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China’s influence on Nepali politics grows as Delhi and Kathmandu fight over border

TOP NEWS-ENG-08-06-2020
Chinese President Xi Jinping holds talks with Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli in Kathmandu, Nepal, Oct. 13, 2019

There was intense speculation last month that Nepali Prime Minister K.P Oli, who became Prime Minister with two thirds majority in Parliament some 28 months ago, may have to quit given the brewing dissent within the ruling Communist Party of Nepal.

The majority in the 9-member party Central Secretariat had taken a clear public posture that they were for Oli's exit. But on May 1, barely a day before the Secretariat was scheduled to meet, the Chinese ambassador, Hou Yanqi, had an hour long chat with Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, and then with Madhav Kumar Nepal, both former Prime Ministers and dissidents. Hou’s message was clear: China believes that unity in the ruling party is best for Nepal-China relations, cooperation and prosperity. 

Also Read: How is Sino-US tension affecting South Asia?

Ambassador Hou’s meeting took place four days after Chinese President Xi-Jinping had extended his best wishes for the good health, and 'happiness' of Prime Minister Oli in a telephonic conversation with President Bidhya Devi Bhandari. The May 2 meeting ended with Prachanda suddenly turning around and calling for 'unity' in the spirit of the advice given by Ambassador Hou. 

However, Oli’s survival was seen in Delhi as proof of China's increasing clout in Nepal's internal politics. For Delhi, which has always felt that Nepal is solely in its sphere of influence, China’s open diplomatic success must have come as a shock.

Exactly a week after Oli’s survival in Kathmandu, Delhi did something which generated much heat in Nepal’s parliament and its streets. India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh “e-inaugurated” a 80-km road via Lipulek, a territory in the tri-junction of India, Nepal and China (Tibet) that Nepal claims to be its territory. The road issue triggered large scale protests in Nepal further boosting the prospects of Oli, something Delhi may not have intended given its perception that Oli is pro-China which also implies being anti-India. 

Nepal and India exchanged furious notes with claims and counter-claims over the triangle constituting Lipulek-Kalapani and Limpiadhura, covering around 335sq km in the tri-junction.

Oli's cabinet not only amended the official map of the country bringing these areas into it, but the Prime Minister also declared in Parliament that Nepal would reclaim the 'encroached' land at any cost. He asked India to fix an early date for talks to settle the dispute. 

The move has not only earned him the support of his divided Communist Party of Nepal, but also that of the opposition parties which are committed to standing firmly behind him on the border issue. 

The changed map will require an amendment to the constitution, with a bill introduced in parliament for the purpose.

Rampant corruption, inept handling of the situation created by COVID-19, inability to announce any relief package, insensitivity to the return of Nepalis from abroad, sinking tourism and overall economic decline had been dominating the political discourse in Nepal to Oli’s discomfiture.

The German government decided to discontinue a 250 million euro per year cooperation project, apparently in retaliation to large scale corruption and poor human rights standards under the Oli regime. But all these issues have now been relegated to the background as Oli confronts India on the territorial issue. Anti-India sentiment turns into an issue of ‘nationalism’ in Nepal.

Indian Army Chief Manoj Navarane's comment on May 15 in Delhi claiming the territory through which the road to Mansarovar passes as India’s, his insinuation in the next breath that the series of protests in Nepal was at ‘some one's behest’ -clearly implying China-have not been taken kindly here.

In the midst of all this, India conveyed that talks could be held only after the corona epidemic subsides.

Nepal’s current boundary was defined in1816 following the Treaty of Sugauli signed with the British East India Company. Nepal claims that that the historical documents in its possession, mainly the text of the treaty, establish that the land east of the Kali river is Nepal’s territory. Furthermore, Nepal claims that those areas and the population used to pay land revenue to the Nepali authorities and the population was covered under government conducted census till the 60s. 

Nepal and India enjoy an open border, people travel with no visa, and yet, border disputes are not very uncommon.

Bishwabandhu Thapa, 93, who was Home Minister of Nepal in 1962, says King Mahendra of Nepal had given the strategically important land in the tri-junction to India on Jawaharlal Nehru's request soon after India suffered a huge setback in the war with China in 1962. But the issue was raised by Nepal, first in the 1990s. Prime Ministers G P Koirala and Atal Behari Vajpayee agreed in July 2000 to have the issue settled through diplomatic channels with the foreign secretaries of both sides overseeing the exercise. But so far this has made no headway.

In May 2015, the issue got more complicated with India and China signing a deal at the Prime Minister's level to build a road through Lipulek without involving or consulting Nepal. Nepal lodged a protest, but with no response from either side. As the dispute was pending, the inauguration of the road by Rajnath Singh on May 8 triggered large scale protest across the country with the 'Go back India' slogan renting the air. 

Was the inauguration of the road India’s response to Chinese playing a role in Nepali politics? Nobody knows. The two incidents came one after the other. However, in an Indian television channel discourse, former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibbal called Oli ‘China’s puppet’ suggesting his replacement. Along with that, other people who earlier held key positions in the Indian establishment said that India is paying a price for hosting insurgent Maoists and demolishing the world’s only Hindu Kingdom by supporting them in 2006. 

The Oli government ordered that currency notes with the picture of last two monarchs-Birendra and Gyanendra–should not be printed any more. Oli is worried about Gyanendra’s getting huge public sympathy as the political mess gets deeper. The ruling NCP also fears that the Narendra Modi government is ‘conspiring’ to restore Nepal’s status as a Hindu kingdom.

Also Read: New China-Nepal rail corridor on the horizon

Senior Indian politician and the opposition Rastriya Janata Dal leader Sharad Yadav, a friend of the current regime in Nepal, echoed this suspicion in the Indian Parliament recently by warning Prime Minister Modi that no ‘untoward’ action should be taken in Nepal.

China has acquired a huge political leverage in Nepal post 2006 and would need a friendly regime to protect its investments and other growing interests. But the anti-India protest so far appears more like a local response, with little or no involvement of China contrary to the Indian perception.

How long the current standoff will last will depend on how serious the two sides are about settling the border issue. Any delay will only give China bigger space in Nepal at the cost of India.