Dec 21, 2009

A red-carpet welcome for Nepal

By Dhruba Adhikary

KATHMANDU - In what seems to be a balancing act, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal embarks on a visit to China this week. His trip follows on a visit to India in August, three months after he assumed office.

Premier Nepal's Chinese hosts are expected to listen to him patiently as he is the head of the government of a country which shares over 1,400 kilometers of mountainous border with Tibet. His first stop en route to Beijing will be Tibet's capital, Lhasa, where Nepal maintains a consulate. The Chinese authorities have not allowed any other country such a diplomatic presence in the region.

The Nepali visitor is to be taken to Xian and Shanghai, besides Beijing, said an official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, describing the trip as a goodwill visit. It is taking place after a couple of postponements, mainly because of preoccupations on the Chinese side.

In the course of substantive talks in Beijing between Premier Nepal and his counterpart, Wen Jiabao, an agreement of economic cooperation is to be signed that will offer sizeable development assistance to Nepal. An ongoing Chinese-aided project in Nepal is the construction of a mountainous road for a second vehicular link with Tibet, from Rasuwaa pass, which will augment border trade. The road is likely to be ready by next October.

China helped Nepal open its first road link for Kathmandu in the early 1960s, when the then-king, Mahendra, had to assure Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru that communism would not be allowed to travel by jeep.

The second road link might eventually be useful for Nepal to diversify its external trade, which is currently overwhelmed by imports from India.

That China's policy towards Nepal has remained "realistic" over decades is admitted by Nepali diplomats and independent analysts alike. The homework they do before embarking on any new project always remains strikingly thorough, and the job is usually completed before the agreed timetable. And the Chinese, unlike the Indians, do not meddle in Nepal's domestic politics.

Their consistent policy appears to be to deal with those Nepali leaders who reach the seat of authority through a process internally agreed upon. Until early 2006, Beijing held talks and negotiations with the country's kings. The Chinese leadership turned to talking with new leaders once the people of Nepal opted for a political change, in April that year.

That China quickly adjusts to an emerging scenario was witnessed when its newly appointed ambassador became the first foreign envoy in Nepal to present his credentials to the then-prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala. The monarchy had not been formally abolished at that time, and although playing dysfunctional role, Gyanendra was still living in the king's palace.

Some Chinese diplomats in Kathmandu used to admit, in private conversations, that the monarchy remained a factor of stability for Nepal, but they insisted that China would respect the Nepali people's decision for a political change. They did not bother whether the changes occurred in a genuine, spontaneous manner.

China is now welcoming Premier Nepal as his country's interim prime minister. While he has support from 22 of the 25 political parties that have representation in the 601-strong Constituent Assembly, Premier Nepal's hosts in Beijing are aware that his tenure may not go beyond next May and that he is perceived as a "puppet" by the Nepali Maoists who make up the largest opposition in the assembly. Nor is it hidden from public view that Premier Nepal, who lost an election in April 2008, was "elected" prime minister under extraordinary circumstances.

Contemporary media reports depict him as probably the weakest prime minister since the advent of democracy in 1991. From a law-and-order standpoint, Nepal's situation is precarious. Maoist-led street agitation is pushing the country to the brink. It appears to be sitting on the top of a volcano, especially in the context of a premature Maoist announcement to declare ethnicity-based "autonomous republics".

Premier Nepal has done precious little to stop this divisive step. Instead, he went ahead with his travel plans, which included leading an unusually large delegation to the Copenhagen climate change jamboree last week. In a worsening situation, he is now heading for China.

"Who is in charge in Nepal?" asked S Chandrasekharan, an Indian analyst, in an article for the South Asia Analysis Group last week. This is a pithy comment, coming as it does from India in the wake of unrefuted media reports that New Delhi continues to extend its support to Premier Nepal, and will do so at least until his country gets the promised new constitution.

Under these circumstances, the Chinese leaders are unlikely to take any initiatives for negotiations that would have long-term effects on bilateral relations. If past experience is taken into account, the Chinese are likely to hear Premier Nepal attentively and reiterate their concern about the activities of "Free Tibet" activists in Kathmandu and elsewhere in Nepal. Such activities are presumed to have arisen in recent months, particularly by those who take advantage of the long, porous and unregulated border with India. India regards the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, as its honored guest.

While Kathmandu-based Chinese diplomats insist that China does not compete with India in Nepal, ground realities do not corroborate such an assertion. It is altogether a different point that not all of the Chinese perceptions and concomitant measures are direct or visible. Some are latent as well as indirect. Among the efforts openly made include its request to the government of Nepal to set up police checkpoints in its northern border passes, even if some of these points are remote and more or less inaccessible.

China has lately become very sensitive to New Delhi's bid to enhance its security interests in Nepal, so much so that a local newspaper report attracted the attention of the People's Daily inasmuch as it alluded to Nepal's purported endorsement of a proposal to construct an airstrip in the western town of Surkhet for the use of the Indian Air Force. Surkhet is close to the tri-junction of Kaalaapaani, where India, China and Nepal meet.

In view of China's longstanding border dispute with India, which led to a brief conflict in 1962, and India's fear that China would attack its rival by 2012, hostilities between them are not mere imagination.

Some of the high-ranking Chinese officials visiting Nepal in recent months have publicly told Kathmandu that China remained prepared to assist Nepal in protecting its sovereignty and independence. This is often interpreted as a veiled warning to India, whose interference in Nepal has been on the rise since the political changes of 2006. The Chinese are also aware of the fact that India has encroached on Nepal's territory at more than 50 border points.

"The Indian offensives, both diplomatic and non-diplomatic, are sure to exacerbate tensions and thereby encourage Chinese counter-measures," Devraj Dahal, a professor of political science, told Asia Times Online.

M K Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat, asked a pertinent question in an article published in The Hindu newspaper recently: Why are India's neighbors getting so "manifestly attracted to fostering close ties with China?"

While Nepalis hope that Premier Nepal succeeds in securing firm Chinese commitments to help Nepal as a country, there are apprehensions that he may be tempted to utilize the opportunity to obtain goodwill for his own continuation in the post he has occupied since May.

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