Geopolitics

Reading Nepal
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 17 Nov , 2023

As always, India was the first responder in providing relief to Nepal when struck by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake on November 3, which left 157 dead and scores injured. On November 5, India sent its first emergency aid package for Nepal comprising 11 tons of relief material, which included tents, tarpaulin sheets, blankets, and sleeping bags along with essential medicines and medical equipment.

Next day on November 6, a consignment of nine tons relief material, comprising essential medical and hygiene supplies, tents, sleeping bags and blankets was transported to Nepalgunj by an Indian Air Force (IAF) C-130 aircraft. The third consignment of 12 tons of emergency relief assistance from India transported by the IAF reached Nepal on November 9.

There is considerable discussion in the media these days about the downturn or rather nose-dive in China-Nepal relations, especially after Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister NaryanKaji Shrestha attended the recently held “Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation” in China. Shrestha reportedly discussed cross-border security collaboration to maintain law and order, as well as trade ties with Chinese authorities.

Trade relations between China and Nepal have the ups and downs as between any two countries; Nepal wants more two-way transit-trade points on the border with China, as well as access to China’s quota/duty free market for Nepalese products. China had shut down a number of transit points because of the pandemic

However, during the eight-day visit of Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda to China in September 2023, China and Nepal agreed to re-open all border crossings, reactivate border check-posts, revitalize the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), finalize the China-Nepal Electric Power Cooperation Plan and cooperation in developing hydro-solar-wind-biomass power, plus a host of other issues.

China’s bilateral trade that is heavily in China’s favour is talked about as a factor in lowering Nepal-China relations. But the same is the case with other countries including India. China is even benefiting more through bilateral trade with India now compared to before the Chinese invasion in eastern Ladakh during 2020. Same is the case with Chinese border encroachments in the Humla District region of Nepal. Although these encroachments were reported by Nepalese government organs but were completely denied by the Nepalese government then headed by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. India and Bhutan also have been officially denying any territorial encroachments by China.

As far as espionage and spying through tourists, students, journalists, businessmen, diplomats and government officials goes, it is part of the state policy of China, which is directed against all counties. Nepal and India are no exception. On November 13, Nepal’s government announced a ban on the China-owned video sharing app TikTok, citing its negative efforts on social harmony. Nepal’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Rekha Sharma said that the decision to ban TikTok was made during a recent cabinet meeting. However, when the decision will be brought into force is not yet decided.  According to Kathmandu Post, 1,647 cases of cybercrime have been reported on TikTok.

Banning of TikTok is more of a symbolic gesture by governments to show defiance, which is more rhetoric.  Many countries, including India, have banned TikTok in the past but every second-third message on Whatsapp continues to be of TikTok. In her recent article ‘The revolution will not be televised – it will be on TikTok’, Erica Hill, questioning actions of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, writes that “TikTok is the place for youth, for radicalized communities, to speak on issues that are routinely left on the cutting-room floor by narrow-minded mainstream media editors”. Notably, there are numerous Chinese apps in India, through which China is making enormous amounts of money, which is also used for construction and infrastructure development activities in China. 

Nepal’s $216 million international airport in Pokhara, the country’s second-biggest city, opened in January this year. China had agreed to provide loans to build the airport more than a decade ago. Nepal tapped China CAMC Engineering, the construction arm of a state-owned conglomerate, Sinomach, as the contractor. The airport has failed to attract any regular international flights, raising concerns about whether it will generate enough revenue to repay loans to its Chinese lenders. Nepali officials have asked Beijing to change the loans into a grant to ease the financial burden, but China has not agreed to do so. Now, the anti-corruption officials in Nepal have begun an investigation into the flagship airport financed and built by Chinese state-owned companies.

China’s debt-trap policy and its relationship with the BRI has always been a hot topic of discussion – a global version of the Village Bania’ in rural India and the bonded labour it produces. Call it whatever, but as long as there are politicians and countries “prepared to get debt-trapped”, the criticism merely is a cover for China’s foreign policy astuteness.

Same goes for the criticism saying that China’s BRI is floundering or failing. China has already applied the remedy by giving more and more loans for the debt-trapped to repay the loan installments – drawing the sucker country more into its trap. Nikkei Asia recently cited a study by AidData, a research institute at William and Mary University in the US, saying that in the past 20 years China lent about US$ 21 billion “more” than previously thought to Pakistan; with Pakistan having the biggest China-funded energy portfolio in the world. China will offer more loans to Nepal to ease out any economic criticality as and when that occurs. That is the beauty of China’s debt trap policy – or rather astuteness.

US had promised Nepal US$ 500 million under its Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) for enhancing connectivity by increasing availability of electricity, lower transport costs. Nepal was to start implementing projects under MCC from September 2019 but has not fulfilled the six preconditions laid down by MCC. Nepal reopened a dialogue with MCC last year. How much would these projects impact China’s BRI plans remains to be seen.

Finally, China is employing hard and soft power to assimilate Nepal. This includes psychological conditioning through scholarships, training, Confucius Institutes, people-to-people engagement, Maoism, political warfare and purchasing politicians. Nepal is strategically important to China, more so because it eyes a large chunk of Indian territories. The aces up Beijing’s sleeve are the communist leaders from the Maoist insurgency era, including Prachanda and KP Sharma Oli.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army.

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