Indian unease over Nepal-China joint military exercise

Indian unease over Nepal-China joint military exercise

Yubaraj Ghimire,

(Exclusive): China and Nepal are soon to have joint military exercise ostensibly focusing on counter terrorism and disaster management. This is the first such exercise in the history of the two immediate neighbors in 60 years of their diplomatic relations, but is not being taken on its face value in a part of the region and far beyond.

The apprehensions are not without context. Nepal’s southern neighbor India has almost always treated Nepal as part of its security umbrella. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, even stated in parliament way back in 1960 that the Himalayas were India’s ‘natural frontier’ in the north, something Nepal publicly refused to accept ever.

Nepal, in principle, has always pursued a policy of equidistance between the two neighbors. Yet many factors bring Nepal and China closer in day to day life. China has almost always advised Nepal that it is not in a position to substitute India in the trilateral context and that Nepal should maintain good relations with India.

India and Nepal share a 1750 km open border, with citizens of the two countries enjoying ‘national treatment’ in each others’ territory under the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950. Nepal-India trade accounts for nearly 70 per cent of Nepal’s total external trade.

Around 40,000 Nepalis serve in the Gorkha regiment of the Indian army with a large number of them having shed their life and blood to save Indian territory in three wars — two with Pakistan and one with China — between 1962 and 1999. Chiefs of the Indian and Nepali armies hold the honorary general’s title of the other side, a practice that was initiated in 1965 as a proof of what the two sides keep referring to as unique or special relations.

Nepal has at times held joint military exercise with India and sometimes with the US on disaster management and counter terrorism. None, certainly not India, perhaps ever thought Nepal army would ever get that close to the Chinese.

What propelled China to make this apparent attempt to substitute India in Nepal now after all these years? Nepal underwent sea political changes in 2006 under direct mediation and role of India which also brought major world players including the United Nation, US, the European Union and the Scandinavian countries under its lead role with twin objectives: firstly to bring insurgent Maoists, that India had provided patronage as it did to the Sri Lankan Tamil guerrillas way back in the early eighties, to the political mainstream, and, secondly, to remove the nearly 240-year-old monarchy. India was highly irate with King Gyanendra, blaming him for the alleged initiative he took to bring in China as observer to SAARC during the Dhaka summit in November 2005.

India and its allies on Nepal have endorsed any decision taken by Nepal’s new radical actors, even if they failed to follow due process of democracy, without involving the people. Nepal’s transformation into a secular federal republic from a Hindu kingdom, and the misgoverned and mismanaged transition that continues, has come to discredit India and its allies as well as the Nepali actors working under their guidance. PL Singh, a former mayor of Kathmandu currently leads a movement to go back to the pre-2006 constitution with constitutional monarchy and multi-party parliament system as the best guarantee for political stability in the country. Singh also says like many others, that huge sums of money were spent by the external players to bring about these political changes and instability in Nepal that has seen their presence and role increased in the same proportion.

It was at this stage that China ceased to follow or continue pursuing it’s ‘smile diplomacy’ any more in Nepal. With monarchy, the most powerful umbrella that it had been dealing with gone, and with India and allies more involved in micro-managing Nepal’s affairs, China began to increase its visibility and presence substantially. However, it always asserts that it respects Nepal’s sovereignty and will not interfere in Nepal’s internal politics.

China jointly began building bridges with the Nepal army through its PLA. Beijing appreciated the role Nepal army quietly played in keeping vigil and stopping likely protestors crossing the borders when China was hosting the Olympic in 2008. Three years later, PLA Chief Chen Bingde visited Nepal establishing a milestone in the field of future bilateral cooperation directly between the two armies.

In the meantime, two Tibetans have self-immolated in Kathmandu’s Buddhist area. China blames US and the EU funded NGOS that abound in Nepal for instigating these acts ‘aimed at fomenting problems in Tibet.’

The joint military training has not come all of a sudden. There is a political as well as strategic message that China wants to give to India and the US especially, as it suspects that Nepal is being used by these countries as a ‘spring board’ with China as the ultimate target.

The Nepal army felt humiliated after the Maoists that it fought with were suddenly catapulted to dignified position of the state, vilifying the Nepal army mainly for human rights violations during the decade long conflict, by both the Maoists and it’s new found international supporters. An invitation by China for joint training came at the time of need as far as the Nepal army was concerned.

Naturally, it has triggered intense speculations on China’s motive and larger implications. In fact, the Chinese move may not have come at a worse time for India. India’s popularity is at its lowest ebb ever in Nepal. India’s brazen interference in Nepal’s internal politics, especially after 2005 to the extent of providing training to Maoist guerrillas whom Nepal and Indian government both called ‘terrorists’ earlier, coupled with its decision to go for border blockade for months when Nepal was reeling under impact of massive earthquake in April 2015.

India has however tried to underplay the joint exercise in public. Former Army Chief and Minister of State V P Singh told journalists in New Delhi soon after the Ministry of Defense announced the joint exercise that Nepal-India relations were too strong and too special to be diluted by one such event jointly with China. But India’s worries seem deliberately and to some extent tactically concealed.

Li Tao, Executive Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, identified Nepal’s political instability, India’s concern and US – European INGOS funding for religious conversion in the name of secularism as major concern for China. Her prescription that China should continue to be active in Nepal with full respect to its sovereignty conveyed a clear message that China’s presence will only increase in the days to come. To include Nepal into its One Belt One Road strategic initiative and having good relations with Nepal army, perhaps the only credible state institution at present when the country is deeply unstable, is perhaps the best bet for China. That is also an indicator that India and its external allies’ role since 2006 political change has proved counter- productive and calls for a review recognizing that Nepal’s politics is best left to the people of Nepal.