With an Eye to India and Tibet, China Courts Nepal

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Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

Nepal's Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal, right, shakes hands with China's General Chen Bingde during a meeting in Kathmandu on March 24, 2011

It is not every day that the military chief of the world's emerging superpower stops by a tiny Himalayan nation. So when General Chen Bingde, Chief of General Staff of China's People's Liberation Army, touched down in Kathmandu on March 23, all of Nepal was watching. Chen didn't disappoint: he signed a military-aid deal worth $20 million and promised that there was more to come. He also took the chance to comment on Chinese-Nepali relations, saying that ties between the two countries are important to "world peace and the Asia-Pacific region."

Referencing the Asia-Pacific region on a three-day visit to South Asia might seem odd — but it wasn't accidental. Chen's comments reflect China's not-so-subtle effort to solidify its territorial claims and enhance its regional influence. Though Nepal is tiny, with a population (about 28 million) that barely exceeds those of the Middle Kingdom's largest cities, China sees it as an ally on sensitive, geostrategic issues like India and Tibet. Nepal's government, meanwhile, seems eager to embrace its new patron. Twenty million is a trifle to China but means a lot to Nepal's war-weary army. By the time Chen left, the country's Maoist-backed leader, Jhalanath Khanal, vowed once again that there would be no "anti-Chinese activities" on Nepal's soil.

China's interest in Nepal is primarily geostrategic. "While Beijing has cemented its ties with Pakistan, it is now gaining footholds in India's neighborhood, Burma, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh," said Dhruba Kumar, a political-science professor with Kathmandu's Center of Nepal and Asian Studies. "Their foray into Nepal shows that it has become a launchpad for their broader strategic alliance." That, of course, makes India wary. Nepal depends heavily on Indian imports, with annual trade between the two countries totaling $2 billion. India also funds hundreds of small-scale aid programs across Nepal, spending about $400,000 on things like school and library construction. Not to be outdone, China in April 2009 increased its annual aid to Nepal by 50% to $22 million, with most of the funds going to infrastructure projects.

The question of Tibet also looms large over this new military partnership. Chen's visit came fast on the heels of the country's suppression of Tibetan protests in Kathmandu. On March 10, the country's police attacked protesters who had gathered to mark the 52nd anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising in China. Ten days later, Tibetans living in Nepal were barred from voting for their government-in-exile while India and other countries allowed them to vote. A Nepalese daily — quoting unnamed sources in the army — said the Chinese delegation sought that the army be deployed on the northern border to stem the tide of Tibetan refugees who cross the mountainous border en route to Dharamsala in India, often risking deportation.

These moves are seen in Nepal as evidence of Beijing's growing sway among Kathmandu's ruling elite. Indeed, the current Maoist–United Marxist-Leninist coalition government, which replaced the former pro-Indian government, is widely seen as pro-China. Kumar says the Chinese want to forge an alliance with Nepal's army because "it is the only reliable and strong institution, untarnished and untainted, and in which external penetration is still low." Professor S.D. Muni, a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore, attributes China's upper hand in Nepal to its pragmatism. "Beijing does not have any serious emotional or cultural bonds with Nepal like India does. It can therefore relate itself with any political force in control of Nepal, be it Maoists or the army," he says. The mighty Himalayas may have once been a natural border between the Middle Kingdom and Nepal. As China looks west, that's no longer true.