Current General Studies Magazine: "Next Door Nepal" November + December 2016

Current General Studies Magazine (November + December 2016)

General Studies - II "International Relations Based Article" (Next Door Nepal)

China’s pledge for a grant of one billion RMB for post-earthquake reconstruction and border road construction last month came as a new year gift to Nepal. It was a message that China’s involvement in Nepal will grow. The deal signed in Beijing between Nepal’s ambassador to China and China’s vice minister for commerce coincided with a significant announcement by the spokesperson of the Chinese defence ministry. He said that Nepal and China will conduct a “joint military training” soon, something that may not be taken very kindly in India.

Many think the joint exercise — that will focus on counter-terrorism and disaster management — will mark the beginning of a long-term formal cooperation between the two neighbours. The two armies have quietly undertaken confidence building measures, especially after 2008, when China solicited the help of Nepal’s army to keep a vigil on the Nepal-China border. It feared that pro-Tibet human rights groups might disturb the Beijing Olympics.

Nepal was going through sweeping radical political changes then. With the monarchy, its constitutional and traditional patron, gone, the army faced multiple crises. India, the bulk supplier of arms and ammunition to the Nepal army, was yet to resume supplies it had stopped in February 2005 after King Gyanendra took over. The United Mission to Nepal and several international agencies monitoring the peace process treated Nepal’s army on par with the Maoists —two sides of the decade-long conflict. They began lobbying for its downsizing and “democratisation”. When the Maoists joined Nepal’s politics, the army was not in the new dispensation’s trust zone. So, the much-vilified Nepalese army saw China’s request for help in 2008 as recognition and readily accepted it.

In March 2011, when India and the western diplomatic community were more interested in influencing Nepal’s peace, constitution-making and political processes, China sent the chief of its Peoples Liberation Army, Chen Bingde, to explore army-to-army relations with Nepal. China was worried about prolonged political instability in Nepal. The rapidly eroding authority of the Nepali state and the visible nexus between India and the western countries in dictating Nepal’s political agenda was detrimental to Chinese interest. The joint military event announced recently is another attempt to strengthen trust between the two countries.

India’s minister of state for external affairs, V.K. Singh, a former chief of army staff, has tried to play down the event. “Since the military relations between Nepal and India are unique, a military exercise with China would not create problems in the military relations between the two countries,” he said.

Relations between the two armies have remained unique from 1947 — their heads have been conferred the status of honorary general in the other country since 1965. India’s then-army chief, Dalbir Singh Suhag, is believed to have played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in February last year in persuading his government to end the five-month-long economic blockade of Nepal. Nepali authorities believe the Indian army was not comfortable with the Ministry of External Affairs’ radical shift in Nepal policy during the UPA rule. This shift entailed isolating the monarchy, improving relations with the Maoists and stopping the supply of arms and ammunition to the Nepal army in 2005 There are speculations that Suhag, who retired recently, could be India’s envoy to Nepal.

Will that help in mending bilateral relations? The latest report of the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation infers that China’s influence has increased in the SAARC region, notably Nepal. But only India can assess the damage to its credibility in Nepal as a result of its support to radical forces in the country, including the Maoists —incidentally, India considers the Maoists in its own territory its biggest security threat. China, in contrast, has said it respects Nepal’s sovereignty and it “will not interfere in Nepal’s internal affairs”. But Chinese President Xi Jinping’s much-awaited visit to Nepal in October did not take place; some believe the new government led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal gave priority to the visit of the Indian president in early November.

However, China has invested heavily in Nepal, so the country’s engagement at the higher political and institutional levels in Nepal is inevitable. As Nepal continues to be in disarray and with its one-year-old constitution proving hard to implement, the army has regained credibility. So, maintaining cordial relations with the army seems an essential part of diplomacy for Nepal’s two neighbours.

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