On May 8, 2020 the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the road to Lipulekh Pass on the Himalayan Watershed (the ancient customary and traditional boundary between India and Tibet) to shorten and ease the extremely difficult trekking route of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has emphatically reiterated that this road in Pithoragarh District of Uttrakahand runs its entire length within the territory of India. However, Nepal protested against inauguration of this road with Nepal’s Communist Party (NCP) accusing India of unilateralism through a statement – alleging that India’s decision “violates Nepal’s sovereignty”.
The statement was signed by chairs KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda. The road has been in existence for long and made motorable in recent times till four kilometers short of the LAC.
Interacting with the media on May 15, Army Chief MM Narvane said, “I do not see any contradiction at all as far as the road to Lipulekh Pass is concerned. In fact, the Nepalese ambassador had mentioned that the east side of Kali Nadi (Mahakali River) belongs to them. There is no dispute in that. The road which we have constructed is on the west side of the river. So, I don’t know what exactly they (Nepal) are agitating about. There have never been any problems on this issue in the past. There is reason to believe that they might have raised the issue on the behest of someone else (read China). That is very much a possibility.”
If the NCP was to protest about the road for purposes of domestic consumption, it would have happened long back because making the road motorable took considerable number of years, besides it being within Indian territory. Red flagging a non-existent issue at this juncture is obviously on behest of China – as hinted by the Army Chief. There has been visible discord between Oli and Dahal in recent times and China had to intervene to broker peace between the two. Oli was also under pressure from factions with the NCP because of two ordinances he wanted to introduce: amending the Constitutional Council (Duties, Functions and Procedures) Act, and; amending the Political Party Act. However, both these ordinances had to be withdrawn because of vehement opposition.
The Maoist insurgency in Nepal was China’s strategic move, roots of which go back to era of Mao Zhedong whose Ministry of Foreign Liaison embedded the Maoists movement in Nepal. The violent insurgency resulted in the killing of some 19,000 people between 1996 and 2005. This included insurgents, army and police personnel, and civilians. 1,665 of the dead were reportedly women. In addition, an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people were internally displaced. China’s aim was not only to overthrow Nepalese monarchy but establish a government in Nepal opposed to America and India, drawing Nepal into China’s strategic sphere.
China has taken remote control of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre). Using these political parties in addition to political and economic coercion on policy makers, China has been promoting anti-India and pro-Pakistan agenda in Nepal. Nepal is home to some 20,000 Tibetan refugees, 9,000 in Kathmandu alone but they live under restrictions because of China’s diktat to Nepal. There were reports in the past of some of these refugees being handed over to China.
China has rapidly advanced its presence in Nepal in the economic, political, cultural and strategic spheres. China is the largest source of investment, development aid and economic support in Nepal. Of the total FDI pledges of USD 95 million in Nepal during first quarter of FY 2019-2020, China alone had pledged USD 88 million. This represents nearly 93% of total foreign investments committed FDI, showing China’s dominant position.
Nepal views the rise of China as an opportunity; attracting Chinese investment, technology and skills to realize its own vision of sustainable long-term development. Nepal joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2017 for becoming part of the global supply chain, ignoring China’s strategic aims that are becoming clearer with similar BRI projects in other countries. China is also the second largest source of foreign tourists in Nepal after India.
Nepal’s close links with Pakistan have facilitated ISI and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) presence in Nepal. An Intelligence Bureau report of 2018 indicated a well-oiled network in Nepal not only giving protection to ISI-backed terrorists, but becoming a “Control Centre”. China’s hard and soft power has subsumed Nepal indirectly and if the Oli government is not careful, China can make Nepal the laboratory for hybrid war; PLA-Maoists-ISI-LeT collusion, the blowback of which would hardly be conducive to Nepal’s stability. All development projects of China abroad have covert presence of PLA. Nepal has also given oil drilling rights to China in the Terai region bordering India.
Post release of COVID-19 from Wuhan, the Kathmandu Post wrote that China’s authoritarian system of government had worsened the deadly Coronavirus outbreak. The Chinese embassy resorted to threatening the paper, in response to which Kathmandu Post responded by saying, “The Chinese embassy did not just express its discontent with the article published, it went so far as to disparage the Post’s Editor-in-Chief and employ threatening language.
The undiplomatic — and frankly menacing — manner in which the Chinese embassy made its objections known is condemnable. The actions of the Embassy… can be perceived as a direct threat to the Nepali people’s right to a free press, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression.”
During his visit to Kathmandu in October 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping reacted angrily after Nepal did not sign an extradition treaty aimed at deporting Tibetan refugees back to China, which Xi was desperately eager to affect. Xi referred to Hong Kong in his speech and shouted, “Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones. Those who engage in separatist activities in any part of China will be smashed into pieces.”
In the fit of anger, Xi did not realize his mask slipped – baring traits of a ‘street bully’. Perhaps he was also conveying indirect threat to Nepal; extradite Tibetans or face consequences. In a recent show of obdurate belligerence on May 2, 2020, China’s state-run Global Television Network (CGTN) claimed Mount Everest and surrounding areas in Nepal as the territory of China. There are strong protests in Nepalese media but response from the Nepalese government, if any, remains unknown.
Nepal is a sovereign country but China’s is employing hard and soft power to assimilate it. Psychological conditioning through scholarships, training, Confucius Institutes, people-to-people engagement, Maoism, political warfare and buying politicians are all part of the tactics. How much China subsumes Nepal will depend on how China can manage the Maoists and Nepal’s communist parties. It will be in Nepal’s interest not to become a satellite state of China – like Pakistan and not get debt-trapped. Examining China’s behaviour in hiding the COVID-19 outbreak and to the world at large thereafter, needs to be taken into account.
If Nepalese people are not careful they will witness sovereignty problems with China, especially if they default on repayment of any loans or other treaty clauses they may have entered into. Finally, Nepal should remember Mao Zhedong had said Tibet is the palm of China. Of the five fingers he mentioned, two were Nepal and Bhutan. It will be in Nepal’s interest to not become China’s proxy.