The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of the Chinese President Xi Jinping in Nepal, is unfolding its hidden colours and contours. BRI, in South Asia — commonly understood as an infra-structure initiative — is much more than that, and includes a long term strategic plan to integrate the targeted countries economically, culturally and — if possible — even ideologically.
The ideological front of BRI was opened on 23 and 24 September, with a two-day symposium organised in Kathmandu by the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and the Communist party of China (CPC). A huge delegation came from Beijing under the leadership of the Chief of International Liaison Department of the CPC, Tong So, for an interaction with the NCP on “President Xi Jinping’s thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. The top brass of the NCP, and a large number of its cadre, participated.
Inaugurating the symposium, Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli said that Xi’s thoughts were inspiring, and that there is a lot for “Nepal to learn” from Chinese developmental experience.
China Will Do Everything to Consolidate ‘Communist Unity’ in Nepal
The establishment of this ideological nexus between the two ruling parties must be seen as an upgradation of China’s political, economic and cultural penetration in Nepal under the BRI umbrella. It is commonly believed in Nepali political and intellectual circles, that China played a key role in the merger of the Maoists and the United Marxist Leninist (UML) communists into a Single Communist Party in 2018.
Having invested heavy efforts and resources, China will do everything possible to consolidate this Communist unity in Nepal, and cash it to advance its stakes and strategic presence there.
Economically — a much less-noticed but a powerful vehicle in the long run — most of the BRI project agreements have come with the commitments on Nepal’s part to encourage and protect Chinese investments, and coordinate their economic planning and policies. President Xi had proposed the setting up of a ‘Special Economic Zone’ across the Sino-Indian border to promote economic integration between the two countries.
How China is ‘Helping’ Nepal Reduce Dependence on India
By the offer of alternate transit routes for Nepal’s trade, and through BRI projects of rail, road connectivity, China promises to ‘help’ Nepal reduce its ‘dependence’ on India.
Nepal’s opposition parties and the strategic community has criticised the event because Nepal’s Constitution, that enshrines a Republican Order and an inclusive democracy, is not compatible with Xi’s ideology and the Chinese system. It would be a mistake to term this symposium simply as a PR event to prepare the ground for President Xi’s visit to Nepal expected next month. The symposium’s major take away was a six-point Memorandum of Understanding signed between the NCP and the CPC that promised to “organise high level political exchanges, enhancing study visits at the level of party cadres and local leaders and cooperation on party to party experiences”.
Mandarin Taught at Nepal’s Schools; Increasing Number of Chinese Tourists in Nepal
At the cultural front, China is seen as ‘winning the war’ on Buddhism in Nepal. It started with the offer of USD 3 billion assistance in 2011, to develop Nepal’s Lumbini – the birth place of Buddha – as the hub of Buddhist pilgrimage in the whole of South Asia. Buddhist monks are trained to spread anti-Dalai Lama views. Learning Mandarin is now being introduced in Nepal at the school-level which will, in the long run, encourage and stimulate young Nepalese minds towards Chinese values.
A number of Confucius Institutions and China Studies centres have been opened throughout Nepal to teach Chinese history, and propagate its culture and traditional ethos.
Hope these institutions do not remind the Nepalese that their country was a tributary state of the middle kingdom for some time. The number of Chinese tourists visiting Nepal has significantly increased, reaching the level of 150,000 in 2018. Influential persons of the Sherpa community living in Nepal’s areas bordering China, are given special ID cards to help them cross over into Tibet, and buy Chinese goods on favourable terms.
India does not seem to have any effective ideas to meet this massive Chinese cultural, ideological and political challenge.
It is still licking its wounds caused by the most grotesque political intervention in Constitutional affairs in 2015 which was followed by the highly immature and thoughtless use of the coercive economic diplomacy of ‘regulating the flow’ of essential commodities to Nepal.
India Must Do More than Beat ‘Drums of Hinduism’ in Nepal
India is working hard to deliver on its old promises and pampering the hurt egos of the Nepali ruling class to win back confidence. But this is only a poor match to the lure of Chinese BRI. India has deep cultural and civilizational roots in Nepal which do not seem to be geared to deterring the Chinese cultural push, at least in the short run. The unregulated sections of the ruling party in India are in vain beating the drums of Hinduism in Nepal.
The Modi magic, that positively stirred Nepal in 2014, has been eaten up by blunders since 2015.
That magic seems to have faded out under the glow of Xi’s political thoughts, that are coming wrapped in BRI Yuans. There is a degree of complacency at the strategic level in India that in the long run, the Chinese cultural push will not last —Chinese language is difficult to inculcate, and Chinese values and lifestyles are alien to the Nepalese. And even if this view stands validated, enough damage might be done by then to India’s vital interests in Nepal.
(SD Muni is professor emeritus, JNU, and former special envoy and ambassador in the Government of India. He tweets @SDMUNI. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)