Mitigating risks of a military approachThe interests of China in pursuing the announced joint military exercise with Nepal in the second week of February are clearly defined.
The interests of China in pursuing the announced joint military exercise with Nepal in the second week of February are clearly defined. That is not the case for Nepal, as it has not outlined what it wants to achieve from the initiative. The government should, however, work on a sustainable approach to such activities, in order to reap long-term benefits.
The Nepal-China relationship has entered a new phase, with China showing interest in a wide range of sectors, from hydropower to the military. Yet the possibility of establishing strategic cooperation between the two countries is small. China’s failure to cement strategic cooperation with the Philippines can be taken as a reference here. This failure happened despite the goodwill visit by then Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie and State Councillor Dai Bingguo in May 2011. The reason behind the failure then was the US. With Nepal, the reason will be India.
Costs and benefits
This proposed joint military exercise may not serve the welfare of the majority of Nepalis; rather may be limited to benefit the military elites.
A joint military exercise in itself does not improve the socio-economic prosperity of any country, which is the most pressing need of Nepal at the moment. Rather it is a largely symbolic show put on for a geopolitical purpose. Although Nepal has been holding joint military exercises with other countries, including India and the United States, this is the first time the Nepali military would be holding such an exercise with China. Prof SD Muni from New Delhi, a long-time Nepal observer, has argued that the exercise is solely aimed to target Tibetan agitators and that would be against the global spirit of free movement of Tibetans in Nepal and across the world.
However, both Chinese and Nepali officials have claimed that the exercise is meant to enhance the preparedness of the Nepali side to deal with hostage situations involving international terrorist groups. The Nepali side has claimed that the deal will not go against the spirit of the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty between Nepal and India. But it will make India nervous, causing it to counter the cosy relationship between China and Nepal. This exercise has multiple dimensions and will have long-term impact on the bilateral relationship between Nepal and China. It will impact Nepal’s political and economic development.
There is a lot of euphoria in Nepal over its overtures towards China, and anything that happens is celebrated without properly weighing the costs and benefits. This joint military exercise has benefits to Nepal as well, but it is important to look at the costs that Nepal might have to bear.
It would not be too far-fetched to say that the joint military exercise is a major breakthrough in the Nepal-China relationship. However, how this will serve Nepal’s interests in the long run is yet to be seen. The government of Nepal is trying to carry out this joint military exercise at a politically wrong time. Nepal is still struggling to implement the new constitution, which is the most crucial task of the government at the moment and a military show-off with China will have an influence in achieving that goal.
There are cases of Nepal acting in a haphazard manner without outlining long-term plans to engage with its two big neighbours. Each new government has its own priorities in mind, rather than working towards the country’s long-term goals, such as political stability and economic prosperity. The China-Nepal joint military exercise can be called a turning point for two countries trying to establish a strategic relationship through the exchange of military experiences. But, before being blinded, let’s look at what China is expecting from this and where Nepal falls short in serving its own interests.
China’s relations with neighbours
China has a strained relationship with most of its neighbours, except Pakistan and Nepal. This is where China wants to work through ‘peripheral diplomacy’, a term coined by Xi Jinping at the beginning of his term. China wants to use this military exercise as a ‘showpiece’ for the international community, proving how close its relationship with a neighbouring country can be. The Chinese side seems to be more enthusiastic about the exercise than the Nepali side. China anticipates it will help project its power in South Asia. But what is not clear yet is how China will work on developing this partnership in the future.
Nepal’s political course has stagnated due to the failure to implement the constitution and prepare the ground for elections. Elections are a prerequisite for letting the country move forward. Political parties are polarised on the issue of constitution amendment and federal demarcation. The Madhes-based political parties have been protesting against the spirit of the new constitution, suggesting that it does not accommodate the aspirations of the Madhesi people. Nepal’s southern neighbour India has been expressing its reservations on the new constitution through various means and channels.
Against this backdrop, it appears as if China has started being actively involved in Nepal’s internal issues. The joint military exercise was
basically proposed by the Chinese side at great potential costs to Nepal’s political course, particularly the implementation of the new constitution.
China has adopted a military approach to deepen its ties with Nepal although it could have taken a non-military ‘geo-economic’ approach to help Nepal’s development. China could invest in Nepal’s non-military sectors, such as the finance, industry and education. Joint military exercises might overshadow other more important issues for Nepal such as expanding trade routes with China, building railway connections and giving Nepal more liberal access to the Chinese market. Nepal has an insatiable hunger for infrastructure and China could have been a source of satisfying that.
China should work on building Nepal’s economic foundation if it really wants to adopt a strategic military approach in the long term. But activities on the economic front take time, whereas military exercises can be quickly completed. This will only make India more anxious, giving it an excuse to further block the road for a timely implementation of the new constitution. Nepal could fall into the trap of losing out because of this military exercise, because it calls into question Nepal’s balanced engagement with its two neighbours.
Sapkota is a PHD candidate at Renmin University, Beijing; Poudel is a political-economist associated with ThinkINChina, Asia