Beijing recalibrating its Nepal policy as political situation unfolds fastChina may have sent a team to explore unity formula for Nepal Communist Party, but its concerns are wide-ranging after recent developments following House dissolution.
Caught unawares by the KP Sharma Oli government’s move of dissolving the House of Representatives, which then had an immediate impact on Nepal’s governing Nepal Communist Party, Beijing hurriedly sent a team led by a senior leader of the Communist Party of China to Kathmandu.
The four-member delegation, led by Guo Yezhou, a vice-minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China, over the past three days has held a whirlwind of meetings. After meeting with President Bidya Devi Bhandari and Prime Minister Oli, who is now leading a caretaker government, on Sunday, the day they arrived, the Chinese team on Monday met with Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal of the other faction of the Nepal Communist Party. The same evening, it held talks with Baburam Bhattarai, chairman of the federal council of the Janata Samajbadi Party.
On the third day of the visit—the Chinese team is in Kathmandu for four days—on Tuesday, it held talks with Sher Bahadur Deuba, president of the Nepali Congress, which was the main opposition until Oli dissolved the House on December 20.
During their meetings with the Nepal Communist Party leaders, the Chinese tried to explore a formula that could keep the party unity intact.
While meeting with Bhattarai, the Chinese team said their visit is aimed at strengthening Nepal-China ties.
According to Bishwadip Pandey, a personal aide to Bhattarai, the Guo-led team said they are “not in Kathmandu to discuss any issues related to Nepal’s internal affairs”.
During its meeting with Deuba, the Chinese delegation said that ties between Nepal and China have always remained excellent. The Chinese delegation also extended an invitation to Deuba to visit China, according to Dinesh Bhattarai, who served as foreign relations adviser to Deuba when he was prime minister in 2017-18.
Observers say the way the Chinese delegation has held talks with a wide range of leaders and sought to know various aspects of Nepali politics after Oli’s December 20 move, it looks like Beijing wants to recalibrate its approach when it comes to Nepal-China ties. According to them, it had already dawned upon Beijing that the situation in the Nepal Communist Party had gone beyond repair when Oli dissolved the House and the party virtually split.
So the objective of the visit is to assess the ground reality and see whether Beijing needs to form a new Nepal policy, and if that is needed, how and what, a senior Nepal Communist Party leader said.
“Beijing knew that it could not save the party unity,” the leader who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Post. “The delegation hence explored whether there is still the possibility of a working alliance between the two factions, especially in view of the elections that have been called.”
While going for the House dissolution, the Oli government also recommended that snap polls be held on April 30 and May 10. Accordingly, the President called elections for the said dates.
However, Oli’s House dissolution move has been challenged in the Supreme Court, which is testing if it was done under constitutional provisions.
According to leaders familiar with the Chinese delegation’s series of meetings, they were also concerned about Nepal’s future political course depending upon various conditions—if the House is restored by the court, if it is not restored, if elections happen on the said dates and if elections fail to happen.
The leader said that the Chinese also sought to know during their meetings with Nepali communist leaders if there was the possibility of a pre-poll alliance between the two factions of the Nepal Communsit Party, just like in 2017.
Beijing is believed to have invested a lot to ensure a pre-poll alliance between Oli’s CPN-UML and Dahal’s Maoist Centre during the 2017 elections. The handsome votes the two parties garnered made it easier for the Chinese to goad them into uniting.
Guo, who is leading the Chinese delegation, was in Kathmandu in February 2018 as well, months before Oli and Dahal announced the formation of the Nepal Communist Party in May that year. The two leaders had declared their party “a jet plane” and themselves its “co-pilots”.
“The Chinese delegation is of the view that if the two factions of the Nepal Communist Party can go to the polls, if they happen, under a working alliance, the dominance of leftist forces could continue,” said the leader.
It was not that the Nepal Communist Party split on December 23 all of a sudden. It was just hastened by Oli’s move of House dissolution, as discord was brewing for the last one year or so.
While delivering a speech at a protest in Kathmandu by the Dahal-Nepal faction, Dahal admitted that for the last one year things were not in order in the party.
Then a flurry of visits from India starting in October—when India’s spy chief Samant Goel had met with Oli—became a cause for concern in Beijing. After Goel, Indian Army Chief MM Naravane and Indian Foreing Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla made rounds of Kathmandu in November.
The visits from Delhi just when India and the United States were aiming at strengthening strategic ties in the face of growing influence of China in the region spooked Beijing.
Two days after Shringla concluded his Nepal visit, China had sent its Defence Minister Wei Fenghe to Kathmandu on a daylong trip, during which he met with President Bhandari, Prime Minister Oli and Nepal Army chief Purna Chandra Thapa.
Beijing thought the Nepal Communist Party, or Oli for that matter, was slipping out of its hands, according to analysts and some leaders from the party.
Ram Karki, deputy head of foreign affairs department of the Nepal Communist Party (Dahal-Nepal faction), said the way the Chinese delegation arrived in Kathmandu and the way it held a series of meetings with different actors makes it clear that Beijing is now considering a different Nepal policy.
Karki was one of the leaders who accompanied Madhav Kumar Nepal during the latter’s meeting with the Chinese delegation on Monday at The Everest Hotel.
“They spoke less and listened to us more,” Karki told the Post. “China had been looking for a reliable and trustworthy partner in Nepal since the fall of the monarchy. It found one in the Nepal Communist Party. But since the party fell apart even before concluding the unification, it is concerned.”
Nepal in May 2017 had signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s flagship scheme under which infrastructure and connectivity projects will be built across Asia, Europe, Africa, Oceania and South America.
After the Nepal Communist Party came to power and Oli became prime minister, China was planning to pour in more investments in Nepal as part of Beijing’s tested policy to expand its influence.
However, Washington’s Millenium Challenge Corporation, under which Nepal is to receive $500 million in grants, has remained Beijing’s headache. Since it was described as a US programme under the Indo-Pacific Region, which China believes is American plan to counter it, Beijing’s concerns had grown.
Even within the Nepal Communist Party, a section of leaders was extremely critical of the MCC. But with the party split, most of those who were against the MCC are in the Dahal-Nepal faction.
“I sensed that there are some concerns in Beijing if Nepal will approve the MCC,” said Karki. “Such a move could lead to a change in the geopolitical dynamics and China’s concerns from its point of view are not entirely wrong.”
Amid growing partnership between the United States, which is set to get its new president in January, and India, with which China’s rivalry has intensified of late, China’s interest in Nepal is understandable, analysts and leaders say.
“The Chinese delegation is here to understand the ground situation before formulating a new policy on Nepal,” said Milan Tuladhar, who was foreign relations adviser to Jhala Nath Khanal when he was prime minister from February to August 2011.
Tuladhar accompanied Khanal during his meeting with the Chinese delegation on Monday.
According to Tuladhar, the Chinese delegation is here to assess how the split in the Nepal Communist Party could impact overall politics in Nepal and whether China now needs to formulate a new Nepal policy.
Tuladhar dismissed the arguments that the UML and the Maoist Centre had united at the behest of China.
“They [Chinese] had a role in party unification and now they are here to effect a patch-up in the party is an exaggerated statement,” said Tualadhar. “China’s role is limited. The unity was not because of them. And internal factors led to the party split.”
Mahesh Maskey, who served as Nepal’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, also said that the Chinese delegation’s visit is aimed more at assessing overall political situation in Nepal than trying to unite the two factions of the Nepal Communist Party.
“By the time the Chinese team arrived here, the two factions had already parted ways. So I don’t think they were hoping to bring the two factions together just by talking to a few leaders,” Maskey told the Post. “Their objective seems to be formulating a new Nepal policy in the changed context–in Nepal and the region.”
According to Maskey, the Chinese team’s long stay in Kathmandu is also striking.
“The Chinese do not have a history of staying for four long days. Nor do they hold such meetings with leaders from across the political spectrum,” said Maskey. “Earlier, they watched developments in Nepal from a distance. That’s not the case anymore.”