Biswas Baral has been associated with Republica national daily as a journalist since 2011. He oversees the op-ed pages of Republica and writes and reports on Nepal's foreign affairs. He is a regular contributor to The Wire (India).
Never in their over 3,000 years of written history have the Chinese aspired to rule over distant lands
Is signing up for China’s OBOR framework an unalloyed good for Nepal? After all, an overwhelming majority of Nepalis, including this writer, unreservedly backed Nepal’s formal entry into the landmark Chinese framework agreement on greater cooperation and connectivity among Eurasian countries.
The domestic constituency for closer ties with China had been steadily building. The 2015-16 blockade had spawned unprecedented anti-India sentiments in Nepal, and pressure started to build on the government of the day to reach out to China. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, keenly aware of the public pulse, visited China in March 2016 and signed historic trade and transit treaties with the northern neighbor.
It was interesting that Oli, once thought of as among India’s most trusted lieutenants in Nepal, should have been leading the pro-China brigade in Nepal. Oli clearly felt that his pro-China stand would reap rich electoral dividends in post-blockade Nepal—and judging by the results of the first phase of local election, his calculation seems to be on the mark.
But before Oli could seriously think about implementing his agreements with China, he was unceremoniously dethroned. Pushpa Kamal Dahal became the new prime minister. Unlike the new incarnation of India-baiting Oli, Dahal, learning from his costly past spats with India, this time committed to safeguard Indian interests in Nepal. This entailed, first and foremost, halting Nepal’s inexorable slide towards China.
Dahal government initially resisted Chinese pressure on implementation of recent deals.
But by the time of the OBOR summit in mid-May, the public pressure to sign up for OBOR was such that Dahal would have had to lose considerable political capital if his government continued to stonewall China. Nor did the canny Maoist chairman want to lose all nationalist votes to UML and Oli this election season. Pretty much the same was true of his chief coalition partner, Sher Bahadur Deuba, who, like Dahal, was eventually convinced of the popularity of pro-China relations.
Since the decision to join OBOR was last-minute, there was little preparation. It is meaningful that the MOU on OBOR signed by Nepal and China on May 12 has not been made public to date. Do the two sides have something to hide?
Wary of Yanks
Let us for a moment set aside the concern of what Nepal wants from China after the OBOR deal and focus on what China wants of Nepal. But before we get to China, let us start with India. What does India want of Nepal? (Interestingly, Hari Sharma has dealt with these issues in his twin articles on China and India, respectively, both published in Kantipur daily).
India has up until now imposed three economic blockades on Nepal, supposedly its closest friend. Each time, the blockade has come as a complete shock to Nepalis, who have always been given to believe that while they may not get the Mandarin-speaking Chinese, they have a firm grasp of the workings of the minds of English- and Hindi-speaking Indians. Yet it turns out that having a common vocabulary is useless if the two countries can’t even agree on the definition of basic concepts like human rights and sovereignty.
Given the capricious nature of the Indian political class, it had become increasingly difficult for Nepalis to live with the friend they thought they knew. So when the Indians ask if we Nepalis know China well enough to trust the authoritarian, communist behemoth, they sound like hypocrites.
Now let me get to what China actually wants from Nepal. The economic goals of OBOR are clear enough: to link the underdeveloped inner China with the rest of the world and to ensure that China’s excess capacity in commodities like cement and steel are profitably sold outside the country. So China’s economic dealings with Nepal, just like its dealings with other 40-odd OBOR signatory countries, will be guided by this economic logic.
More than that, the Chinese understood long ago that India was not yet ready to sign up to OBOR, which made getting Nepal’s nod even more important. The puny Nepali economy has little to offer to mammoth Chinese manufacturers and financiers. The goal was thus to make Nepal a ‘bridge’ through which China could establish reliable trade links with the vast Northern Indian markets (and beyond). If the Chinese build rail link right up to the Nepal-India border, they think pressure will build on the Indian establishment to extend it further inland into UP and Bihar.
There is also a broader strategic goal behind China’s push on OBOR in South Asia. The Chinese academics I talk to never fail to point out that China simply does not see India as its geostrategic competitor. China knows that it is far more superior to India, both militarily and economically. Hence it is not India but the US they are worried about.
This preoccupation with the US, and the paucity of commentary on India, is evident in popular Chinese media. At the time of this writing, to get a feel of what the Chinese are thinking I randomly visited the website of China Daily. The two most popular news on the website that day were titled “Don’t belittle China to win praise abroad” (on how a Chinese graduate student in America had ‘belittled’ China in her commencement speech) and “6 cultural differences between China and the US”. Browse any Chinese news channel or newspaper, and it is clear that if there is one country that the whole of China is obsessed with, for good or bad, it is the US.
Rightly or wrongly, Chinese leaders seem convinced that the Americans are trying to encircle China through its proxies in Asia, and that India is an important cog in this grand American plan. This is why it has become important for China to maintain a strong foothold in the Indian subcontinent.
Some say China wants to replace the US as the global hegemon, and for this it is important for China to first maintain an absolute control over its near-abroad, including over Nepal.
But this line of argument is hard to buy. Never in their over 3,000 years of written history have the Chinese aspired to rule over distant lands, in sharp contrast to the 19th and 20th century marauding European powers like the United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium and Portugal.
Chinese rulers have always been preoccupied with fortifying their home base, making it so strong that any enemy trying to breach it would be committing a suicide. Yes, ancient Chinese emperors saw themselves as rulers of heaven and earth. Yet they were not at all keen to coerce the rest of the world into believing the same. Only if they wanted to trade with China were the foreigners forced to accept this exalted status of Chinese emperors.
It is also true that Nepal at one time accepted the ‘suzerainty’ of China, which, in effect, meant that Nepal rulers at the time accepted that theirs was not a fully sovereign country.
But this state of affairs pertained only when the imperial ambitions of Gorkha rajas clashed with China’s territorial claims in Tibet. Otherwise, never have the Chinese fought with Nepal over territory. Nor is there any ardor in modern-day China, now led by a committed capitalist, to export ‘communism’.
So China’s geostrategic goal in Nepal is limited to securing for itself enough space so that it can deter the nosey Americans from making any more mischief this side of the Himalaya.
Besides, the OBOR framework is broad and nebulous, and it will be hard for China to impose self-serving conditions on its signatories. While OBOR will help Nepal reorient its foreign policy to a state of equilibrium after a pronounced lurch towards India, Nepal thus has little to lose.
Oops. Did I just make a facile claim of knowing the inscrutable Chinese?