[China, unless the Indian government realizes its folly and embarks on course correction, is well on its way to replacing India as the most influential player in Nepal. Besides helping Nepal, China will definitely use this opportunity for its strategic advantage, which could prove very costly to India and the West. China's Nepal strategy will be a game changer in the conflict in the South China Sea. It will give China an upper hand in a likely dispute with India in the Indian Ocean.]
By Trailokya Raj Aryal
Whether one likes it or not, Nepal is inching closer to China. Many op-ed pieces have been written to remind Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli that we should follow balanced diplomacy, in other words, advising him to not get too close to China. However, most intellectuals are quiet when it comes to the real reasons behind our recent closeness with China. More than KP Oli and China, it is the Indian government and the West that are to be blamed for the growing Chinese influence in Nepal.
Ever since the signing of the 12-point agreement between the mainstream political parties and the Maoists in 2005 in New Delhi, India has been way too active in Nepali politics. Of course India had valid economic and security concerns in Nepal and its involvement in Nepali politics since 1950s was more or less accepted by our leaders. But the degree of involvement grew after the New Delhi brokered the peace agreement in 2005. Instead of practicing balanced diplomacy, all India wanted to do was micromanage Nepal, cow our leaders into submission and openly engage in forming and bringing down governments.
The West and others too viewed Nepal from Indian lens and more or less went along with its Nepal policy. The economic embargo imposed at a time when Nepal needed all the help it could get to rebuild was for many Nepalis the height of Indian bullying. The eccentric manner in which India acted after the promulgation of Nepal's constitution and its open involvement in trying to bring down the Oli government—for most Nepalis India went a bit too far this time.
No matter how sympathetic you are to India, India's recent actions in Nepal are difficult to justify. The rest of the world's silence to the suffering of majority Nepalis (due to the Indian embargo) and their decision to go with the Indian position on Nepal's constitution, probably prompted India to act even more irrationally in Nepal. Nepalis realized that despite being on the West's side for so many decades, we have no friends and no one takes us seriously.
Then our focus shifted to China. China has been quite active in Nepal for the past 10 years. But unlike the Indians who like to boast of their power and reach in Nepal, the Chinese like to play down their influence and are masters of covert diplomacy. And at a time when Nepal found itself friendless in the world, the Chinese extended an olive branch. It welcomed our prime minister earlier this year and assured us of its continued help. Many groundbreaking agreements were signed and China seems to take those agreements seriously.
Within four months of PM Oli's visit, China has started bringing goods from Lanzhou to Shigatse on a train specifically marked for Nepal and South Asia. It has sent its experts to help explore the possibility of fossil fuel in Nepal and sent a high-level delegation to attend the international Buddhist conference recently. These actions have boosted China's soft power in Nepal. Further, the recent Indian attempt to change the government was thwarted by China.
China, unless the Indian government realizes its folly and embarks on course correction, is well on its way to replacing India as the most influential player in Nepal. Besides helping Nepal, China will definitely use this opportunity for its strategic advantage, which could prove very costly to India and the West. China's Nepal strategy will be a game changer in the conflict in the South China Sea. It will give China an upper hand in a likely dispute with India in the Indian Ocean.
The conflicting sovereignty claims over islands in the South China Sea, China's construction of artificial islands in disputed waters, India's siding with ASEAN nations having conflict with China, and India's support for the US position on such conflicts make Nepal important to all three powers: China, India and the US. But only China seems to have understood the importance of Nepal to its strategic interests. Make no mistake, if things go out of hand in South China Sea, all three powers would try to use Nepal to their advantage but only China appears to be doing the necessary groundwork. Others are dreaming that using Nepal against China will be a piece of cake.
From the Chinese perspective, to end the Indian involvement in South China Sea, it can use Nepal by deploying its forces along Nepal's borders with India. Unlike China's borders with India, Nepal is quite closer to major population centers in India, including its capital, New Delhi. By stationing troops in Nepal, China can threaten India with land war, which in turn can end India's involvement in South China Sea. This will be a brilliant move on China's part because if its forces were to directly invade India, it will make for a costly war. But by stationing Chinese troops in Nepal, a war is avoided between the two giants.
India wants to avoid having Chinese troops in Nepal because such a development will limit its options elsewhere in Asia. This India will look to do by ensuring that Nepal does not get too close to China. But wishing something and achieving it are two different things. If India does not soon make amends in its coercive Nepal policy, China will succeed in its grand strategy.
The US for its part needs Nepal to boost its strategic advantage vis-à-vis China. Unless they are directly threatened by China, Japan, South Korea and India are not going to allow the US to use their territories against China for the fear of a full-fledged war. All powers in conflict with China will advise the US to use Nepal against China because it will be less costly and wouldn't affect them much.
However, the Chinese have proved themselves worthy heirs of Sun Tzu, one of the greatest war strategists of all time. Of the many things that he said in his famous treatise, The Art of War that was written 2,500 years ago, the Chinese are using his three tenets in Nepal. One, the advantage of terrain. Whoever controls the terrain first wins the war. Two, the use of propaganda: We are being told China is helping us for purely trade and economic reasons. Three, and most importantly, China is winning (without even fighting) by limiting the options of its competitors. The same applies to the potential conflict in the Indian Ocean between India-Japan-US and China.
Again, we were pushed to the wall and we had no options left. So if India and the West want to reverse the situation of Chinese dominance, they must learn to respect Nepalis, take us seriously and provide us real help for our economic development, just like the US did to China to limit the Soviet influence in Asia in the 1970s. Strategically speaking, China is the new US and Nepal is similar to what China was in the 1970s.
So Washington, New Delhi, Tokyo and London, the choice is yours.