By Jayadeva Ranade
China’s increasing influence over Nepal resulted in the derailing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Lumbini during his visit to that country for the SAARC summit. Many political parties in Nepal, ostensibly prompted by domestic political considerations, opposed PM Modi’s visit to the pilgrimage sites of Janakpur, Muktinath and Lumbini. In contrast, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse travelled to Lumbini without a hitch. For many years, China’s specific strategic focus has been on establishing a presence in Buddha’s birthplace Lumbini and ensuring that Nepal is not used as a base to destabilise the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Chinese government-sponsored NGOs have unveiled plans estimated at US$3 billion for the redevelopment of Lumbini, which include an airport and seminary-cum-monastery.
At least three Chinese government-sponsored NGOs are trying to establish a presence there for which they are co-opting prominent Nepal politicians. The Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), promoted by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’) United Front Work Department (UFWD), has appointed the chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (UCP-N) Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, as a vice president. It was during Prachanda’s term as Prime Minister that Nepal forged very close ties with China. Prachanda broke with tradition and travelled to Beijing on his first visit abroad. Another Chinese government-sponsored NGO, the International Ecological Safety Collaborative Organisation (IESCO), appointed Madhav Kumar Nepal (CPN-UML) and Sujata Koirala (NC) as executive chairpersons.
Designated as “friends’ and promised huge financial and other benefits by China as part of its policy of peripheral diplomacy, both Pakistan and Nepal worked in apparent tandem to further the Chinese agenda in Kathmandu. The attitude of Nepal, which between 1999-2003 had become a staging ground for Pakistan intelligence and terrorists entering India, particularly brought in to stark prominence the extent of China’s influence in that country.
A potential game changer in the triangular India-Nepal-China relationship is the strategically important Qinghai-Lhasa railway, which has drastically shortened the time for inducting troops and military supplies, along with tourists, into Tibet. Nepal’s politicians have repeatedly pleaded with Chinese leaders to extend the railway to Kathmandu. Work began this October to extend the 253-km Lhasa-Shigatse section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway by another 540 kilometres up to Kyirong on Tibet’s border with Nepal. Chinese railway teams have completed surveys for extending the railway to Kathmandu and further to Lumbini, barely 25 km from the border with India. Obviously, Chinese military engineers will construct and maintain the rail links to Kathmandu and Lumbini. Chinese presence in Lumbini will enhance India’s vulnerabilities in the Indo-Himalayan region.
At the same time, pro-Beijing elements in Nepal’s political and bureaucratic establishments overtly pushed for China’s admission to SAARC. Three Nepalese ministers wrote articles in the 12-page special supplement issued, rather curiously, by China’s official news agency Xinhua and recommended full membership for China. China attempted to bolster its argument by offering US$1.63 million per year to SAARC till 2018.
The pro-Beijing orientation of one of these ministers, Minendra Rijal, was evident since 2012 when he was Nepal’s Culture Minister. He had commented on the Dalai Lama’s exclusion from APECF’s proposed US$3 billion redevelopment project for Lumbini. Rijal said the Dalai Lama could visit Lumbini after “the leadership of China find ways to deal with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which will be respectful of the Chinese people.”
This orchestrated effort promoting China’s admission to SAARC was reminiscent of a similar, but less strident, attempt during the visit to Kathmandu by the chief of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), General Chen Bingde in March 2011. At that time there were some calls for his appointment as Honorary General of the Nepal Army, an honour traditionally only reserved for the Indian Army chief. While the demand has not resurfaced, it reflects Beijing’s desire to replace Indian influence in Nepal.
General Chen Bingde’s visit was important also because it was the first time that a Chinese PLA chief asserted on Nepalese soil that China would not tolerate a third country coming in the way of friendship between Nepal and China.
Beijing’s effort to create a belt of Chinese influence along Nepal’s border with TAR were also formalised earlier this month. The arrangement provides that China will give annual subsidies totaling US$1.6 million for education, health, basic amenities and roads to residents of 15 border districts in northern Nepal. Twelve of these districts are densely populated by Himali people of Tibetan origin and border the TAR.
There is little doubt that opposition to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the pilgrimage sites was prompted by China’s concern that the visit could enhance India’s profile and frustrate its plans in Lumbini. India needs to urgently formulate a robust response to China’s expanding influence in Nepal, which along with Pakistan could otherwise develop into a contiguous belt of Chinese influence to India’s north. India should leverage its advantages, including the “national status” granted to Nepal, and warn Kathmandu that its relationship with China is now poised to cross the unacceptable “red line”.
Jayadeva Ranade is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is the president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.