China Expands into Himalayan Neighbor Nepal


    Why has China spent the past decade enhancing its diplomatic and economic ties with Nepal? According to Saransh Sehgal, strong relations with the landlocked country not only help Beijing control Tibet better, they also provide it with an opportunity to keep India’s geostrategic interests in check.

    By Saransh Sehgal for Asian Press Group / Ventura Media

    Flag-Pins-Nepal-ChinaNepal occupies a unique gee-strategic position where diplomacy is seen to be in constant play, as the former Himalayan kingdom is sandwiched between the two Asian giants – China and India. China to its north and India to its south are both competing to increase their influence using the country as a playground. However, today Nepal stands as one of the world’s most impoverished regions, made poorer by its own decade-long civil war between Maoist revolutionaries and the military which ended in 2006, and by the continuing political instability of the government in Kathmandu.

    Despite sharing its religious and cultural background with India, Nepal’s domestic politics have recently shown a sudden inclination towards Beijing because China is helping the country reduce its considerable trade deficit. This has allowed Sino-Nepal relations to improve. Nepal gets monetary aid as a reward for echoing the ‘One China policy” and banning any kind of anti-China activities on its soil.

    The frequency of recent high-level political and military visits carried out by both countries have showcased a new phase of diplomacy and with many external observers even describing them as the most allied neighbors in South Asia. China’s direct investment in Nepal approximately doubled between 2007 and 2011. It funds almost everything from military aid, new roads, telecommunications, building infrastructure, food supplies to hydroelectric power projects. The Asian giant has also recently introduced programs to endorse its culture and language. Nepal’s current education system offers courses in Chinese to children in more than 70 schools throughout the country.

    China’s soft play in Nepal has already allowed massive Chinese investment in the region that has seen great change though both sides have continued to view each other’s major worries and core interests sympathetically.

    Unfortunately for India, Nepal’s internal political situation and continued environment of distrust is limiting any strong mutual cooperation. India continues to be wary of Beijing’s real intentions. Is it’s assistance a gesture to a neighbor, or perhaps the result of a larger foreign policy? Most reports of the issue in Indian media have blasted Chinese expansion in the region, saying it as a plot to fulfill Beijing’s bigger and long-term ambition to use Nepal as a corridor connecting China to South Asia or more precisely to enter the huge markets in the Indian plains and de-stabilise security in the region with its military forwardness.

    Nepal on the other hand is doing as much to of the Maoist-led government in Nepal visiting his counterpart in Beijing, both Nepal and China have engaged in active military cooperation in controlling its borders, for which the Nepal military receives substantial military aid from Beijing. In late July, this year, Nepalese Army Chief Gen. Gaurav Shumsher Rana completed a ten-day trip to China. This resulted in a US $8 million military assistance package to the army, mostly to focus on border security, with Beijing hoping to prevent the migration of Tibetans into Nepal illegally and to bolster its regional ambitions. Also, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has agreed to set up two mobile hospitals for the Nepalese Army and is keen to make joint efforts to further deepen cooperation, $100 million in housing, hotels, restaurants and other sectors of the tourism industry in Nepal. Even though Beijing is still far behind New Delhi in terms of overall investment in Nepal, officials in Kathmandu have hinted that it will soon catch up. The most crucial area of China’s expansion is the building of roads in Nepal that link to highways

    in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and also Beijing’s promise of a rail network through Lhasa, which experts believe would undoubtedly change the current gee-political scenario. In 2007-08, China began construction of a 770-kilometre railway connecting the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with the Nepalese border town of Khasa, connecting Nepal to China’s wider national railway network.

    The two nations share an almost 650 mile long border along the length of the Himalayan range, which has over 18 passes through which bilateral trade functions. Apart from that, Beijing is also setting up a new consulate in Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, returning the favor granted to Nepal, which plans to set up a mission in Guangzhou, the third largest city in China. Interestingly, Beijing has also pressed hard to expand its influence by setting up Confucius Institutes in major Nepal cities and towns. These are China’s non-profit public bodies intended to promote Chinese language and culture. The latest Chinese economic package to Nepal comes with US $1.63 million worth of election-related material for the Himalayan state’s Constituent Assembly elections to be held on November 19 this year, which would further convince the Nepalese people that China supports Nepal’s democratic process.

    Experts believe that the Beijing’s economic policy is a major gamble in the South-Asian region. Daniel S. Markey, a Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) told Defence Review Asia that, “China’s expanding economic power is being translated into regional influence, whether through infrastructure, commercial, or diplomatic activities. Obviously Beijing intends to consolidate its position in Tibet, as part of a decades-long effort. And, the consequences for growing Chinese influence in Nepal for Indian anxieties have also been clear. Along with other Chinese provocations, they inspire military planners in New Delhi to consider new investments in border defense.”

    Control over Tibetan Refugees

    For China the destabilization of its Tibet region bordering Nepal is one of its major concerns, which has continued to shackle its half-a-decade Tibet policy. Even though Kathmandu itself has no political interest in Tibet, it has been inevitably drawn into this conflict between Tibetans and the Chinese government and thus cannot be seen as a mute spectator. A lot of Nepalese are sympathetic to the Tibetan cause. Nepal, is home to some 20,000 Tibetan refugees and has hosted Tibetan exiles for decades, but has come under increasing pressure from China over the last ten years. Beijing supplies a major amount of hard cash to the Nepalese armed forces to keep a strong vigil on the borders as many Tibetans try to flee to freedom in exile.

    Over the years, the Nepalese government has foiled all anti-China separatist activity on its soil and has also put Kathmandu under an international spotlight over its treatment of Tibetan refugees who are often denied basic human rights. To a major extent Beijing has been successful in its approach, as the number of Tibetan refugees crossing into Nepal from China after 2008 fell from 3,000 to about 800 a year. The Nepalese armed forces regularly detain Tibetans carrying out any anti-China activity and they have even curbed celebrations of the birth anniversary of the 14th Dalai Lama.

    Associate professor Elliot Sperling, an expert on the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University told Defence Review Asia, “On the one hand China seeks to blunt the potential for Tibetan problems stemming from the presence of Tibetan refugees in Nepal. On the other it wishes to balance-or outbalance-India within the country. It’s economic and political presence in Nepal has so far worked successfully along these two lines.” Hence, Beijing’s major ambition is to dismantle activism that has stemmed from Tibetan refugees over the decades and also to undermine the influence of the Dalai Lama, their spiritual head.

    The Lumbini Factor

    Another area where Beijing is flexing its muscles is in making Nepal the center of Buddhism, which currently has its epicenter in India despite Nepal’s Lumbini being the birth land of Lord Buddha. In 1967, United Nations Secretary General, U Thant visited Lumbini and made an application in front of the international community for support to preserve this world famous pilgrimage site. Beijing, over the years, has poured massive infrastructure into the development of Lumbini as an international pilgrimage and tourist centre, which can be seen as further wanting to legitimize and strengthen its hold over Tibet through its projection of Buddhism in Nepal. Beijing supports the project with a US $ 3 million area development plan for Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini through its state supported Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, of which the Nepal’s Maoist leader Prachanda is a vice Chairman. Observers see the initiative to make this a Buddhist Mecca as part of a grander plan to increase China’s soft power and win the hearts of both Tibetans and Nepalese.

    Beijing Eyes the Former Kingdom of Mustang

    Known to the world as the other Tibet, the former kingdom of Mustang is sandwiched between the Chinese border on the Tibetan plateau on one side and the Dolop and Manang provinces of Nepal on the other. Mustang lies in northern-central Nepal and is one of the most isolated and least reported inhabited regions in Asia. It has become of special interest to Beijing. Over the years, the outside world is slowly beginning to beat a path to this region where Tibetan culture, religion and traditions are still believed to be the purest. However, for the people of the lost Kingdom, the outside world is seen as nothing more than infrastructural influx coming from Communist China. The Chinese consider the area to be strategically important in its effort to dominate Nepal, control Tibetans fleeing at the border, and revive the rich tradition of caravans and the salt trade route–making its influence felt as far as the Indian border.

    As well as the cultural erosion, the region is soon to witness a bigger change. A new road will soon be finished linking it to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to the north, and the rest of Nepal to the south, which many say will change the entire outlook of the former kingdom. This poses a massive threat to its peoples’ efforts to preserve the pure Tibetan Buddhist culture and also for all of South-Asia since Beijing’s economic expansion in the region would allow it to trade direct from the Tibetan plateau to Nepal and the tropical Indian plains, passing through the lowest drivable corridors in the Himalayas.

    In the 1970s, pro-independence Tibetan Khampa fighters were even backed by the CIA in their rebellion against the Chinese army. Foreign troops and officers, including some from the United States, India and various other European countries, trained in high-risk mountainous areas. However, following Beijing’s concerns about the presence of foreign soldiers so close to its Tibet border this year, the Nepali government in Kathmandu appeared willing to compromise, and has asked the army to marginally slow training and monitor all activities of foreigners in the region. In such areas Chinese security men routinely operate on both sides of the border and have numerous spies giving on-the­ ground information across the border to Chinese officials.

    Dr. Harsh V. Pant, a strategic analyst on security policy issues and a Reader in International Relations in the Department of Defence Studies at the King’s College London told Defence Review Asia, “China’s reach in Nepal is indeed growing and is now quite substantial something that Indian policy planners had not expected just a few years back. China has made Nepal a priority primarily because it allows Beijing to control Tibet better. The Mustang road will indeed have a major geopolitical impact as it will enhance China’s power to control flows in and out of Tibet. Nepalese government has already become very proactive in controlling Tibetans. In fact, forceful repatriation of Tibetan refugees to China is now commonplace.”

    He continues: “For India, this is a major challenge as China’s control over Nepal makes India very vulnerable to Chinese pressures. But most of it is New Delhi’s own fault. By not taking Nepal seriously, by not developing its own border infrastructure and by not making Nepal a part of India’s economic dynamism, India has provided China the strategic space which it has quite happily filled.’

    Hence, the nature of Chinese diplomacy in Nepal goes beyond the political domain, promoting its strategic and economic interests in South Asia while making inroads as a counterweight to India and equally safeguarding its core national interest of Tibet.

    Geo-politically, Nepal is trying to maintain a delicate balance between the giant neighbors. The question perhaps is for how long it would give up on India completely. The Chinese expansion and its growing influence in Nepal has been paying off well for the landlocked country and promises even more in the future while Kathmandu affirms its “One China” policy and keeps a lid on Tibetan activism on its soil. For Nepal-China relations – the future equation appears quite beneficial, but worrying for India that has realized late that the mighty Himalayas are no more a border between Nepal and China. This is the first article in a two-part series. The next focuses on current India-China border issues.

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