After decades of dealing with the Indian hand in their country’s domestic affairs, Nepali politicians are now confronted with another assertive neighbour — China. Moving from a relatively detached approach to high-profile engagement, Beijing has now started making its views known about Nepal’s political transition.
In the past, efforts by sections of Nepali politicians to play the “China card” — by projecting China as a stakeholder to counter Indian influence and pressure New Delhi — usually failed. Both the former King, Gyanendra, and the Maoist chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda,” tried it — the former when he imposed an autocracy against Indian advice, and the latter while stoking an “ultra-nationalist” campaign.
China made it clear to both that it could not be a substitute for New Delhi. It did not show interest in getting enmeshed in the messy Kathmandu political theatre, was happy to work with any government in power, and stayed away from contentious political issues.
But over the last five years, Beijing has also worked to deepen contacts with the Nepali state apparatus, political class, and non-state actors.
High-level Chinese delegations of the Communist Party, government departments, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), business chambers and academics have visited Nepal. Not a fortnight passes without a set of Nepali politicians, bureaucrats, security officials, businessmen or journalists, travelling to the northern neighbour. Chinese development assistance has increased. A Chinese company has signed a memorandum of understanding to develop a major hydro-power project, West Seti, with the Nepal government. Beijing is keen to develop an international airport in Pokhara, and a Chinese non governmental organisation has expressed interest in investing $3-billion to develop the greater Lumbini area — both projects have however hit roadblocks. Chinese tourists to Nepal have increased, while more Nepali students are going to China for higher studies.
Beijing has used its increasing influence for a clear purpose — to ensure zero “anti-China,” read pro-Tibet, activities in Nepal. In March 2008, “free Tibet” protests had erupted in Kathmandu. The Chinese government was unhappy with what it thought was Nepal’s unwillingness, or inability, to come down on the protests ruthlessly.
Since then, China has extracted repeated commitments from all Nepali leaders to the “one-China policy.” It has also developed links directly with Nepali security agencies and bureaucracy. As a result, long-term Tibetan residents have found it difficult to exercise refugee rights; Nepal has been firm in not allowing any Tibetan political activity; Chinese pressure, among other reasons, led to the exit of the United Nations Human Rights Office, which it saw as being sympathetic to Tibetan protesters. China also kept vigil in the northern Nepal districts that border Tibet, where communities share linguistic-cultural links with Tibetans.
Now, domestic politics
In recent months however, China’s diplomacy in Nepal appears to have entered a new phase — of seeking to influence the domestic political issue of federalism. Several high-level political sources, all of whom spoke to The Hindu on the condition of anonymity, revealed the image of a more interventionist Beijing. Despite repeated attempts, the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu did not respond to requests for an interview.
At the end of June, a month after Nepal’s Constituent Assembly failed due to differences on the issue of federalism, Ai Ping, a senior Chinese party official, visited Nepal. Political leaders who met him say that China clearly communicated it had “security concerns” if Nepal adopted federalism. A very senior Maoist leader told The Hindu : “Their message was China prefers a unitary Nepal, but if federalism has to happen, it should not be based on ethnicity. This is the first time that China has intervened so directly in our domestic affairs.”
After his meeting with the visiting official, Maoist chairman Prachanda, who supports identity-based federalism, is understood to have been taken aback. He had spent some days with Mr. Ai in Shanghai a few years ago, and both the nature of the message and its curt delivery surprised him. Subsequently he called in the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, and told him federalism was necessary given Nepal’s diversity, and expressed displeasure at the Chinese advocacy against it.
A Nepali Congress (NC) leader, who is close to the influential Koirala family, added: “China has told us not to go for federalism. If at all we do so, there must be as few states in the north as possible. They don’t want to deal with multiple power centres across their border, in the same manner as India too would prefer as few states in the south [of Nepal].” A similar message was passed to the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), with which Beijing has shared close traditional links. This was music to the ears of NC and UML leaders, who are — at best — “reluctant federalists.” Chairman of the radical Maoist splinter outfit, Mohan Vaidya “Kiran,” also visited Beijing soon after splitting from the parent party. On his return, he told reporters, “China is not against federalism but it is opposed to foreign interference on the issue of federalism.” Beijing has been engaging closely with Mr. Kiran’s outfit, which has kept open the possibility of reverting to violence and has adopted a stridently “nationalist” — read “anti-India” — political posture. Incidentally, the NC, the UML and Mr. Kiran’s party have recently joined hands to organise a movement against the Baburam Bhattarai-led government.
Observers point to two reasons for China’s concerns. First, Beijing fears “ethnic” states in the mid-hills and north could become a base for Tibetan unrest. They also see ethnic politics as funded by “western powers,” and conclude that politicians from indigenous groups would do their bidding.
And two, China calculates that federalism will result in an increase in the political power of the Madhesis. A senior Madhesi leader, who has dealt with foreign affairs and visited China, says, “China is influenced by the old Nepali nationalist mindset which sees Madhesis as Indians. So they think a Madhes state means that Indian influence will expand. China will support royalists, hill chauvinists of mainstream parties, and so-called nationalist leftists.”
Political scientist and State Restructuring Commission member, Krishna Hachhethu, responded to China’s concerns in an article in the English daily, Republica . He noted that Chinese diplomats were getting “influenced” by “those defaming identity-based federalism, by calling it ethnic federalism.” Provinces in Nepal would not be created on a solely ethnic basis and no group will have preferential rights. Instead, he argued, what is being proposed in Nepal is aimed at ending inequality between social groups.
He warned that the failure to address Janjati aspirations that could breed an ethnic conflict in the hills.
China’s entry into the tricky territory of domestic politics could divide the Nepali political class and society right down the middle. Sources say that Beijing is providing political support to groups which are pro-unitary system or territorial federalism, and encouraging an alliance among such forces. But their move is sure to be resisted by another section, particularly the Prachanda-led Maoists, and marginalised social groups like the Madhesis and Janjatis backing identity-based federalism.
The new Chinese assertiveness has implications for Delhi, which has refrained from getting involved in constitutional debates despite lobbying by contending Nepali factions. In a rare role reversal, as the “China card” becomes a potent political reality in Nepal, India is watching quietly. But there is a likelihood that the two powers will end up backing rival political groupings.
A highly placed Indian diplomatic source says, “We have stayed away from the federalism debate, and have not pushed a line either in public or private. It is for the Nepali people to decide what form this will take. But we recognise the inevitability of federalism, and feel it should happen quickly if Nepal is to be stable. If there are forces pushing an anti-federal agenda, the risk of a conflict increases.”
China’s attempt to back Nepal’s conservative forces threatens to complicate the country’s political transition, as well as jeopardise the fragile geo-political balance in the new republic.