It is highly significant that at a time when India has just begun its re-engagement with Nepal following the map row, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe landed in Kathmandu on Sunday for a one-day ‘working visit’. It is the highest level visit from Nepal’s northern neighbour since President Xi Jinping visited Kathmandu in October 2019. Upon arrival, Mr Wei said, “My visit is aimed at enhancing mutual military assistance and strengthening the existing ties between the two countries,” adding, “Ties between China and Nepal are strong and I am here to take this relationship to a new height.”
Chinese Minister Wei’s Nepal Visit Is ‘Result-Oriented’: What’s The Goal?
Of late, there have been a number of bilateral visits between the two neighbours. The last Chinese defence minister came to Nepal in 2017 following which the Nepali defence minister and Nepal Army (NA) chief have made two separate visits to China in order to bolster military cooperation. An agreement for a 150 million RMB military assistance was signed during Deputy Prime Minister Ishwar Pokhrel’s visit to China in 2019. Pokhrel was defence minister then, a portfolio now headed by PM KP Sharma Oli himself.
Mr Wei’s visit has been highlighted as a ‘result-oriented visit’, as the objective seems to be on implementing bilateral agreements of the past.
In this regard, greater emphasis has been laid on resumption of joint-military exercise (last held in 2017), expedition to Everest, officers’ training, exchange of high level visits – all stalled due to the COVID-19 crisis. He thus spent much of the day in the Nepali Army (NA) headquarters, and engaged in dialogue with NA Chief Gen Purna Chandra Thapa. Clearly, the visit was aimed at further strengthening the Nepali Army’s relationship with China.
Mr Wei also met with President Bidya Devi Bhandari and PM Oli. Since he said that the visit is aimed at implementing bilateral agreements, it was directly addressed at the non-implementation of the BRI projects with Nepal.
There are almost nine projects identified in the BRI between India and Nepal, which have seen no discernible movements.
The ongoing works at Lumbini and Pokhara airports, and the mega hydro project Trisuli 3 being built under Chinese aid are not part of the initial BRI. There has also been no arrangement in place yet regarding five ports that China agreed to give Nepal access to.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of Tatapani border with China for several months, and has only re-opened a few days ago. But China has sent a very high-ranking officer, considered to be in the inner circle of President Xi, to Nepal this time to restore ties, especially with the Nepali Army, which it now views as a credible partner in Nepal.
Why Does China Want To ‘Save’ Nepal Communist Party From Infighting & A Break-Up?
The visit has a direct bearing on Nepal’s domestic politics.
The ruling NCP (Nepal Communist Party) has witnessed a serious drift and infighting in its top leadership. While party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ has being seeking Oli’s resignation from at least one post as the party chair or PM; Oli, on the other hand, is adamant not to give up on either.
There have been blame-games between the two communist leaders, which many in Kathmandu view as a step towards the ultimate split in the party. In the Central Secretariat meeting held on Saturday, Oli rejected Prachanda’s accusations that he was running the government without consulting the party, and instead blamed the rival group of non-cooperation in settling party affairs.
Oli submitted a separate 38-page political document in response to the allegations made by Prachanda in his 19-page political paper presented at the Secretariat meeting on 18 November.
Clearly, China does not wish to see a break-up of the Nepal Communist Party. Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, was seen just a few days back in rushed parleys with senior communist leaders in Nepal in a bid to save party unity.
China’s Attempts To Save KP Oli Govt & Offset US ‘s Indo-Pacific Initiatives
Given the deepening rift between Oli and Prachanda, China had intervened earlier this year as well to save the Oli government. It enhanced fraternal party-to-party relationship too with NCP, hosting an online event where Xi’s ideology was discussed. But party unity many now be hard to come by.
China has started its re-engagement with the Nepali Army (NA) as it sees the latter as a credible partner and a stabilising force in Nepal. Amidst speculations of the split in the communist party, the Chinese defence minister’s interaction with the NA is significant.
China also views the US’s Indo-Pacific bent in South Asia as a threat to its BRI efforts. Particularly in Nepal, China has covertly opposed the parliamentary ratification of the US’s MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) grant to Nepal, which is viewed as a direct challenge to the BRI.
India’s Attempts To Boost Ties With Nepal
India, too, is weary of the political parties in Nepal. In case of a split in the Nepal Communist Party, the country is bound to witness deep political instability. India too – in a bid to further its old ties with the Nepal Army – is trying to deepen its ties with the latter.
Indian Army Chief MM Naravane’s visit to Nepal earlier in November, was aimed at re-setting ties which was affected when Nepal issued a new map showing territories claimed by India since long.
General Naravane was also in the media spotlight for having said that the border issue was ‘blown up’ at the behest of a third country, implying China. RAW Chief Samant Kumar Goel’s flashy visit to Kathmandu in October 2020 was considered significant, as he met PM Oli and said that India was ‘willing to resolve all issues through dialogue’. India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla just concluded his Nepal visit on Friday, signalling the resumption of dialogue, and stressing upon the close ties between India and Nepal.
China’s deepening ties with Nepal is a matter of concern for India, as we view Nepal as a traditional sphere of influence. That notion has once again been challenged by Mr Wei’s visit.
(The author is a Nepali journalist, researcher based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)