Saturday, January 23, 2021

​​​​​​​Dangerous geopolitical games in Nepal

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The bitter infighting in ruling Nepal Communist Party has drawn the attention of geopolitical stakeholders as well.

Immediately after the disbanding of the parliament, a delegation of Communist Party of China (CPC) arrived in Kathmandu. The four member delegation under the leadership of CPC's International Liaison Department Vice-minister Guo Yezhou has met the President, the PM, top brass of the NCP and the President of principal opposition party Nepali Congress, among others.

The delegation wanted to know the real reason behind the sundering of the party. Insiders say that the CPC delegation told the NCP leaders to look at the big picture before taking any decision.

The Chinese are known for speaking less and hinting more to convey their intended message. By asking NCP leaders to look at the big picture, they seem to be suggesting that China's geopolitical interests are served if the NCP remains unified.

It is as clear as daylight that China was behind the merger of two big communist parties in Nepal viz. CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Center. In fact, Vice-minister Guo was in Nepal some months before the unification of the communist parties three years ago. Although the CPC maintains good relationship with all the parties (as proved by reaching out to NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba and inviting him to China), it feels close with fellow communist party in Nepal.

That is the reason why Chinese Ambassador was engaged in hectic parleys with NCP leaders whenever dispute started taking an unpleasant turn. Stability of Nepali politics with a strong communist party at the helm serves China's security more. The CPC top brass believes that left-leaning, if not outright socialist, regimes around its neighborhood can positively engage with the dragon. But the non-transparent manner in which the Chinese delegation met NCP leaders has made people suspicious and also led to the accusations of interference in Nepal's internal affairs.

The current political instability has once against put China in a tight spot regarding its security. China's security fears are genuine because the United States has recently passed into law the Tibetan Support and Policy Act which asks China to let the US mark its presence in Tibet. Chinese experts have questioned US's motive to open a consulate in Tibet. China thinks that Nepal, being a neighbor of Tibet, can become the playground of foreign forces intending to contain China.

In fact, US's recent Stimulus Bill provides for not less than US $132 million to be made available for assistance for Nepal, including for development and democracy programs and also earmarks hefty budget for Tibetan activities in Nepal and India. This combined with the Millennium Challenge Corporation's investment in Nepal (with one faction of the NCP supporting it and the other faction opposing it) and US strategic expert Rush Doshi's deposition at the US Congress last year casting aspersions against the Chinese Railway project in Nepal in particular and Belt and Road Initiative projects in general has raised China's suspicion regarding US's intention in Nepal.

Curiously, India has adopted a hands-off approach to the recent political developments in Nepal. Although the shrill Indian media is gloating at China's "failure" in keeping the NCP intact, India's Ministry of External Affairs has merely "noted" the political happenings. Having burnt its hands while trying to interfere in Nepal's internal affairs in the past, India seems to be circumspect this time around. But India knows that a bigger game is being played around here and short-term tactical gains are nothing in comparison to possible long-term strategic damages brought about by the current political instability.

Saner heads in Indian public sphere have clearly pointed out this fact. India's Former Foreign Secretary and Ex-Ambassador to Nepal Shyam Saran in his recent article in The Tribune has written that "India is in danger of becoming a side-show in what may be shaping up as a US-China power play in Nepal. The US may believe that it could use Nepal as an instrument to exploit Chinese vulnerabilities in Tibet. China will then feel obliged to do whatever is necessary to prevent this. If India is perceived by China to be working according to the American agenda, its hostility to India will get much sharper. Indian and US interests in Nepal are not aligned if it is the US which is in the lead. In the past, we have worked together with the US and the UK as partners in Nepal but always with India in the lead. Far from maintaining Indian influence in Nepal, we shall end up marginalized."

Saran's acceptance of Sino-US rivalry being played out in Nepal explains the cautious reaction of India to Nepal. Traditionally the US used to see Nepal and smaller South Asian countries through Indian lens but now that China has made huge strides in the region, US itself seems to be involved in securing its strategic advances. This great power competition unfolding in Nepal does not augur well for the whole region.

Published on 30 December 2020

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