Consequent to the expansion of Chinese influence, the delicate balance in India’s relations are now under strain and at a crucial juncture. With a new government in Kathmandu, the Prime Ministers of Nepal and India will meet to exchange views and review relations. After Prachanda broke tradition and travelled to Beijing, instead of India, on his first visit abroad as Prime Minister, the symbolism of this gesture has diminished and it is possible that Prime Minister Narendra Modi may ignore precedence to emphasise the importance of India-Nepal ties and travel to Kathmandu first. Nevertheless, it is imperative that India makes a candid, clear-eyed assessment of the extent of Chinese influence there and state of India-Nepal ties.
Shaping the background is China’s unmistakable imprimatur. Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s critical reference to India came in the midst of the political crisis in the Maldives and coincided with China’s unprovoked warnings to India against acting unilaterally in the Maldives. Just a few days ago the Pakistan Prime Minister paid a two-day visit to Kathmandu, becoming the first high level foreign leader to meet Prime Minister Oli. The visit was covered in the Chinese media. There is now no room for missteps. India should avoid accepting the sanguine argument that India and Nepal are tied by geography. Modern construction technology has unshackled the constraints of geography as amply evidenced by the transport infrastructure built by China in the inhospitable, high altitude Himalayan region.
China’s interest in Nepal is long term. It has designated Nepal a “friend”, induced it to join Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship “Belt and Road Initiative” and offered it financial and other assistance in addition to holding out the prospect of a security arrangement. China’s strategic objectives include eliminating Indian influence and curbing the Tibetan refugee population. Mao Zedong’s well known observation, that Tibet is the palm of the hand, while Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh are its fingers, remains relevant with attendant implications for India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Following Nepal’s distinct pro-Beijing tilt ever since Prachanda’s appointment as Prime Minister, China has cultivated the full spectrum of political parties and spread its influence among Nepal’s politicians, army, academia, media and businessmen. During the visit of Chinese PLA General Chen Bingde in March 2011, a section of Nepal’s media suggested that he be conferred the rank of honorary general of the Nepal Army—an honour thus far reserved for the Indian Army chief. Echoes of this were evident in Oli’s remarks on 22 February 2018, which pointedly excluded reference to the recruitment of Gorkhas by the British Army and ignored that over 125,000 Nepalis have direct links to the Indian Army.
China has meanwhile acquired long-term leverage in Nepal through ZTE and Huawei, both Chinese telecom companies intimately associated with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Huawei set up mobile telephone networks in Kathmandu and other cities, while ZTE upgraded Nepal Telecom’s nationwide mobile phone capacity. Earlier this month, Nepal agreed to enable use of China’s internet.
The network of 35 China Study Centres (CSC) strategically sited in southern Nepal along India’s border, ostensibly to popularise the Chinese language, also disseminate anti-India propaganda and reinforce traditional Chinese diplomacy. China’s propaganda offensive includes the China Radio International’s local FM radio station in Kathmandu and Nepal-China Mutual Cooperation Society (NCMCS), funded by the Chinese embassy in Nepal.
The game changer is, however, the Qinghai-Lhasa railway capable of carrying an estimated 7 million tonnes of cargo a year, augmented by an all-weather road network. Discussions to extend the railway, which has reached Zhangmu on the border with Nepal and Yadong across Sikkim, to Kathmandu and thence to Lumbini—barely 30 kilometres across the border from India—are fairly advanced. China’s new dual-use transportation network provides alternate routes to landlocked Nepal.
To create a belt of Chinese influence along Nepal’s border with Tibet, China agreed last year to provide annual subsidies totalling US$1.6 million for education, health, basic amenities and roads to residents of 15 border districts in northern Nepal. Twelve of these districts are densely populated by Himali people of Tibetan origin. Early this month the Nepal government instructed all government officials to learn Mandarin!
China’s specific strategic focus has also been on establishing a presence in Buddha’s birthplace of Lumbini. Chinese government-sponsored NGOs have unveiled plans estimated variously at between US$1 billion and US$3 billion for the redevelopment of Lumbini, including an airport and seminary-cum-monastery. Prominent Nepal politicians have been appointed office-bearers of Chinese NGOs. The international airport and railway in Lumbini will mean the long-term presence of Chinese military personnel, who will construct, operate and maintain them. The seminary has the potential to destabilise India’s vulnerable Indo-Tibetan Himalayan Border Belt. China’s plans to make Lumbini a China-dominated hub for the “Buddhist tourism circuit” of Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath etc., will marginalise Indian businessmen and tour operators. It could lead to the “illegal” settlement of Chinese who will inevitably migrate to the Northeast.
India needs to quickly and effectively counter this expansion of Chinese influence and power and especially prevent Chinese dominance of Lumbini. Options are available, but the window of opportunity is fast closing.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is presently President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.