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China's geopolitical maneuvering in the Himalayas
David G. Wiencek, Jamestown Foundation, China Brief
7/5/2005

A new geopolitical dimension appears to be developing with regard to the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. At a time when the country is experiencing a severe crisis and many Western nations are distancing themselves from Kathmandu over human rights concerns, China seems to be maneuvering to increase its influence. Recent efforts to extend support to King Gyanendra demonstrate that Beijing views the current crisis as an opportunity to help keep a bordering state stable while at the same time advance other interests, including winning Nepalese backing on an issue of core importance – Taiwan.

In broad terms, this is the same strategy that the Chinese are skillfully pursuing today in Africa and Latin America: building relations with regimes that are out of favor with the West. In those regions, China's objectives are largely economic and resource driven. In Nepal's case, there is no real economic dimension given the country's desperate poverty and lack of resources. Instead, the motive is mainly geopolitical. China's growing influence in Nepal could come at the expense of India and key Western players, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. These powers curtailed contact with Nepal following the King's move to dismiss the government on February 1, 2005, leaving Nepal internationally exposed. Although Nepal has historically sought balanced relations with its two giant neighbors, China and India, in the current climate China has quietly stepped in, not commenting publicly on the country's internal political affairs. It is a posture that is sure to pay both short- and long-term dividends.

Background to the Current Crisis

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its recent history has been marred by a ruthless Maoist insurgency engaged in a People's War aimed at overthrowing the constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy and raising the red flag of a communist People's Republic. This insurgency and associated terrorist campaign has presented serious and persistent challenges to Nepal's emerging democracy. Faced with this threat, continued political infighting and corruption, and what he perceived to be a deep governing crisis, King Gyanendra dismissed the government and declared a state of emergency on February 1. The King assumed full executive powers, suspended civil liberties, and had opposition leaders placed under house arrest. [1]

International reaction to the royal coup was swift and largely negative. Western European states suspended development aid. India and the UK halted military assistance. For its part, Washington placed its aid programs under review, while voicing support for a quick restoration of democracy. [2]

The King stated that his decision of February 1 was an emergency measure intended to advance real multi-party democracy over the long-term. Toward this end, municipal elections are to be held by April 2006, but so far it is uncertain when parliamentary elections will again take place. On April 29, 2005, the King officially lifted the state of emergency, easing some limits on political gatherings but maintaining other law and order restrictions, and the full ramifications of this move are not yet clear.

Chinese Foreign Minister Visits Nepal

Beijing has reacted differently than others and adopted a lower-key approach. China's ambassador to Kathmandu stated that the latest events are Nepal's "internal affair." [3] In a further show of support for King Gyanendra, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing traveled to Kathmandu on March 31 2005, becoming the most senior foreign leader to visit Nepal since February 1. Reflective of the cordial ties between the two countries, China also invited the King to participate in the Boao regional economic forum on Hainan Island on April 22-24.

Advancing Chinese Interests

One core near-term interest that has been served by China's recent approach toward Nepal, has been winning Kathmandu's "unequivocal" support for China's new anti-secessionist law. [4] This legislation, adopted by the National People's Congress in March 2005, authorizes the use of force against Taiwan if it moves further toward full independence. Many in the international community, specifically the United States, have viewed this law as counterproductive and a cause for increasing tensions across the Taiwan Strait. Earlier this year, Nepal closed the Dali Lama's office in Kathmandu, another move very much welcomed in Beijing as helping stifle Tibetan independence forces.

Looking longer-term, growing Chinese influence could counter what until recently were Nepal's much-improved relations with Washington. Following 9/11, the U.S. expanded contact with Nepal and provided increased funding for development and counter-insurgency efforts. With the February 1 turn of events, U.S. assistance programs have been placed under review. Chinese strategists may view the current state of play as an opportunity to help curb American "encirclement"—at least at one point on China's periphery. Over time, China could also move to provide direct support to Nepal's counter-insurgency efforts, perhaps taking up the slack in small arms and other equipment left by the void of Western suppliers and India, although India has reportedly signaled its intent to resume assistance in the near future. China will tread carefully in this regard so as not to upset its recent efforts to reach out to India, and especially promote greater economic and business ties with New Delhi, as part of its comprehensive economic modernization effort. Finally, although the Maoist insurgency is explicitly based on the Chinese model of Mao Zedong, Beijing denies any links and has gone out of its way to distance itself from Nepal's Maoists for the sake of promoting stability in a neighboring state and advancing its broader interests.

Looking Forward: Strategic Reevaluation Needed

Nepal is a small but important state in South Asia, yet it faces a highly uncertain future. In light of recent developments, Nepal has the potential to become a pawn in a struggle between regional powers. In addition, although it poses a threat to no one today, this could change in the future were Nepal to become a failed state or future haven for international terrorists, should the insurgency gather momentum. An urgent requirement therefore exists to see that the Maoists are contained and ultimately defeated, so as to allow the country a chance to resume its much-needed national development within the framework of a multi-party democracy. This is an area where the outside powers—India, the U.S., UK, and others—share a commonality of interests and should be working together to support the Nepalese people.

It has to be acknowledged that Western reaction to the developments of February 1 may in fact be short-sighted. Isolating this hard-pressed nation or pushing it into the arms of the Chinese is – and would be – a tragic mistake. American and Western policymakers should undertake a strategic reevaluation with respect to Nepal at this time. It should be clear that we would be better served by a policy of engagement. Washington and others also need to make absolutely certain that the counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaign remain on path. Using our own version of quiet diplomacy and sensitivity to Nepal's current political circumstances, we can help encourage a restoration of democracy at the earliest possible time.

David G. Wiencek is President of International Security Group, Inc., and co-editor of Asian Security Handbook: Terrorism and the New Security Environment (M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2005)

Notes:
1. For further background, see International Crisis Group, Nepal's Royal Coup: Making a Bad Situation Worse, Asia Report No. 91—9 February 2005, and Bruce Vaughn, "Nepal: Background and U.S. Relations," Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress, Updated March 1, 2005.
2. See for example Donald Camp, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, "United States Interests and Goals in Nepal," Statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, March 2, 2005, at www.state.gov.
3. Interview with Ambassador Sun Heping, Nepali Times, 18-24 March 2005 issue, in "Interview: One country, two viewpoints" at www.nepalitimes.com/issue239/interview.htm
4. "Nepali gov't supports China's Anti-Secessionist Law," People's Daily Online, March 16, 2005 at http://english.people.com.cn/200503/16/eng20050316_177120.html

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