Nepal: Balancing on Top of the World

By Elizabeth Pond

How does a state squeezed between China and India with only 27 million people in a territory the size of Arkansas maintain its independence?

The answer is not that the world's first and third highest mountains expand Nepal’s land surface to many multiples of Arkansan topography, or that Everest and its sister 8000-meter peaks form some impenetrable barrier between Tibet and Nepal.

Instead, the more prosaic answer is that in the 21st century, land-locked Nepal—one of the poorest countries in Asia—is of little strategic interest to either Beijing or Delhi. What they both hope for most of all in Nepal is stability. “Neither China nor India wants to colonize Nepal,” says George Varughese, the Asia Foundation’s veteran Country Representative in Kathmandu. “They do not want to be sucked into managing instability” as this could disrupt their own cautious rapprochement.

China is encroaching on the de facto suzerainty India has exercised over Nepal since the subcontinent gained independence from Britain. But this seems to be less hardball realpolitik than Beijing’s easy use of financial power to probe the vacuum left in recent years as Delhi has increasingly taken its backyard Nepal for granted.

Thus, back in 2005, when King Gyanendra dismissed the Nepali government and declared a state of emergency after decades of a limited constitutional monarchy, the Indian army could still urge the Nepali army to exercise restraint despite the king’s order to fire on protesters. Nepali officers heeded the advice (after security forces had already killed 19 demonstrators). The king’s attempted coup backfired, and the monarchy was abolished altogether. Shortly thereafter, the Nepali Maoist rebels ended their decade-old insurgency that cost Nepal 14,000 lives.

By then Delhi was preoccupied with maximizing its strategic depth in Afghanistan to counter its archenemy Pakistan and did not follow up with any long-term largesse in Nepal worthy of the subcontinent's economic superpower. Its economic aid to Kathmandu has been paltry compared to the billions of dollars it is lavishing on equally poor Afghanistan.

China stepped into the breach. Beijing took the opportunity to play catchup with India's earlier construction of such projects as the east-west highway in southern Nepal and all-weather roads from Kathmandu and other cities to the Indian border. It built its own first more-or-less all-weather road from Lhasa to Nepal through the Himalayas. It is giving grants and soft loans for one airport and other infrastructure projects in Nepal and has proposed a $3 billion plan to develop Buddha's birthplace of Lumbini. More generally, it reversed its former hostility to Buddhism in 2006 and has hosted two World Buddhist Forums for adherents of this "ancient Chinese religion." And, stung by 11 recent self-immolations by Tibetan monks and one nun to protest religious restrictions, Beijing has just offered pensions to Tibetan Buddhist clerics.

It is also providing training and equipment to Nepali security forces. And within the past year it has sent four high-powered delegations to Nepal that have included the People’s Liberation Army chief and senior officials from the Chinese Communist Party Politburo.

These initiatives to engage with the broad spectrum of Nepal's political establishment—which now includes moderate Maoists who have finally triumphed over more radical rivals—are far more important than the weak Chinese links during the civil war with the Maoist militants or with Nepal's first post-truce Maoist premier, known to all by his nom de guerre of Prachanda. Despite their name, Nepali Maoists are as little beholden to the Chinese as they are to the Indian Communists. In office in 2008, the hardline Prachanda favored the pragmatic Chinese Communists more out of revolutionary romanticism than out of any ideological affinity—but in the past two years he too has balanced out Nepal’s two neighbors by improving his own relations with Delhi.

Only recently has Delhi begun to worry about the newfound Chinese attentiveness to Nepal. China has the “long-term strategic goal of bringing Nepal irrevocably under its influence,” says Jayadeva Ranade, a senior retired Indian diplomat and ex-member of the Delhi Cabinet secretariat who has been sounding the alarm. “Success in [these efforts] means that China will have crossed the Himalayas and established its influence up to the lower foothills bordering India.”

Yet the rivalry between India and China has not extended to competitive manipulation of partisan Nepali politics. Neither of them was a major player in this month's surprise agreement among the country's three main parties (two Maoist, one Marxist, and the Nepali Congress that models itself on the Indian Congress party), along with the Madhesi ethnic party. After three years of polarized stalemate, cross-party collusion in graft, and very little real governance, the parties finally agreed on how to implement post-insurgency reconciliation and design a constitution fit for a modern republic.

That home-grown breakthrough framework shows a maturing pragmatism and grudging willingness to compromise among parties that are still struggling to adjust to the give-and-take of representative politics. All India and China did—along with the U.S. and the European Union—was to greet the deal with relief.

Under its terms, up to 6,500 former militants will be absorbed into the army in non-combat roles, and the remaining 12,500 guerrillas will receive hefty rehabilitation payments of up to nine times the average annual Nepali wage to ease their adaptation to civilian life. This settlement should in turn clear the way for compromising on a constitution.

As for the treatment of Tibetans who manage to escape from China to seek temporary or permanent refuge in Nepal—the most delicate issue in the Nepali-Chinese-Indian triangle—a certain modus vivendi has been established in the last few years. Rhetorically, Nepal has accepted Beijing's one-China policy and implicitly recognized Chinese rule in Tibet. It no longer issues official refugee papers to the dwindling number of Tibetan escapees who succeed in evading Chinese patrols in the Himalayan wilderness and reach Nepal. It has curtailed the activities of the exile Dalai Lama's representation office in Nepal, insisting that it be headed by a Nepali citizen. Twice in the past three months it arrested briefly Thinley Lama, the volunteer head of the relief organization for the Tibetan diaspora in Nepal, in connection with pro-Tibet demonstrations in India. In Kathmandu, Nepal cracks down on Tibetan semi-political demonstrations and periodically jails several dozen protesters for one or more nights before releasing them.

Further, Kathmandu policemen feel free to harass Tibetans they find outside the designated Tibetan refugee area late at night without identity papers. And the Nepali army does not manage to suppress Young Communist League militants who track down and turn over to China any Tibetans they find who have crossed into Nepal without detection but have not yet reached safety. Nor does it bar the way of Chinese “goons” whom Western observers say regularly come down to Kathmandu to gamble and presumably spy on the Tibetan diaspora.

Yet Kathmandu does not return Tibetan escapees to Beijing despite the high bounty the Chinese reportedly offer. In one case in September that drew protests from global human-rights watchdogs, the Nepali government did order the deportation of 23 newly arrived refugees. However, this order was overruled by the Nepali Supreme Court

What is clear is that the more than 30,000 Tibetan exiles in Nepal are allowed to run large private Tibetan-language schools, to provide vocational training for adults, and to disperse welfare to the needy in the diaspora.

What is also clear is that Nepal’s main tactic is to hide behind India, which gives robust support to the Dalai Lama's half-century-old exile center in India's Dharamsala. Kathmandu allows undocumented Tibetan escapees to proceed across the open Nepal-India border to the south. And Nepal’s halting of its own routine issuance of refugee certificates to newly arrived Tibetan exiles a few years back had little practical impact, since the United Nations and India picked up the slack with their own refugee documentation.

At this point both China and India seem ready to stay with the status quo and let Nepal get on with its daunting to-do list of pinning down the details of the  new framework agreement. Instituting free and fair elections; decentralizing government by establishing provinces and reinstating local government 14 years after its abolishment; building trust among the 68 percent of Nepali who tell pollsters they mistrust the government; promoting inclusion and equity for all of the country’s 100 ethnic groups; empowering women and reducing the estimated 80 percent incidence of violence against women; ending the chronic food crisis for 2.5 million; replacing the rule of impunity with the rule of law and accountability; creating desperately needed jobs; and disaggregating the collusion of parties, police, and criminal networks.

If Beijing and Delhi can now steer their rivalry to competition in helping to fulfill this agenda in the pursuit of stability—and perhaps even to coordination with each other to avoid being used by Nepali political actors—so much the better. 


Elizabeth Pond, an American journalist based in Berlin, is the author of The Rebirth of Europe and Beyond the Wall: Germany's Road to Unification.

[Photo courtesy of Ingmar Zahorsky]

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