Nepal: Caught in the Chinese Headlights?

On 1 August, Nepal and China celebrated the 54th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between them. China is eager to celebrate the relationship, which it claims is cemented by a foundation based on its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. However the relationship between Nepal and China has hardly been characterised by non-interference, and it is Tibet that has borne the brunt of China’s invasive foreign policy toward its Himalayan neighbour.
Nepal is vital to China’s peripheries diplomacy and is seen as an important ‘buffer’ and a check to India’s rise. Before his death in 2006, renowned Tibetan scholar Dawa Norbu noted that China no longer felt the Himalayas alone were sufficient in the nuclear age to guarantee its national security and given Tibet’s strategic location, it would ideally want pro-Chinese neighbours in the cis-Himalayan region separating it from India. Beijing, therefore, appears to be working hard to secure Nepal as an ally within which it can operate with near impunity.

Following a wave of protests against Chinese rule in Tibet in March 2008, China began concerted efforts to increase its influence the Nepalese government, judicial system and civil society. A Washington-based group, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), this year on 28 July accused Nepal of initiating a crackdown on Tibetan refugees that featured “pre-emptive arrests of Tibetans, ID checks and house searches." Nepal’s authorities have regularly dispersed rallies by Tibetan exiles and arrested them for protesting against China's crackdown on demonstrations in Tibet. On 15 July, Nepali police arrested at least 15 Tibetans in the Kathmandu Valley for staging an anti-China protest in front of the UN headquarters there.

Security officials from Nepal and Tibet (or, the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China) will meet on 11 August to discuss border security along the northern frontier of Nepal. The border is sporadically closed by Chinese authorities; they have recently initiated heightened security measures and intensified restrictions on the movement of Nepalis in regional marketplaces, reportedly out of fear of anti-China activities. Similar meetings have been scheduled and abandoned in the past but this time it is highly likely that China will find all of its demands met by the Nepali government.

Mary Beth Markey, the Vice President of ICT, believes that "Nepal's political leadership is betting that the internal benefits of assuaging China in the cause of oppressing Tibetans will be greater than the costs of abandoning principles rooted in traditional legal and historical concepts." She further remarked that "[w]hile long-staying and transiting Tibetan refugees bear the brunt of this approach, bending to China on fundamental freedoms and the rule of law presents a real risk to the Nepalese people and their democratic institutions.”

Some analysts argue that India’s overbearing influence has pushed Nepal’s Maoist government resolutely toward China. However there is no evidence that the country is on the verge of severing ties with India altogether, nor moving unequivocally toward Beijing. Nepal’s relationship with China is arguably just another attempt to balance itself appropriately in between two regional giants. As Nepalese journalist Narendra Prasad Upadhyaana said, "It is not that China is ideal. It is only to neutralize India. Historically, socially, and culturally Nepal is closer to India. On a political level however the Maoist government wants to avoid being controlled by India as much as possible."

Nepal is caught in a complicated foreign policy conundrum as a result of its geographical location, sandwiched as it is between India and China. The country is home to tens of thousands of Tibetans but continues to show only limited hospitality to the exiles. Though Tibet may possess centuries of shared cultural and religious heritage with Nepal, China is, today, a key trading partner and provides a large quantity of foreign aid to the impoverished nation. A closer relationship with China is expected to stimulate economic growth in Nepal; it has contributed over US$830 million to Nepal’s infrastructure since 1994. The ‘hard’ politics of geostrategy and (allegedly) pragmatic international relations have trumped any ‘soft’ cultural ties Nepal and Tibet may have.

Compounding its problems is the fact that Nepal is currently the victim of a particularly weak government. Less than year after Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dalah (Prachanda) ran for Prime Minister, he resigned over concerns regarding the inclusion of Maoists in the national army. A coalition of opposition parties took over the country in May and the fragile government has since struggled with issues such as corruption, food and fuel shortages, lack of infrastructure and increasing insecurity characterised by strikes and kidnappings for ransom. Though its foreign policy may be less than perfectly coherent, it is clear that Nepal’s government is looking to take advantage of the stability Chinese support may provide it.

Nepal celebrated its first Republic Day on 29 May 2009; it is the newest republic in the world. Yet considering the current climate of China-Nepal relations, one wonders to whom the country really belongs.