The grammar of chaos and anarchy that dominates the multi-party democratic system in Nepal is seemingly getting the better of Beijing’s carefully constructed plans.
For a country that claims “it never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries” — a claim that sounds increasingly incredulous — China’s meddling in Nepal during the Himalayan state’s latest political crisis has been blatant and unapologetic.
With its rise in power, Beijing has appeared increasingly disinterested in sticking to one of the key tenets of its foreign policy that professes “abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country”, as spelt out by former premier Zhou Enlai at the 1955 Bandung conference.
To a certain extent, it is inevitable for an emerging superpower to throw its weight around and intervene in the domestic politics and policies of other nations to protect its burgeoning interests. China, the presumptive superpower, is no exception. Even so, its recent machinations in Nepal carry an air of desperation as it seeks to navigate the complex dynamics of Nepal’s domestic politics, betraying a sense of urgency and frustration as its carefully laid schemes are at danger of coming unstuck.
The grammar of chaos and anarchy that dominates the multi-party democratic system in Nepal is seemingly getting the better of Beijing’s carefully constructed plans. China had engineered a merger of rival communist outfits — Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led CPN (Maoist Centre) and the KP Sharma Oli-led CPN-UML — in 2018 to put in place a China-friendly government in Kathmandu to safeguard its interests and investments. For a while, it worked swimmingly.
The ruling Nepal Communist Party led by Prime Minister Oli opened the door to Chinese investments worth billions of dollars and Belt and Road connectivity projects. In 2019, Nepal signed a transit protocol with China that allowed it access to seven Chinese sea and land ports for third-country trade, reducing dramatically its dependence on Indian ports.
China kicked off 35 projects under the BRI framework in Nepal that includes infrastructure development, energy, construction of integrated check posts, free trade area and irrigation. Chinese money flew in for a series of hydropower projects along with an investment of $130 million in a cement plant in Nepal that is expected to produce 3,000 tonnes of cement each day, notes professor Hari Bansh Jha in VIF.
Besides, the groundwork for the mega trans-Himalayan Kyirong-Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini railway project covering 287 km is already underway that alone may set Nepal back by $8 billion — one-third of the nation’s GDP. Nepal is hungry for FDI but the cost for many of these projects are prohibitive, and therefore the risk of Nepal falling into China’s debt-trap like so many other Asian nations, is high. In the last fiscal, over 90 percent of Nepal’s FDI came from a single source — China. Beijing pledged nearly $500 million in financial aid to Nepal in October 2019 when Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a visit.
This pouring of massive resources bought Beijing unprecedented clout in Kathmandu. Subsequently, Nepalese prime minister Oli’s pro-China tilt and policies came along with antagonistic positions against India.
In June this year, Nepal’s Parliament passed an amendment to the Nepalese constitution, laying claim over the disputed territories of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura — that are under India’s control for the last 60 years — as part of its new map. Nepal’s unilateral cartographic aggression was accompanied by frequent provocative statements from Oli who increasingly relied on anti-India nationalism to mitigate factionalism within his party and political challenges from rival Dahal (Prachanda), the NCP co-chair and a former prime minister. So dramatic has been Oli’s tilt towards Beijing that while he conjured up fantastic charges against India, he dismissed off-hand allegations made by Nepal’s Opposition leader that China was encroaching on Nepali land in Humla district and building infrastructure to solidify its claim.
Things were going well for China, but the factionalism within NCP became deeper due to Oli’s refusal to honour the power-sharing pact with Prachanda. Poor administrative response to the pandemic, Nepal’s economic downturn, rising unemployment and Oli’s sharp turn towards authoritarianism upstaged the balance of power. The power tussle between Oli and Prachanda resulted in a situation where the Oli faction became a minority in the ruling NCP and the prime minister faced increasing pressure to step down.
Sensing that his position was becoming untenable, beleaguered Oli in a stunning move that has since been called a Constitutional coup, dissolved the lower house of Parliament on 20 December, two years short of its five-year tenure.
The proximate cause of the move seemed to be Oli’s attempts to appoint former home secretary Prem Kumar Rai as the chief of Nepal’s top anti-corruption watchdog. Oli’s rivals suspect that the prime minister was planning to target Prachanda and his associates.
In the end, Oli had lost the majority in key sections of the ruling party: central secretariat, standing committee and the central committee. Oli had calculated that if he is forced to relinquish the chair, he won’t let Prachanda sit on it either. Facing resignation and a no-confidence motion from 90 lawmakers, Oli dissolved the Parliament and got President Bidhya Debi Bhandari to announce polls in April-May 2021.
In a subsequent address to the nation, Oli defended dissolution of the Parliament. He blamed his rivals for not allowing the government to function and said that instead of “unfair practices behind closed doors and reach a compromise” he felt that a “fresh mandate is the best democratic alternative.”
Nepal was thrown into political turmoil that may last months. This week, each of the rival political stakeholders — the Prachanda-Madhav Kumar Nepal-led faction of the NCP, Opposition party Nepali Congress led by Sher Bahadur Deuba and even the Janata Samajwadi Party took out separate protests. According to a BBC report quoting the police, at least 10,000 people were on the streets to participate in one of the marches, one of the most intense protests the country has seen since Oli dissolved parliament.
While protests were happening on the streets, the Supreme Court was busy hearing a bunch of petitions filed against Oli’s move to dissolve the Parliament. The court’s ruling may further add to Nepal’s instability. As Sudha Ramachandran writes in The Diplomat, should the Supreme Court “declare the dissolution of parliament as constitutionally valid, then Oli will continue at the helm of the interim government until general elections. Protests may then gather further momentum. The possibility of Oli deploying force to quell the unrest cannot be ruled out. He is also likely to get ordinances passed to strengthen, perhaps even prolong, his grip over power. All this means a period of prolonged uncertainty for Nepal.”
This is bad news for China that has repeatedly stepped in whenever the ruling NCP has been threatened by internal strife. Hou Yanqi, China’s activist envoy in Kathmandu has spent the better part of her tenure ensuring that the fragile peace holds up between the warring factions of ruling NCP. Just in May, she held a series of meetings with the NCP leaders without informing foreign ministry officials in contravention of diplomatic code. No institutional records were kept of those meetings that were explained as “both sides exchanging views on fighting COVID-19 pandemic” by Chinese embassy officials.
During a recent visit to Kathmandu to “bolster military cooperation between Nepal and China”, Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe — hastily sent by Beijing following a series of high-level visits by India — declared that China “firmly supports Nepal to safeguard its national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
China presumably has little confidence in its own words. Notwithstanding Wei’s solemn proclamations, it has taken upon itself the responsibility of “safeguarding Nepal’s sovereignty”. Since the dissolution of the Parliament by Oli, China pressed Hou into service again who met with the President and the bickering factions without much success.
Beijing’s next move was to rush a four-member delegation led by Guo Yezhou, vice-minister of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The CPC’s foreign affairs department runs as a parallel power centre, sharing much of the work that China’s foreign ministry does, only at a more granular level and outside the ambit of formal international relations.
A unique tool of the ruling CPC, the International Liaison Department has been described by India’s former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale as “virtually a parallel foreign office, which not only systematically cultivates foreign personalities and their families in traditional ways but also plants its people as diplomats inside Chinese embassies so they can influence politics and policies in democracies under legal cover. Originally designed to work with fellow communist parties, it’s become a much broader group targeting any organization it thinks might prove a useful tool.”
The sending of Gou — who was apparently instrumental in forming the alliance between Oli and Prachanda’s Communist outfits in 2018 and knows all the Nepalese leaders well — is an indication that China is feeling threatened by the turn of events and wants to control the outcome.
Beijing’s preferred outcome would be to prevent a vertical split in the ruling NCP and resolve the issue so that the clock can be turned back. China is keen to preserve and consolidate the gains that it enjoyed under the NCP government in Kathmandu and perceives that in the case of elections, the Oli or the Prachanda factions will not be able to return to power on their own in the 275-seat House without taking help from Deuba’s NC, that is perceived to be in India’s corner. China is therefore anxious to prevent a split.
Reports indicate that the Chinese are offering large amounts of money to the bickering sides to ensure a patch up and during the spate of meetings with Nepalese leaders of every stripe, the Chinese delegation has made it clear that Beijing is “not happy with Oli’s move to dissolve the Parliament leading to split in the largest party (that) might serve the interest of the southern neighbour (India),” reports Times of India. Beijing has also warned that this turmoil would “negatively impact the China-funded projects and investments in Nepal”.
The result of frantic meetings with the warring NCP leaders is unclear. Some reports suggest a twin solution of either reinstating of the House and reunification of the factions or contesting mid-term elections through an alliance. Media in Nepal reports of a “unity formula” to keep the party intact.
The bottom line is that China wants the Communist factions to stay united but even after moving mountains, engaging with Nepalese leaders over four days, threatening sticks, dangling carrots and moving mountains, China’s preferred outcome seems out of reach. It seems the high-level Chinese delegation that returned on Wednesday, failed to ensure a patch up and subsequently China might be looking at recalibrating its Nepal policy.
China’s frustration with the turn of events is evident. Its foreign ministry spokesperson forgot its commitment of not interfering in internal affairs of other nations and advised Nepal to “properly manage internal differences” by “looking at the big picture”, which presumably translates to ‘preserving Chinese interests’.
China’s state-run media is piqued that Chinese interference in Nepal’s domestic politics is a talking point in India. Global Times, for instance, tied itself up in knots while defending Chinese moves in Nepal. In an article, it claimed CPC “always upholds principles of non-interference”, then claimed China’s role in solving Nepal’s “intra-party conflicts” is “entirely reasonable and legitimate”, then ended up declaring that it is none of India’s business.
India has so far watched the developments carefully from the sidelines, calling the dissolution of Parliament “internal matters for Nepal to decide as per its democratic processes.” This is one of the rare instances where ‘strategic inactivity’ might be the best option to pursue. Instead of wading into the mess, it would be better for India — the favourite whipping boy of Nepalese politics — to let the crisis play out.
This is not to say that China, for all its apparent discomfort at this stage, is out of the game in Nepal. It is far too invested and possesses enough influence to still force a favourable outcome. What is of note, however, is that frequent and intense political interference in domestic politics of sovereign states may not always be a useful strategy. This holds true for India as well.
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