Nepali Times Asian Paints
Plain Speaking
Still a yam


The Maoist leadership is either busy in internal party management or foreign policy. This week, we have had the Indian, British and Danish ministers visiting. A Chinese delegation is here so often that it is difficult to keep count and a high level visit is scheduled for next week.

And all this when Nepal still does not have a concrete foreign policy (all we do is ask everyone for "support"). There is lack of inter-agency co-ordination between the foreign and other ministries. A turf war rages between the foreign secretary and the PMO foreign policy adviser Hira Bahadur Thapa. Career diplomats are disgruntled. Given easy access and influence, foreign diplomats in Kathmandu see themselves more as domestic political players.

But the most striking trend on the foreign policy front is the steady increase in Chinese interest in Nepal. They lost their traditional ally of the monarchy but have been quick on damage control mode by cosying up to the Maoists.
From inviting PLA commanders to military academies in China to visiting cantonments. From pushing Chinese business interests (there are rumours of the Chinese investment in an integrated township) to hosting covert cross-border visits by ministers. From asking the Nepali left to unite to express concern over foreign encouragement of protests over Tibet. The Chinese are all over the place.

The accepted view that this is the Indian sphere of influence, and the Chinese have limited interest doesn't seem to hold anymore. The Maoists have reciprocated happily to the Chinese interest. Their core concern is not the bilateral relationship, but strengthening party- to-party ties. The Maoists see a great opportunity to play China against India and win favours from both.

Our much vaunted 'nationalists', who wake up only when Indians intervene, are silent. But this approach raises fundamental questions which the Maoists must answer. Sino-Indian ties have really improved in the last two decades after Rajiv Gandhi's handshake with Deng Xiaoping and burgeoning trade links. Indian foreign secretary Shiv Shanker Menon is an old China hand and knows them inside out. But the last few years have seen an undercurrent of tension.

The Chinese have made assertive claims over Arunachal Pradesh. They called the Indian ambassador in Beijing late at night when the Tibet protests were happening in India, even though New Delhi crawled backwards to curb it. The Indians called and rebuked the Chinese envoy when they felt that Beijing was blocking deliberations at the Nuclear Suppliers Group in Vienna for the nuclear deal. A key US calculation in pushing nuclear cooperation and helping India 'become a world power' is to counter China. India and China are battling over energy in Africa. And Beijing has promised nuclear cooperation to Islamabad to keep the Indians in check.

In this larger context, do we want to become a small theatre in this new Great Game? While enhanced ties with a close neighbour is good, do we know what we want from Beijing and what Beijing wants from us? At a time when there is little internal coherence and domestic politics are so fragile, should we be re-orienting our foreign policy? Do the Maoists think their duplicity, of claming equidistance on some platforms and emphasising the special relationship when Indians are present, goes unnoticed?

When the fundamentals of our economic dependence on India have not changed, what can we extract from the Chinese? Is the Nepali establishment aware that this would antagonise sections in India, who could react by destabilising politics here? What will happen if the BJP, paranoid about the Chinese hand and skeptical of the peace process, comes back to power in April 2009?

This is not an argument for status quo in foreign relations. Neither is it a plea for groveling in front of Delhi and accepting Indian tutelage. But it is a case for being aware of what Nepal may get embroiled in as the Maoists enhance their space to negotiate.

The country needs to be cautious, for there may be some benefits of cosying up to China but there will also be costs. And Nepal is not in a position to play these games, which it does not even understand fully, when the peace process remains incomplete and democracy is still at a nascent stage.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)