Tracing the roots of Nepal’s China policy

Published On: January 27, 2020 10:17 AM NPT By: Sujit Mainali

During Prithvi Narayan’s time, Nepal’s policy on Britain was shaped by suspicion and fear. But relation with China was shaped by two seemingly contrasting factors: fear and hope

Nepal’s relations with China date back much earlier than suggested by written evidences. Study of several stone inscriptions shows that volume of Nepal’s trade with China was almost negligible in comparison to that with India during the Licchavi period. However, some important efforts were made by the Lichhavi kings and the Chinese authorities to enhance bilateral engagements. Lichhavi King Narendra Dev had tried to bring two countries closer by improving trans-Himalayan routes. He also had sent one of his sons as his envoy to the emperor of China along with gifts. During his reign, King Arunasva of north India misbehaved with the visiting Chinese envoys. To teach him a lesson, China forged a military alliance with Nepal and Tibet to invade and imprison the Arunasva.

While studying Nepal-China relations, we must study bilateral affairs unfolding since earlier period. However, to understand present day affairs with greater insight, it is imperative to focus on the China policy exercised by Nepal during the time of King Prithvi Narayan Shah. It is because the political legacy of today’s Nepal has its roots in the military campaign initiated by him in the mid-eighteenth century, which led to the expansion and consolidation of the territory of Gorkha which in the meantime came to be recognized as Nepal.

Perception of threat
Was the expansion of Gorkha steered by fear factor unleashed by the consolidation of British power in north India? After the extensive review of the contemporary documents, historian Ludwig Stiller has concluded that Gorkha’s military campaign was not explicitly triggered by the ‘direct fear of British intervention in Nepal even though he [Prithvi Narayan] recognized the possibility of British efforts in that direction.’ Stiller has further asserted that Prithvi Narayan’s concern was about the possibility of British opting ‘to side with one or other of the rajas of the Nepal Tarai against him’ thereby either blocking the Gorkhali expansion into the eastern Tarai or making it extremely difficult.

Prithvi Narayan’s suspicion toward the British is clear in his ‘Divine Counsel’ [Divyopadesh] wherein he has asked his courtiers to remain alert about the intent of ‘cunning’ British. He was of the opinion that once the Hindustan [India] revolted against the British occupation, the latter would come to Nepal in search of a safe place fortified by mighty nature. He had advised the courtiers to formulate two layered policies vis-à-vis Britain: Maintain friendlier relations while at the same time remaining vigil about the possibility of its military adventurism.

Prithvi Narayan, however, had not perceived China as a threat to the existence of Nepal. During his time, China had not asserted its sovereignty over Tibet. Nevertheless, he had sensed a strong influence of Chinese emperor in the court of Lhasa. China used to place its residential envoy [Amban] in Tibet. The envoy used to exercise influence in Tibet and advise the Tibetan authorities even on security related matters. Prithvi Narayan had repeatedly urged his courtiers to maintain friendlier relations with the states in the north—Tibet and China. His opinion regarding the relationship with these countries reflects his fear of Chinese wrath which could be unleashed if Nepal opted for military adventurism across the Himalayas. At the same time, he was also aware about the influence which China could exercise even in the south of the Tibetan plateau. By insisting on the courtiers to maintain good friendship with China, he was hinting that Nepal’s friendlier relations with China could be used to counterbalance Britain whenever the latter waged war against Nepal.

While exploring the foundation of Nepal’s China policy, scholars of international relations mostly cite the aforementioned ‘Divine Counsel.’ However, there is another important document which has remained largely unnoticed from the eyes of those scholars. This document further clarifies the policy exercised by Nepal vis-à-vis China and India during Prithvi Narayan’s time.

Restraint with the north 
A letter sent in 1744 by Prithvi Narayan to the four Gorkhali courtiers, Abhimansing [Basnet], Parath Bhandari, Kirtising Khawas and Bali Baniyan, is published in a book Itihaas Prakashma Sandhipatrasangraha Vol I edited by historian Yogi Naraharinath. All of those courtiers were involved in a military campaign to conquer Sen kingdoms of eastern Nepal. The letter shares the spirit of ‘Divine Counsel’ as far as relations with the northern neighbors are concerned. 

A section of the letter reads: “Do not go above Chyangthapu [which now falls in Panchthar district of east Nepal] to conquer the land. Sikkim has begun war [against us]. Consolidate [our force] and manage all things to annihilate them. If we enter into the old country of Sikkim [Tibet], our relations with Lhasa may deteriorate. Therefore do not attempt to annex even a few inches [chaar aangul] land of Lhasa…Also do not create trouble to the subjects [of Lhasa].”

The word ‘China’ is not mentioned in the letter. However, if we look carefully at the aforementioned text, we can realize that Prithvi Narayan was well aware about the hegemony exercised by China over Tibet. In the letter, he has strongly directed his courtiers not to create any trouble with Tibet. The military might of Tibet was of no match for Gorkha. At the time the letter was drafted, entire Kathmandu Valley was already conquered by Prithvi Narayan, thereby making Gorkha more powerful. Nepal had been enjoying privileged position in Lhasa since the time of Malla kings. This too helps us to confirm Nepal’s military supremacy vis-à-vis Tibet since long.

Another letter sent by Prithvi Narayan to the Regent of Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama of Tibet is another illustration which helps us to assess the military might of Nepal and Tibet. In the strongly worded letter cited by CR Markham in his book Narratives of the Mission of Gorge Bogle to Tibet and of the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, Prithvi Narayan had made the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama clear that ‘he did not wish to quarrel’ with them but ‘if they had a mind for war, he would let them know he was well prepared’ for it. In the letter he had ‘desired them…to have no connection with the Fringies [English] or Moghuls, and not to admit them into the country, but to follow the ancient customs, which he as resolved likewise to do’.

In the light of this letter, it seems quiet unconvincing that Prithvi Narayan directed his courtiers not to create any trouble with Tibet fearing that it may impede the ongoing campaign to conquer and consolidate kingdoms of eastern Nepal. But if we see the letter along with the ‘Divine Counsel’ and look into its spirit, it becomes clear that the factor which had restrained Prithvi Narayan from antagonizing Tibet was, in fact, China. Harmonious relations with Tibet could have ensured good terms with China. The friendlier relations with China could be capitalized by Nepal to thwart bourgeoning British influence in the hills and mountains of South Asia. Prithvi Narayan’s assessment that hostility with Tibet would drag China into the war became evident when Bahadur Shah, the youngest son of Prithvi Narayan and the Regent of King Rana Bahadur, invaded Tibet in 1788. 

During Prithvi Narayan’s time, Nepal’s policy on Britain was shaped by the feeling of suspicion and fear. However, its relations with China was shaped by seemingly two contrasting factors—fear and hope. The fear that emanated from the mighty Chinese empire kept Prithvi Narayan restrained from invading and conquering Tibetan territories. Hope of receiving Chinese support during the time of Nepal’s war with Britain, which Prithvi Narayan rightly assessed was sure to happen in the meantime, was another factor that encouraged him to keep good relations with China.

Mainali is a historian. His book “Silanyas: Nepal Nirmanko Nalibeli” was published in 2019 

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