Nepal’s Geopolitical Reality and Prachanda

Since Prachanda became the Prime Minister last year after toppling PM Oli, commentators in Nepal lambasted him for his “capitulating to India policy” and blamed his government for missing out on the One Belt One Road (OBOR)/ Belt and Road initiative generously offered to Nepal by China. However, just like the trade and transit agreements with China during PM Oli’s tenure, under Prachanda’s leadership, some critical changes in China’s Nepal policy have manifested, mainly the magnitude of Chinese investment and China’s denial of India’s “special relationship” claims on Nepal.

China’s investment pledges have hugely surpassed India’s, in addition to the fact that it has already been aggressively involved in several projects, which shows a departure from Beijing’s traditional policy of always giving less to Nepal than India. Former Nepali ambassador to China, Tanka Karki, notes that in every high level visit between the two countries since the establishment of bilateral relationship in 1955, until as recently as Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2012 visit, China had maintained  the position that they would give less than India, but now that has clearly changed.

This change is not surprising given China’s current economic might and its interests in promoting the Belt and Road initiative. Nevertheless, in terms of Chinese money, what is new is that China is seeking to contribute to Nepal’s Madhesi region in the south. Madhesi leader Jaya Prakash Gupta, who recently visited China, disclosed that China has given a big amount of money to the big parties’ foundations -- GP Koirala Foundation (Nepali Congress) and Madan Bhandari Foundation (UML) -- and China desires that a substantial part of that help be spent in the development of Madhesh. Gupta, for his part, believes that Madhesh should also try and benefit from this additional Chinese aid.

Meanwhile, the critical change is on the security side.  China and Nepal’s agreement on conducting joint military exercises for the first time in their history and China pledging to supply substantial military equipment to the Nepalese Army (which has been long functioning on financial constraints), is a definite affirmation that China wants Nepal to act neutral on security matters (as does Nepal), a stance which is against India’s preference. Some could even argue that it is against the spirit of the 1950 Indo-Nepal treaty. This has alluded to the fact that, despite the high level institutional engagement between India and China and their growing economic and trade relationship, China is not going to consider India’s sensitivity in Nepal. India for its part has shown a grudging acceptance of Chinese gestures; the retired General of Indian Army Ashok Mehta, a Nepal expert, talking to the BBC Nepali Service warns that “Nepal can go ahead with the joint military exercise with China if it wants to, but it must take care about India’s concerns.”  (translated from Nepali) In any case, India is cooperating with Nepal in several areas in securing its bonhomie with the special neighbor. For instance, Prachanda’s government has been able to end years of heavy load-shedding that had crippled the country by importing power from India.  Also, with its pledges, India is looking more committed in its infrastructure promises unlike the past Postal highway -type hollow commitments, and is coming out with its own connectivity plans among others; this is a sensible response from India, but the commitments have to materialize.

As regards to Nepal, although Prachanda’s government or the next will not hurry to sign OBOR initiatives with China, just the potentiality of that is keeping Indian behavior in check.  A hackneyed saying that Nepal tends to reap more benefit by playing both China and India cards is perhaps becoming real. Similarly, aside from Nepal Army’s decision over its own matters which is arguably largely independent from the government’s, nd China’s eagerness to expand its reach in Nepal, Prachanda has seemingly done well in not only coaxing India’s support in coming to power but also in cultivating its relationship with China.

Finally, while Nepalese commentators’ frustration over the government’s approach towards China is understandable, they must also be mindful about the fact that taking Nepal’s vital relationship with India and the advantages thereof for granted (especially in the context of India itself witnessing significant changes in its domestic politics and identity) while hurrying to bring in China might become, as the aphorism puts, act in haste and repent at leisure.

 

Source Image: Utenriksdepartementet UD (Flickr)