Chinese leadership and Nepal

By Rohit Karki | Republica

ON THE WEB, 14 March 2013

China’s once-in-a-decade change in leadership last week and its implication for global peace and stability is being discussed around the world. Nepali policymakers and politicians are also closely following the developments north of the border. Traditionally, China has adhered to the philosophy of “fostering close and friendly relations with neighbours.” The Chinese government and especially the new leadership will pay some attention to South Asia, even though the new leadership is likely to give top priority to neighbouring countries in China’s foreign policy conduct. South Asian policy is barely featured in official Chinese documents. However, on bilateral level, there are many, though not enough, official and academic discourses on China’s relations with South Asian countries, especially India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Taken together, they suggest the contours of China’s current South Asia policy. South Asia is critical to Beijing’s interests as it shares borders with some countries in the region. In terms of security, this region is particularly significant to the stability of China’s three frontier provinces — Tibet, Xinjiang [East Turkistan], and Yunnan — especially after the violent riots in Tibet in March 2008 and in Xinjiang in July 2009. There are about 120,000 exiled Tibetans living in India and Nepal (including the Dalai Lama and the so-called Tibetan Government-in-exile in India) in addition to some Uyghur militants based in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The willingness and capability of these countries to cooperate are critical to China’s efforts to counter secessionism in Tibet and Xinjiang and to ensure China’s peaceful rise.

China views South Asian countries as important partners in achieving its goal of maintaining domestic political stability and economic development. Countries in the region are committed to One-China policy and have firmly supported China on the issue of Tibet. Against the backdrop of these multifaceted interests, China’s strategic objectives in the region are to reinforce a friendly South Asia that is willing to support China’s efforts to safeguard its national unity and integrity; to promote a stable South Asia that is capable of ensuring the safety of Chinese citizens and investments in the region; and to build a prosperous South Asia that is likely to create more opportunities for China’s sustainable development. The new Chinese leadership will be reinforcing these objectives and exploring every avenue to achieve it. Together, these objectives serve the fundamental task of China’s foreign policy, ie securing a long-term and favorable external environment for China’s development. They also conform to the principle of China’s neighborhood diplomacy: establishment of an amicable, secure and prosperous neighbourhood.

However, China’s growing strategic interests in Afghanistan and Myanmar, and uncertainty and instability in Pakistan and Nepal have given rise to some troubling new trends. More and more, China feels the limits of these countries to keep their commitments to China’s specific interests, from ensuring the safety of Chinese citizens and investments in the region to countering Tibet and Xinjiang-related secessionist activities. These fears have increasingly been evident in Nepal with the growth of Chinese interest during Nepal’s troubled political transition. China feels increasingly unsettled about Nepal’s inability to address China’s core security interests.

The recent self-immolation by a Tibetan monk in Nepal has caught China off guard and heightened its fears. This has led to strong pressure on Nepali government to prevent such incidents from happening on Nepali soil in the future. The new Chinese leadership will definitely step up diplomatic, economic, political and security engagement in Nepal in its wake. China will be more assertive and demand strong and credible assurance from Nepali government that such incidents don’t take place again.

The appointment of Wu Chuntai, an external security expert, as the new Chinese ambassador to Nepal, is a strong signal of China’s hardening policy in Nepal. Wu, who oversaw security interests in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan, was previously working as the deputy director of Department of External Security Affairs under Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He will start his assignment in Nepal soon and will likely focus on containing the Free Tibet movement in Nepal. This gives an indication of how significantly the Tibetan issue features in the Chinese foreign policy and reflects the increasing importance of Nepal in the thinking of the new leadership. Make no mistake: China will treat Nepal by staying true to its security perspectives and to protect its primary interests.

The new Chinese leadership, driven by the goal of protecting its core security interests, might even rethink its Nepal policy. The Chinese government has used a policy of appeasement vis-à-vis Nepal by assisting its economic development in terms of infrastructure, hydropower, human resource and so forth. This has so far worked to appease Nepal, in that the country has held steadfast to the One China policy and respected China’s core security interests. China has not coerced Nepal so far; however, one more self-immolation in Nepal could invite full Chinese coercion. The new mode of coercion is uncertain.

But it is likely that the new Chinese leadership will coerce Nepali government by increasing the pressure on Nepal to revise the Peace and Friendship Treaty with China and put even more pressure on Nepal to cease honoring the ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ whereby Nepal currently provides safe transit for Tibetans to India. This will nullify the role of United Nation High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) in Nepal, while the matter related to the Tibetan refugee and will be primarily dealt between Nepali and Chinese governments. If Nepal accepts this revision, it will face countervailing pressure from the Western governments and international organisations who will remind Nepal of its international obligations. Nepal’s commitment to international human rights will be questioned and the country’s image will further erode.

Non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs is a guiding principle of China’s foreign policy. China is convinced that noninterference enables it to maintain good and stable relations. It also helps dispel smaller countries’ apprehensions of China’s mounting strength. However, with smaller countries like Nepal unable to address the Chinese concern there might be shift in China’s foreign policy. To allay China’s concerns Nepal has adhered to One China policy but it seems unable to assuage China’s fears that its territory will not be used for Free Tibet movement.

Again, a radical step like self-immolation is the last thing the new Chinese leadership wants to see and any repeat of such acts on Nepali soil could bring about fundamental shift in China’s foreign policy. China will also start believing that Nepal cannot assuage Chinese fear, and hence, like India, China will think of taking matters into its own hands.

About the author

The author has a Masters degree in Asian Studies from Australian National University.

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