Nepali Times
Plain Speaking


Madhav Kumar Nepal can either do what every PM before him has done in Delhi: bargain on a few bilateral issues, win some concessions, go out on a limb to prove that his will be a friendly government, and in the process criticise his domestic opponents.

He has another, more statesman-like, route. Besides discussing the peace process and India's bottom-line on army integration and constitution writing, Nepal has the opportunity to take the contentious China-Nepal-India relationship to a different level.

One of the unsaid, but apparent, causes for the India-Maoist falling out in May was the latter's attempt to fiddle with the geopolitical balance of power in South Asia. As a former ambassador told Nepali delegates at a Track Two event in Delhi last month: "There is a Laxman Rekha, a red line, on China. The Maoists crossed that."

If Madhav Kumar Nepal wants to rise above petty party interest, he could say that Nepali and Indian political leaders need to discuss China's role. Enhanced Chinese engagement is a fact, and Nepal would like to use the economy to the north for growth but without hurting India's legitimate security interests.

Mr Nepal may think this is too risky an approach to adopt with a Delhi dispensation that has been kind to him. But such an open and frank approach is necessary for the sake of future political stability and economic development in Nepal. Otherwise each time a government here gets cosy with Beijing, its political rivals will cuddle up to Delhi and attempt to dislodge it. This is also a good moment to raise the issue because lots has been happening between India and China.

In a path-breaking policy speech this week, Indian Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta spoke about the prospect of China consolidating its comprehensive national power and being more assertive in its immediate neighbourhood.

"The gap between India and China is too wide to bridge and is getting wider by the day," he said, "in military terms, both conventional and non-conventional, we neither have the capability nor the intention to match China force by force."

Mehta emphasised that cooperation rather than competition or conflict would be preferable since it would be "foolhardy" to compare India and China as equals in terms of economy, infrastructure and military spending.

Some critics dismissed the statement as defeatist. But as retired Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, director of the National Maritime Foundation where the chief spoke, explained to Nepali Times in an interview: "The lecture was a reality check, empirically noting that there is an asymmetry in China's favour on all tangible determinants of national power. India cannot and ought not seek any kind of military equivalence but innovate through astute use of technology."

Combine this strategic realism in Delhi with its diplomatic offensive. Last Saturday, India and China decided to set up a hotline between their two leaders. To observe the 60th anniversary of the establishment of relations, the two countries decided to hold the Year of Friendship with China in India, with Beijing reciprocating with similar celebrations.

Bilateral trade is now $52 billion, the two are close allies on the climate change issue and the fact that India's new foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, is an old China hand will also help in shaping a nuanced bilateral relationship.

Of course, there is still deep distrust, border disputes remain. The rhetoric has got sharper from the Chinese side over Arunachal Pradesh. 'Non-official' media and academic circles have called India a paper tiger, and highlighted India's fissiparous tendencies.

Nepal has to know how to tap into the realism and diplomatic wisdom of the Indian establishment, while allaying its concerns. Analyst Uday Bhaskar advises: "Nepal could engage India in sustained talks about where and how it plans to increase ties, one presumes economic, with China and assuage concerns that this is not yet another way of 'encirclement'."

He has a warning though, "Most nations that deal with China aver that it strives for a win-win, but in such a
manner that both wins are with Beijing."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)