Even if China and India have decided to split the difference in Nepal in order to manage their wider rivalry, are the Europeans and the Americans just going to abandon the field?
By Maila Baje
In its perpetual seesawing on Nepal, China is on the generous high.
On the eve of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s official visit to India – his first trip abroad in his second term – a Chinese government official praised friendly ties between Kathmandu and New Delhi.
“China appreciates the Nepali government’s independent foreign policy and supports Nepal in developing friendly and cooperative relations with its neighboring countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said in response to a question at a news conference on March 29. “China, Nepal and India are each other’s important neighbors, and we hope that the three parties can work together to reinforce each other’s efforts to achieve common development.”
Strictly speaking, though, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman didn’t say anything specifically about the state of relations between Kathmandu and New Delhi. If Indian headline writers were eager to project that message, Beijing could afford to be charitable enough not to care.
Sure, there is some talk going on in some Indian circles about flashing the ‘Taiwan card’ at China. But when you’ve already thrown your far more potent Tibetan one?
In letting the Indians take that extended victory lap on Doklam/Dong Lang last year, the Chinese, true to tradition, demonstrated the wisdom of relying on the power of patience. Once the exuberance on the high Himalayas dissolved into the littoral choppiness of the Maldives and Sri Lanka, China’s tone on Nepal, too, was bound to shift.
The we-will-help-Nepal-defend-its-sovereignty-at-all-costs refrain had long receded. Residual traces of anti-Indian recrimination, too, now disappeared. In the deeper background, the resurrected Quad remained confounded and the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ failed to pick up more than rhetorical speed in the geostrategic lexicon.
The Dalai Lama couldn’t visit Sikkim and his followers were advised to tone down their celebration of the Lhasa Uprising anniversary. Sure, there is some talk going on in some Indian circles about flashing the ‘Taiwan card’ at China. But when you’ve already thrown your far more potent Tibetan one?
Magnanimity in countenancing ‘pro-Beijing’ Oli visiting India first costs even less for the Chinese when you consider the mire the ‘assertive’ government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi finds itself in vis-à-vis relations with its South Asian neighbors.
Tempting as it is for Nepalis to gloat, the turn of events provides a cautionary tale. The uproar over the European Union election monitors’ final report overshadowed news of the Indian border police’s arrest of a US military commando near our border “while he was roaming in the area in a suspicious manner”.
In turned out that the commando was trying to get back to India after having been deported in January. The fact that the marine was of South Korean origin no doubt added to the mystery.
The we-will-help-Nepal-defend-its-sovereignty-at-all-costs refrain had long receded. Residual traces of anti-Indian recrimination, too, now disappeared.
Even if China and India have decided to split the difference in Nepal in order to manage their wider rivalry, are the Europeans and the Americans just going to abandon the field? Oli is the first person to recognize the fluidity of our position.
With respect to China, no Nepali leader after King Mahendra had done so much so fast to underscore the shift in our geostrategic locus as Oli did during his first term as prime minister. But when he was dislodged from power after signing those agreements up north, Beijing didn’t lift a finger for him – in the finest tradition of noninterference.
The Chinese have demonstrated that they can use every arrow in their quiver in unsentimental pursuit of their self-interest and still emerge unscathed. The Indians, for their part, have recognized that they are equally damned if they do or don’t. And they still don’t quit.
So who should we really be watching out for? Maybe Oli himself insisted on visiting India first.