18-24 March 2016 #800

The China Syndrome

Prime Minister Oli’s main task is to restore China’s trust in Nepal’s future stability


After his fence-mending visit to India last month, Prime Minister K P Oli embarks on an official visit to China this weekend during which he will also attend the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan.

Although he bungled the fast-track constitution that led to a breakout of violence in the Tarai, and he was unable (or unwilling) to get the Indians to lift their five-month blockade, we have to give the man credit -- somewhat grudingly -- for being an astute politician. He has pulled it off.

First, he wangled an invitation to New Delhi (where to say that he wasn’t particularly liked would be an understatement), craftily exploiting the Narendra Modi government’s need to find a face-saving exit from a purposeless and counterproductive blockade. To the domestic gallery, Oli projected himself as a Nepali leader who, for once, went to New Delhi on his own terms and gave nothing away.

The fact that the visit was largely symbolic and the agreements signed were merely for delayed and pending projects seemed not to matter. The deal to buy an extra 80MW of power from India was no breakthrough, but the PMO spinmeisters presented it as such. Oli played the nationalism card to the hilt, and although the blockade hit Nepal hard economically, it bolstered the prime minister’s domestic standing.

It is therefore a much more confident Oli who on Sunday is getting on board a plane that the Chinese government is reportedly sending out to Kathmandu to fetch him. He will meet President Xi Jinping, extend an invitation for him to visit Nepal later this year and discuss deals on trade, transit and development.

There will be those who will be tempted to make much more out of this visit than is warranted. This is not the time for Nepal’s leader to thumb his nose at India. New Delhi's paranoid nationalists would also do well not to take the visit as proof of Chinese inroads into Nepal. Even if the Chinese were making inroads into Nepal, New Delhi has only itself to blame. What is a blockaded Nepal to do?

Even so, Prime Minister Oli would be well-advised not to play the China card. It hasn’t worked since King Mahendra used it in the early 1960s soon after the Sino-India War to chart a path of geostrategic equidistance between China and India.

Much water has flowed down the Tsang Po since then, and the doctrine that prevails today is a clear demarcation by New Delhi and Beijing of their spheres of influence along the Himalayan arc. The two Asian giants may be aligned to opposite global strategic alliances, but they see advantages to keeping their Himalayan border disputes in deep freeze and not competing for supremacy here. In fact, since Chairman Mao’s time, the Chinese have told visiting Nepali leaders to be smart in dealing with India and not let tensions escalate.

Which is why successive rulers in Kathmandu who have tried to play China off against India have all come to grief. Chinese and Indian leaders are known to consult each other regularly over political developments in Nepal, and President Xi and visiting Prime Minister Modi even went to the extent of deciding by themselves on the Lipu Lekh border trijunction dispute without consulting Nepal in Beijing last year. And despite gifting 1,000 tons of petroleum to Nepal in October, it was clear that Beijing was not going to jeopardise its trade ties with India over the latter's blockade of Nepal. China did not venture beyond symbolism in rushing to Nepal’s rescue.

And it looks like the much-touted petroleum import agreement that would have met one-third of Nepal's oil needs is doomed. An MoU to that effect has apprently been struck off the agenda at the last moment. No prizes for guessing why. Prime Minister Oli has probably figured out by now that there are limits to how far China can, or will, go with Nepal. And he seems to have understood New Delhi’s sensitivities, by first visiting New Delhi and also sending Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa to assuage the Indians that he is not going to use the China card against India. New Delhi, for its part, has to be less insecure, and not get all worked up about every Nepal-China dealing.

If PM Oli wants to be seen as a statesman, he must first restore China’s trust in a coherent leadership in Nepal, convince Beijing about ensuring political stability, and pitch for Chinese trade, tourism and investment for growth.

Read also:

No oil for Oli, Om Astha Rai

Wired, Editorial

Proxy war, Editorial

Fixing what's broke, Kunda Dixit

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