Kathmandu’s map strategy comes undone as China’s ‘wolf-diplomacy’ opens wounds

Already upset over China’s refusal to recognise its 2020 map, Nepal is now riled by Chinese envoy Chen Song’s ‘undiplomatic’ comments ahead of its Prime Minister Prachanda’s visit to Beijing. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a statement, asserted that Kathmandu ‘stands firm and clear on its political and administrative map’

September 14, 2023 08:33 pm | Updated September 16, 2023 03:05 pm IST - KATHMANDU

It came as a rude awakening for Nepal late last month. As China’s new “standard map” failed to recognise Nepal’s new map, Kathmandu scrambled to react.

Laying claim to a swath of land in the northwestern region, which India has long claimed as its own, Nepal in May 2020 published a new map, adding a distinct pointed shape to its old map. China’s refusal to recognise that pointed area was perceived as Beijing’s acknowledgement that the territory is part of India, which has objected to the 2023 version of the Chinese map. New Delhi was quick to register a strong protest. Other countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, among others, followed suit. They categorically rejected the new map.

On September 1, Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement urging “neighbours and the international community” to respect its new map. It stopped short of lodging any objection.

The map issue has emerged just ahead of Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’s’ visit to China, scheduled for the third week of this month. During his meeting with the highest Chinese leadership, some sections called for raising the issue.

Mad over map

Not long ago, there was an outcry over the Akhand Bharat map, which showed Kapilvastu and Lumbini, which fall in present-day Nepal, in India’s new Parliament building. As Mr. Prachanda was gloating over his visit to India in May-June, the Opposition attacked him for failing to speak up. Leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or CPN (UML), charged Mr. Prachanda with “prostrating” before India.

Nepali communists have a history of engaging in sabre-rattling when it comes to India. When he was leading an armed struggle against the State from 1996 to 2006, Prachanda’s Maoist party had even announced to wage “a tunnel war” against India. In November 2019, when India published its new map with the Kalapani region within its borders, it sparked an outrage in Nepal. The new Nepal map in 2020 came as Kathmandu’s response to that.

There, however, has not been as much outcry over the Chinese map as there was in 2019 over India’s.

“And that shows how Nepalis and Nepal’s leaders view its neighbours,” said Indra Adhikari, a Ph.D. in Civil-Military Relations from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “The first question that needs to be asked is if Nepal ever sent its map to India, China, or any other country, as well as to the United Nations, asking them to acknowledge it.”

According to Ms. Adhikari, for upping nationalistic rhetoric, objecting to China’s new map, or India’s 2019 map for that matter, is one thing, but diplomacy and foreign relations do not operate in a straight line.

“China’s new map in a way recognises the region as India’s, and regardless of its rivalry with India, its economic ties with the latter are far stronger than they are with Nepal. That sounds natural from their point of view,” she said. “Be it Beijing or New Delhi, they will pursue their diplomacy in their interests.”

Not so pointed response

In its statement on September 1, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Nepal stands firm and clear on its political and administrative map, unanimously approved by the Parliament of Nepal in 2020. “The government of Nepal unequivocally believes that this map must be respected by our neighbours as well as the international community,” read the statement.

Amid confusion about whether Nepal sent the new map, Foreign Minister Narayan Prasad Saud told a parliamentary committee on Thursday, September 7 that the Ministry could not find any official documents regarding the correspondence.

Sudheer Sharma, the author of the book The Nepal Nexus, says there is a lack of clarity on whether Nepal sent its new map to China, India, or any other country. “Whether China would have acknowledged it or not, we don’t know, but at least Nepal, on its part, should have followed the due course after publishing the map,” said Mr. Sharma. “Three years down the line, it appears that the publication of the new map was meant to appease the domestic crowd rather than to genuinely assert Nepal’s claim over the territory.”

Deepening trust deficit

In 2015, when the earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people in Nepal, it also shook the country to the core. In the aftermath of the disaster, Nepali politicians, who had been squabbling for years, came together to finalise the Constitution amid India’s reservations. Ties hit the rock bottom. The then government led by the CPN (UML) made a quick beeline for China. A trade and transit treaty was signed in 2016, seemingly a great leap forward — as it was said to be a move to break Nepal’s near-complete dependence on India for third-country trade. Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal in 2019, the first in 23 years by a sitting Chinese president, marked the heralding of a new beginning in Nepal-China ties. Just two years before, in 2017, Nepal had signed up for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Mr. Xi’s flagship project to “enhance connectivity in the region.”

But relations that appeared to be blossoming lost steam. “Ties with China could not rise above political rhetoric, with little work done on the ground,” said Mr. Sharma, the author. “The Nepali leadership failed to commit themselves to the pursuance of the deals signed with the north. That not even a single project under the BRI has taken off in the last six years serves as a sparkling example.”

In 2021, the communist government fell. Beijing’s interest faded.

But by that time, China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy had already set foot in Kathmandu. Overt interference by Hou Yanqi, who served as the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal from 2018 to 2022, in Nepal’s domestic politics had already started to cause unease.

“Delhi meanwhile employed its subtle diplomacy to regain Nepal’s trust and kickstarted the India-assisted projects that were stalled for years,” said Mr. Sharma. “It appears that the northern neighbour’s interest deepens in Nepal when its relations with the south are in trouble.”

More fuel to the fire

The hullabaloo over the Chinese map had yet to die down. On Saturday, September 2, while speaking at a public interaction, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Chen Song left Hou, his predecessor, behind with some remarks that provoked criticism. “India’s policy towards Nepal and other neighbours is not so friendly and not beneficial to Nepal…” said Mr. Chen at a programme, the video clip of which made it to social media. Stating that Nepal imported electricity worth NRs 19 billion from India while it exported electricity worth only NRs 10 billion. , he said, “You had a deficit in electricity trade, one of the products you are proud of, and you think that will bring you economic independence.”

Observers believe Mr. Chen’s remarks are part of China’s wolf warrior diplomacy.

CK Lal, an analyst and writer, says it’s hard to believe that the ambassador’s comments were just his own opinion. “His statement is a clear manifestation of Beijing’s dissatisfaction, especially amid talks about electricity trade between Nepal and India where the latter has reservations about buying power from projects with Chinese involvement.”

The recent turns of events have put Kathmandu in a quandary, particularly at a time when Prachanda is finalising the agenda for his visit to the north.

“On the map issue, I don’t think Nepal holds much ground to talk about,” said Mr. Lal. “The Prime Minister’s focus should be on reassuring the Chinese leadership about the grievances that were made public in the form of Mr. Chen’s comments. Rather than extracting any big deals, Prachanda’s goal will be to warm up ties with the north.”

The Nepali leadership’s penchant for pitting one neighbour against another and playing to the domestic crowd to remain in power has been a cause for concern. Analysts say that rather than extracting bigger deals, if Mr. Prachanda succeeds in resetting ties with China, it will be an achievement in itself.

“It takes time to build goodwill. But it can be lost in a jiffy. The map issue with China can be dealt with diplomatically,” said Mr. Sharma. “Nepal cannot afford to ruin ties with any country to the extent that it reaches a point of no return. Things can get quite complicated when one crosses the Rubicon.”

(Sanjeev Satgainya is an independent journalist based in Kathmandu)

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