An unusual scene permeated the Social media on Tuesday. About a dozen cadres of Nepali Congress affiliated Nepal Student Union (NSU) staged a silent demonstration in front of the Chinese Embassy. Nepal has occasionally witnessed Free-Tibet protests against China carried out by the Tibetan refugees but Nepalese citizens standing on streets while carrying placards and posters condemning the Chinese Ambassador was unprecedented. The Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is on the verge of a catastrophic split and the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi has been doing rounds, meeting the NCP’s top leadership. The crucial timing of the meetings has raised concerns about Chinese interference in Nepal’s internal matters which was previously unheard of. Though the proximate cause is pertinent to the current crisis in Nepal’s ruling Party, we will also see a part played by China’s strategic interest in Nepal.
It would be a misjudgment to assume that China acts to counter India in Nepal. When we look at Nepal’s political past, China’s meddling in Nepal’s internal affair is nowhere to be found. Whereas India has been instrumental in overthrowing a century old Rana regime, bringing multiparty democracy and abolishing Monarchy as well. Whenever crisis has loomed over Nepal, India has sided with the democratic forces of Nepal to transform the political landscape. India carries a strong influence over political parties of Nepal. An Indian intervention in Nepal has always been taken for granted.
However, China has always desiderated for a status-quo in Nepal. Any change in the Nepalese political system was deemed detrimental to its interests. Monarchy offered the best chance for a stable Nepal. That explains why China supported King Gyanendra in his fight against the Maoists rebels after the royal coup of 2005. After the overthrow of monarchy, China enjoyed friendly and equal relations with all the political parties of Nepal. However, it seems to be gradually inclining favorably towards the NCP. So why has China changed? Is it the Communist ideology that brings the NCP and China closer? I will dive into the present relation between the NCP and China and try to find out why China thinks it matters.
After Communist Party of China (CPC) took over Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. There were uprisings against the Chinese presence in Tibet. Some Tibetan rebels backed by the CIA were operating from Mustang district of Nepal. China was concerned over the activities emanating from Nepal. The presence of Indian military at Nepal-China border worsened China’s prospect but it was King Birendra who assured the Chinese government of its support by crushing the anti-China “Khampa” rebellion. China has been always wary of activities conducted by the Tibetan exiles in Nepal. It doesn’t want Nepal to be a base for a fresh rebellion. Therefore, it was in China’s good interest to maintain a cordial relationship with Nepal’s Monarchy. In general, China wanted a reliable ruling hand in Nepal to safeguard its interest. Monarchy was widely successful in keeping anti-China activities at bay.
The extent to which China has gone to favor Monarchy is a telltale sign of its uneasiness with changing political landscape of Nepal. In 2001, about a week before the Chinese premier’s visit to Nepal, the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal severely criticized Maoist rebels for dishonoring China’s Mao Tse-Tung’s name (Upadhya, Sanjay ). In 2002, during King Gyanendra’s 10 day visit to China, the Chinese President Jiang Zemin pledged support to Nepal’s fight against the Maoists rebels(The Washington Post, 14th July 2002). After 2005 Royal takeover in Nepal, it was only China which backed the Nepalese military against the insurgency.
Why did China support monarchy instead of a Communist force in Nepal? Wouldn’t it have been a better choice to assist the rebels given the ideological affinity between the Maoists and the CPC? The Chinese approach isn’t hard to discern. It adopted a realist foreign policy. It saw Maoists as a destabilizing force which would have added to the uncertainty over Nepal’s stand on Tibet in case of a total Maoist takeover of Nepal. Even the multiparty democracy was not suitable for China’s interest. Things get complex when you are dealing with multiple political actors. With varied interests among different democratic parties, China’s chances of getting a continuous support from Nepal on Tibet might have lessened. However, though China was suspicious of democratic forces, the political parties maintained same stand as that of Nepal’s monarchy on Tibet issue. So till date China’s primary purpose in Nepal was to silence any pro-Tibetan activity and the best way to do was by encouraging a totalitarian state in Nepal.
After Nepal abolished Monarchy, China was devoid of a reliable and trustworthy partner. After 2006, no political parties commanded a sole majority in the government and the public favor was always swinging. However, things drastically changed in 2017 after the Communist Alliance won a whopping two-third majority in the Federal election. Soon after, the two largest communist party of Nepal merged to form a powerful Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and after a long time Nepal enjoyed a complete majority of a single political party in the Parliament. What did it signal? It was an indication of the political stability and more than that China saw NCP as a strong political force with a potential to remain in power for a longer period of time. Therefore, China’s realist instinct kicked in again and it wasted no time in initiating a close relationship with the NCP. It saw NCP as reliable force which would be hard to uproot in any near future something closer to a monarchy. This presented a prospect for China to safeguard its interests without interacting with all the political actors of Nepal on equal footing. However, the NCP is on the verge of a split and China fears faltering of NCP’s strength. This might be adverse to China’s interest as it points towards a possible stalling of the parliament in near future. It wants a powerful political entity to deal with.
At present, China’s interest in Nepal encompasses more than the Tibet issue. It has increased its economic activities in Nepal by many folds through BRI initiative. Nepal has seen a dramatic rise in Chinese investments in different sectors. The influx of Chinese tourists is among the highest. China is also looking to exert its cultural influence in Nepal. Therefore, it would be safe to assume that China is trying to change its presence in Nepal from a dormant to an active player. However, this newfound energetic foreign policy is not limited to Nepal and China’s growing influence has been felt worldwide.
This explains why China has increased its interaction with NCP leadership. Had it been China of pre Xi Jinping era, it would have wished for NCP to remain intact but would have refrained from facilitating any dialogue. The change in the Chinese attitude in Nepal is unlikely to invite any immediate reaction from India or any other dominating International powers in Nepal. It is indubitably an act of intervention with a soft approach but it seems harmless for any other International actors. However, in the long run we might see a counter to the increasing Chinese footprints in Nepal, primarily from India. Therefore, I also see a probability of a conflict of interest between China and India in Nepal in the coming days.
In sum, we see that China has been little concerned about Nepalese population in general and more focused on the establishment. Its primary aim has been only to safeguard its own interests. Therefore, China has always maintained cordial relations with rulers of Nepal and now it wishes to develop a long term partnership with a political party which it sees as the principle driver of Nepalese politics for a considerable amount of time. But I believe, China might be losing the bet as the probability of a split within NCP is high and the status-quo will be hard to maintain.