Dec 13, 2011

When Wen?

By Kunda Dixit

Some things become more newsworthy when they don’t happen than when they do. That seems to be true for the postponement of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Nepal, which was scheduled for next week.

Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha tried to fudge it by saying Tuesday that the dates had never been fixed. The Chinese side played down the cancellation, saying Premier Wen had other plans and that a new date would soon be announced.

The visit, and its cancellation at the last moment, has set off intense speculation about Nepal once more being squeezed by a shift in geopolitical tectonics in the region. There has been a more aggressive US posture following the APEC conclave in Honolulu and the ASEAN Summit in Bali in November. US President Barak Obama’s commitment at both meetings that America would “remain engaged” in the Pacific in the 21st century have been seen by many as a response to China’s growing economic and military clout. Obama’s decision to upgrade US troop presence in Australia and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s reassurances of military ties with the Philippines must have set alarm bells ringing in Beijing.

But even more worrying for Beijing must have been Burma’s ‘defection’ last month after four decades of being a loyal Chinese ally. The first indication that Rangoon was going through a dramatic transformation of its domestic polity and international orientation came with President Thein Sein’s abrupt and unilateral cancellation in September of the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam that the Chinese were building in northern Burma. Since then Burma is purposefully opening up, allowed Clinton to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and British Foreign Secretary William Hague will be visiting Naypyidaw next month.

All this must have come as a shock to China, which had lined up Burma as a strategic corridor to the Indian Ocean as an alternative to the Lombok and Malacca Straits which serve as vulnerable bottlenecks for its oil and mineral supply and exports. When Chinese leaders look at a map of the mainland and see Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Burma, India and Kyrgyzstan, they must have a feeling of being encircled.

Nepal must be sufficiently important in China’s strategic perception to warrant the planned visit by Premier Wen, a trip in which he was also going to attend a conference on the Mekong in Rangoon.

However, it would be stretching the point too thin to be predicting a Sino-Indian ‘cold war’ over Nepal. China is now India’s biggest trading partner, the two countries have deliberately kept their border disputes in deep freeze. The last thing they want is for Nepal to flare up and seriously destabilise the Himalayan rimland.

There is a convergence of interests between Beijing and New Delhi over Nepal: both want the politics to be more stable and predictable.

Premier Wen’s main objective in Kathmandu would have been to reassert his country’s misgivings about Nepal being used as a springboard for free Tibet activities. The Chinese are wary of American and European support for the Tibetan cause, and the pressure they bring to bear on Nepal to go easy on refugees and protests. The Chinese have become even more sensitive after the recent spate of self-immolation of monks in China, and it must have been a fear of a similar burning in Kathmandu during his visit going in full glare of the international media that was a factor in the cancellation of Wen’s visit.

We in Nepal have enough problems to sort out without also being a regional flashpoint over Tibet. It would behoove the Americans and Europeans to understand that Nepal can hardly be expected to stand up to China when they are going to Beijing begging for cash to bail out their economies.

China for its part should realise that Nepal is not the cause but the effect of its crackdowns in Tibet. Addressing the genuine aspirations of the Tibetan people for cultural preservation and autonomy would be a vastly superior strategy than beating and torturing monks and nuns.

(Courtesy: Nepali Times)

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