Understand Nepal

June 10, 2018 02:00 AM Prem Singh Basnyat


The Chinese should know that there is a country (Nepal) and people (Nepalis) to its south which wish well of China

Nepal is probably the only country in the world that has existed as an independent entity for the last 3000 years. Glorious part of our history is that Nepal did not surrender its sovereignty and independence neither to China nor India. Both India and China have gone through big upheavals. Tibet rose, fell and became a part of China. India fell under British domination for over 200 years and emerged free only in 1947. Nepal did not have to go through any of such experiences. In that sense, we are really a proud nation. 

Nepal had its age old relation of trade and diplomacy with Tibet. With Tibet becoming part of China, Nepal-Tibet relation of the past has shifted to Nepal-China relation. 

History tracks dateless period in antiquity when Manjushree, a religious preacher from China, came down to Kathmandu to cut open a hillock of Chobhar to let out water of the huge lake of Kathmandu in order to drain it and make it fit for settlement. This incident forms the basis of China imagination in Nepal.

A Chinese religious envoy visited Nepal in 306. In 618, Nepal availed to China Tea Horse Road, a segment of Silk Road, for trade. There have been a number of exchanges and visits thereafter—Tibetan king Shrongtsen Gampo’s marriage to Nepali princess Bhrikuti, Nepali artist Araniko’s visit to Lhasa and Peking and many others. Nepal-Tibet trade was at its best during the Malla Era—which is why it is also called golden era in Nepali history. Gold, wool and salt would be transported to Patna and Banaras via Nepal. 

Friction appeared with China with Nepal-Tibet war of 1789. The war ended in October 20, 1792 with Betrawati Treaty, similar to Sugauli Treaty in its nature and effect. Betrawati Treaty is probably the oldest authentic document in Nepal.  This treaty relegated Nepal and Tibet to status of dependent countries and established China as a patron because it required the King of Nepal to send gift to Peking every five years without fail. The king of Nepal would have to plead with Chinese emperor as if he was a servant and the Chinese emperor the master. 

Nepal’s victory over Tibet in the battle of 1856 under the command of Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana ended the practice of sending gifts to China. Thus we can say that Nepal was under a kind of Chinese control for 65 years. Jung Bahadur sought to strengthen relation with British while giving little importance to China. China, mired in its own internal issues, started to take little note of Nepal.

New beginning 

When on April 28, 1960 Nepal and China signed Treaty of Peace and Friendship, thereby abrogating Betrawati Treaty, cordial diplomatic relation is said have started. But for about 1175 years Nepal and China had enjoyed smooth trade and transaction through Silk Road. 

Thankfully on May 12, 2017 the two countries agreed to renew the old route when Nepal and China signed an agreement on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While we have adopted BRI with great expectations, we must be aware about how our trade with Tibet and China was in the past. As a matter fact, Nepal fought three wars with China primarily because of trade and commerce issues. After each war, there has been treaty and the two countries have vowed to support each other in times of need. In Betrawati Treaty, for example, China was supposed to provide military assistance to Nepal if another country attacked it. China did not abide by this provision when British attacked Nepal in 1814. This was the first time Nepal stopped trusting China.

In the 1960s many hundreds of Khampas, followers of Dalai Lama, were engaged in destructive and disruptive activities over Nepal-China border areas. In 1974, when Khampa combatants from Nepali soil started their raids over Tibet, China then wrote to King Birendra to resolve the problem.  Nepal did as asked.  In 1990, Nepal had to face the blockade for purchasing anti-aircraft guns from China.

Know each other 

Given this historical evidence, Nepal-China relation should have been at its best. But it is not yet so. Although most Nepalis know China very well, most Chinese have no idea of Nepal. China invites many Nepalis—from ministers to politicians to professionals—accords them warm welcome and sends them off. Serious discussion on Nepal-China relation does not take place during such exchanges. 

This author wonders if China would even know about Nepal if there were no Tibetan refugees here. Nepali leaders have the tendency to reach out to China only when India subjects Nepal to a difficult situation through coercive measures such as blockade. Such tendency does not help. Nepal needs to maintain close relation with China, irrespective of its engagement with India. 

China, on the other hand, seems to respond to Nepal just for the sake of formality.  Perhaps the only time China came to Nepal’s full support was when King Mahendra removed Indian military check posts in 1968.  

We must accept the truth that both China and India are our immediate neighbors, and closeness with one and distance from another is not in our interest. We do not want to provoke one to please another.

But these two countries should also realize balance and equidistance. Nepal must foster relation with China so secure its existence without jeopardizing Indian national security. Most important of all, we need to make Chinese know there is a country (Nepal) and people (Nepalis) to its south which wish well of China.  One of the main agendas during Prime Minister K P Oli’s China visit should be exploring these simple but important avenues of our bilateral relation.

Unless the people of two countries know each other’s history, culture and existence, bilateral relation tends to become limited to mere formality. 

The author, retired brigadier general of Nepal Army, is also a guest Professor at Leshan Normal University of China

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