China hits India where it hurts

M.K. Bhadrakumar December 28, 2015 6:23 AM (UTC+8)
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China has moved for the first time to demonstratively erode India’s ‘influence’ over one of its small neighbors, Nepal. The disclosures following the weekend talks in Beijing by the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Nepal Kamal Thapa  during his 5-day visit point in that direction.

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Nepal Kamal Thapa (L) with Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Nepal Kamal Thapa (L) with Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao

Thapa received a warm reception in Beijing and was received by Vice-President Li Yuanchao, apart from holding talks with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Li said: “China supports Nepal’s efforts in safeguarding national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and stands ready, together with the new government of Nepal, to expand cooperation in connectivity, energy, production capacity, post-disaster reconstruction, tourism and other areas so as to achieve mutual benefits, win-win results and common development, and elevate the long-lasting and friendly China-Nepal comprehensive cooperative partnership to new levels”.

At a joint press conference by Yi and Thapa, the following details were revealed regarding bilateral ties:

  • Opening of more border points for transit trade;
  • A permanent arrangement for supplies of petroleum from China;
  • A transit treaty to enable Nepal to access Chinese ports;
  • Stepping up trade;
  • Start of the post-disaster reconstruction projects in Nepal under China’s pledge of $500 million as aid;
  • Agreement on economic and technical cooperation providing $140 million as grant-in-aid for repair and maintenance of the Araniko Highway; and,
  • Abolition of visa by Nepal for Chinese tourists.

Yi advised India not to regard Nepal as “a boxing arena”.

He added: “China, India and Nepal are close neighbors connected by the same mountains and rivers. This makes the three of us a natural community of shared interest. This is why China has proposed the development of a China-India-Nepal Economic Corridor. It is all about common development and prosperity. The ultimate goal is to form a community of shared future for the three of us”.

Thapa, in turn, discussed with the media (in the presence of Yi) his country’s stand-off with India, and said, “it seems we are now able to clear the air of mistrust and misunderstanding and slowly things are moving and coming back to normal”.

But he stressed Nepal’s “special relations” with China and pledged that his government will continue to crack down on the illegal movement of Tibetans between China and India and “will not allow any activities that infringe on China’s sensitivities on Tibet”.

Evidently, Beijing is cashing in on the Nepal-India stand-off, resulting from the Indian economic blockade for the past several months, with a view to create enduring, long-term underpinnings of partnership with Kathmandu.

Beijing has experienced for decades that so long as India treated Nepal as its ‘sphere of influence’ and the leadership in Kathmandu remained vulnerable to Indian pressure, New Delhi kept calibrating Nepal’s China policies.

Today, no doubt, Chinese diplomacy is operating in fertile ground.  Through a series of missteps and miscalculations, New Delhi has stoked the fires of Nepali nationalism, and, to compound matters, the new leadership in Kathmandu dominated by the communist parties has altogether spun out of Indian control.

Delhi is running out of options. A daily associated with the ruling party has put the blame on the foreign-policy establishment and demanded, “It is time for the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) to personally intervene and lead the reconciliation efforts. Or else, China will fill the vacuum”.

Clearly, India’s ruling elites are yet to realize that the zero sum mindset is irrelevant today. The Chinese diplomacy is in a ‘win-win’ situation. If Modi eases pressure on Kathmandu, that is not going to prompt the fiercely independent new leadership there to freeze their deepening engagement with ‘communist China’, while, on the contrary, the present stand-off is only driving them to embrace China’s friendship tightly.

The backdrop is one of the mandarins in Indian foreign-policy establishment needling China constantly by butting into the South China Sea problem, flaunting Modi’s bonhomie with Japan’s Shinzo Abe or America’s Barrack Obama, and identifying closer than ever with the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia. (With an eye on China, India is inching close to signing an unprecedented treaty with the US that would provide access for the American forces to Indian bases.)

The Modi government estimates that if India joins a trilateral US-Japan-India quasi-alliance in Asia, Beijing will sooner or later read the tea leaves and reach out for a mutual accommodation with India. There is an element of bravado here, because Delhi assumes that the US and Japan see India as a ‘counterweight’ to China in the geopolitics of Asia, and have a strategic interest to build up India as a powerhouse.

This is a complete departure from the Indian policies traditionally, which had sequestered India from identifying with the US’ rebalance strategy and sought to exploit its inherent advantages as an emerging power to create space to negotiate persuasively with China.

Suffice it to say, the incumbent ‘China hands’ in the Indian establishment have been showing uncharacteristic alacrity to career away in a new direction that atrophies the bilateral track and emphasises the axis with the US and Japan. China surely has taken note of the strange, unwarranted Indian behaviour.

So far, China’s South Asian policies largely focused on self-interests – be it in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka or the Maldives. China even ignored the ‘regime change’ in Sri Lanka, which the US-Japan-India axis rooted for.

But Beijing may be making its counter-moves in Nepal if only to underscore that this is a game both can play. Its decision to provide transit facilities to Nepal is tantamount to helping that country to shake off the overbearing Indians.

The setback hits India’s Hindu nationalist government where it hurts most, because it all happened when Nepal rejected the demand by a group of Hindu activists drawing inspiration from Modi’s rise to declare their country a ‘Hindu state’. In no time, as the Bible says, the small cloud, ‘the size of a man’s fist was coming in from the sea’ – and there was not any time left to go, tell Ahab to prepare the chariot.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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