boost Nepalese morale further, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a statement, said recently, “China has all along believed that countries irrespective of their size are equal. China and Nepal have always treated each other sincerely and as equals. We hope that the same policy and practices will also be adopted by India.”“Nepal reciprocated the gesture by waiving visa fees for Chinese tourists.

“On December 17th, 2015, the Nepalese government allotted Chinese CAMC Engineering Company, a subsidiary of China National Machinery Industry Corporation (SINOMACH), to carry out a feasibility study for construction of the Kathmandu-Pokhara electric railway. This project could be part of the trans-Himalayan railway, envisioned by China, to connect Kathmandu.” “China is also building a regional international airport in Pokhara. This is the second biggest infrastructure project undertaken by China in Nepal. Moreover, over a dozen hotels in Pokhara have Chinese owners. Chinese telecommunications major Zhong Xing Telecommunication Equipment (ZTE) has four data centres: in Biratnagar, Kathmandu, Hetauda and Pokhara.” “Media reports also indicate that 15 Nepalese districts bordering China have received special concessions on grazing land and humanitarian and developmental aid of RMB 10 million ($1.6 million) annually from 2014 to 2018 from Beijing. The Chinese language is also getting more popular in Nepal and Chinese universities are increasingly becoming the preferred destination for Nepalese students.”

“Other than soft power, China has used its economic diplomacy to project itself as a non-interfering neighbour by welcoming the new constitution of Nepal. It is perceived as a saviour when it agreed to supply 1.3 million litres of petrol to Nepal as grant-in-aid assistance during acute fuel shortages in Nepal due to irregular supplies from the Indian side. China has also agreed to reconstruct the damaged Nepal-China trade routes and open new trading points for easy supply of goods.” “China has allowed resumption of Kathmandu-Lhasa bus services after 11 years. Moreover, China has been the second largest donor to the ongoing earthquake reconstruction programmes in Nepal. In March 2015, China increased its annual aid assistance from RMB 150 million to RMB 900 million.”

There could be three major reasons for the revision of China’s stance vis-à-vis Nepal. First, over a period of time, China has improved its capacity in terms of its technological prowess and economic growth to feel confident to extend support to Nepal across the Himalayas. Second, China wants to use its flexi power as a vision of President Xi Jinping, to disseminate Chinese values and re-establish China’s image at an international level. Third, China did not want to lose this opportunity when it perceived that India’s influence was in decline.”

China’s main interest in Nepal has always been led by its concerns over Tibet, which has been ruled by China since 1950. Beijing’s involvement with Nepal grew much more intense after the March 2008 ethnic Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, which deeply embarrassed the Chinese government on the eve of its 2008 Olympic Games. There are an estimated 25,000 Tibetan refugees living in Nepal but, with China pushing Nepal to tighten its border with Tibet, the number of new refugees reaching Nepal has dropped to a trickle from an earlier annual figure of around 2,500. On the other hand, both countries have increased their focus on economic ties and trade which has quadrupled since 2003

Nepal affirms that her friendship with China is a part of her attempt to decrease dependency on India. While seeking to maintain equal friendship with both, Nepal also hoped that economic competition between them would enhance her own economic development.

(The author, a veteran soldier, is a second generation officer of the 11th Gorkha Rifles, and has served in the Indian Army for almost 40 years. He was later appointed the Chairman of the Cease Fire Monitoring Group located in Kohima where he was chartered to bring the various insurgent groups to accept an ongoing Ceasefire with the GOI. He also had the distinction of serving as the Indian Defence Attache at the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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