As Kathmandu plays host to guests from south and north, concerns grow over geopolitical gamesNepali leadership needs to strike a fine balance when it comes to dealing with neighbours and friendly nations so as to earn support for its larger national interests, analysts say.
Kathmandu has never been busier like now this past year. It is suddenly scrambling to play host to some high-profile guests–both from the south and north.
Just as it saw off Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla on Friday, Kathmandu has got into full swing to prepare itself to welcome Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe on Sunday.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Saturday that Wei will arrive in Kathmandu on Sunday on a daylong visit.
“During his daylong stay in Kathmandu, Wei will call on Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli,” said the ministry in a statement. Oli is currently looking after the defence portfolio as well. Before wrapping up his visit, Wei will also pay a courtesy call on President Bidya Devi Bhandari and will hold talks with Chief of the Nepal Army General Purna Chandra Thapa, according to the ministry.
“He will leave Kathmandu in the evening of the same day,” said the ministry.
Analysts say after a months-long calm, geopolitical games are back into play in Nepal and that failure to strike a fine balance by the leadership in Kathmandu could turn the country into a battleground for foreign powers.
“China seems to be losing its social and political ground in Kathmandu because culturally, socially, politically and other socilisations of Nepalis, Nepal is by and large close to India and the United States,” said Mrigendra Bahadur Karki, executive director of the Centre for Nepal and South Asian Studies. “India is trying to restore its old sphere of influence here and the Americans are looking through the Indian lens.”
Even though there has been no high-level visit from the north since Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Kathmandu in October last year, its mission in Kathmandu was actively involved in Nepali politics, especially given Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi’s meetings with ruling party leaders whenever it was in crisis.
Just as China appeared to be more active, Kathmandu and Delhi were in a state of cartographic war over the disputed territories in the northwest ridge of the country.
It was due to the unease caused by Beijing’s overtures that Delhi suddenly started making efforts to effect a rapprochement with Kathmandu.
It set in motion a chain of events. Just before the Dashain festival, it sent the chief of its foreign spy agency to meet with Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli in the third week of October. The visit, which drew a fair share of controversy, was followed by Indian Army chief MM Naravane’s trip to Kathmandu earlier this month. Weeks later, the Indian foreign secretary arrived.
The message from Delhi is clear: it wants to reestablish its ties with Kathmandu.
As soon as Shringla landed in Kathmandu, he launched a charm offensive. He called Nepal and India close friends and said he was in Kathmandu to strengthen bilateral ties. His linguistic diplomacy was in full display as he chose to speak in Nepali.
After every meeting with Nepali officials, Shringla re-asserted the importance India attaches to Nepal.
On Friday, before wrapping up his visit, Shringla delivered a lecture, describing Nepal-India relationship as intricate which “exists in various paradigms”.
“Aside from our common civilisational inheritance, India’s relationship with Nepal rests on four pillars—development cooperation; stronger connectivity; expanded infrastructure and economic projects; easier and enhanced access to educational opportunities in India for the young people of Nepal,” said Shringla. “India sees itself as Nepal’s foremost friend and development partner.”
The establishment in Delhi is for long under the impression, ever since it failed to acknowledge the constitution promulgation in 2015 and imposed a five-month-long border blockade, that it has lost its sphere of influence in Nepal.
Oli’s return to power riding on the nationalistic rhetoric, largerly read as anti-India sentiments, had not gone down well with Delhi.
India’s move of including Kalapani within its borders and inauguration of a road link via Lipulekh did more damage to bilateral ties that were just getting back on track since they were broken after 2015.
Analysts say Beijing’s growing influence in Kathmandu, especially on the ruling party, had caused some discomfort in Delhi.
Foreign policy watchers in Kathmandu say India is trying to re-assert itself in Nepal while Beijing does not want to be left behind.
Chandra Dev Bhatta, a political commentator, said foreign powers have always wanted to exercise their influence in Nepal but it’s domestic factors that provide them space.
“Whether one accepts or not, the Chinese are quite concerned about the unity of the Nepal Communist Party,” said Bhatta. “After all, for ideological reasons also, Beijing sees the Communist Party of China and the Nepal Communist Party to have brotherly relations.”
A flurry of visits from the south, according to analysts, is seen by Beijing as New Delhi’s re-entry into Nepal’s internal politics, especially the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Insiders say Oli by and large seems to have already changed his side and agreed to play along with Delhi.
It may be a routine visit, but the timing says a lot about the Chinese defence minister’s visit, analysts say.
Wei is the second Chinese defence minister to arrive in Nepal in the last two decades. Before him, then Chinese defence minister Chang Wanquan had arrived in Kathmandu leading a 19-member delegation on a three-day visit on May 23, 2017. That was the first visit by a Chinese defence minister to Nepal in 16 years. The visit had taken place on the eve of a scheduled military exercise between the Nepal Army and the People’s Liberation Army.
“Among various other factors, Beijing certainly does not want, at least for now, Nepal to slip back into India’s hands,” said Bhatta. “Recent visits from India might have prompted China to send one of its top leaders.”
Analysts say recent developments in the region also must be taken into consideration.
India sent its spy chief to Kathmandu days before it hosted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo and US Defence Chief Mark Esper’s visit was aimed at strengthening strategic ties in the face of growing Chinese influence in the region.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation, a $500 million US grant for Nepal, is awaiting parliamentary approval in Kathmandu but Nepal has also signed up to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s ambitious plan to have an economic sphere in the neighbourhood and beyond.
The US has for long been pushing for an early endorsement of the Washington-led programme. Delhi, through three back-to-back visits, has made it clear to the Oli government that India’s and Nepal’s destinies are tied. Amid all this, despite Nepal signing up to the BRI in 2016, not a single project has moved forward.
“[As far as I understand], the Chinese are worried about the growing American presence in South Asia, recent US-India strategic ties, its implication in the region, Nepal’s position on Indo-Pacific Strategy and Nepal’s dilemma over accepting the US’s Millenium Challenge Corporation,” said Rupak Sapkota, deputy executive director of the Institute of Foreign Affairs, a semi-government think tank under the aegis of the Foreign Ministry, and a close China watcher.
“China wants to keep the growing US influence in the region on the check. So the Himalayan region has turned into a flash point for geo-strategic activities.”
The only way, according to observers, Nepal can steer clear of the dangers of geopolitical games is having a strong diplomatic position and making prudent moves so that it benefits from its ties with all its partners.
“Our major political parties should come together to find a common understanding on how to deal with this new kind of rivalry,” said Karki of the Centre for Nepal and South Asian Studies. “Strong and clear diplomacy is the need of the hour to ward off any unwarranted interests of foreign powers in Nepal.”
Amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, vaccine diplomacy too has been in full play.
While Shringla during his meetings in Kathmandu assured support for Nepal to fight the coronavirus, during his lecture on Friday, he said that Nepal will be a priority.
“We are on the cusp of the availability of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. As the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, India is at the forefront of this effort,” he said. “I would like to assure the people of Nepal that, once a vaccine is rolled out, meeting Nepal’s requirements would be a priority for us. Given our genetic profiles, what works for India is likely to work for Nepal as well.”
China has its own diplomatic strategy regarding the pandemic.
China has not only sought Nepal’s, along with some other countries’ in South Asia, support to jointly reject politicising and stigmatising the virus but also has pledged early availability of the vaccine when it is ready.
During a virtual meeting with Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan in July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said when the Chinese vaccine is developed, China will improve accessibility of the vaccine to the three countries.
Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali says Nepal has cordial and balanced ties with its neighbours and friendly nations.
“It is up to us whether we allow ground for foreign powers. Why do we always have to follow conspiracy theories?” Gaywali told the Post. “Yes, the United States of America and China are competing. But it does not mean that we should not take support from them.”
According to Gyawali, if Nepal can benefit from the Millennium Challenge Corporation as well as the Belt and Road Initiative, it should accept both.
As the world order is changing fast, overservers say, it’s natural that world powers will engage in their maneuverings.
“Kathmandu and the Nepali leadership must be cautious about long-term political and security concerns in the face of growing geopolitical shifts,” said Bhatta, the political commentator.
“Winning the confidence of the neighbours and friendly nations irrespective of their sizes, resources and clout and making efforts to have balanced ties for our own benefit should be our priority.”