Wednesday, February 09, 2005

ASSESSMENT: NEPAL - Engaging the king

+ Like it or not, Nepal is India’s baby, so to say, to handle, and it would be foolish to work towards a multinational front. No self-confident or aspiring power shirks from its own responsibilities. +

Engaging the king - India cannot shirk from its responsibilities in Nepal

9 February 2005: Three chunks of intelligence, but what do you make of them? One is that China forced King Gyanendra’s coup Chinese hand behind Gyanendra’s coup 4 February 2005, the second concerns two Chinese helipads in Aksai Chin and a PLA-Air Force airstrip in Xining, all targeting Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir China building helipads in Aksai Chin 7 February 2005. The third intelligence directly relates to India-Nepal ties, which is that Nepal has hinted at invoking the 1950 peace and friendship treaty, to demand that Indian troops battle the Maoist insurgents, and India is fighting shy of committing.

But first, the Chinese angle, in itself, and in relation to Nepal. Early this week, a Japanese defence diplomat – they indeed have such charmed creatures – visited India on a part private, part official visit, which included meetings with old foreign-office friends. For the record, the official is accredited to the Japanese self-defence agency, the equivalent of our MoD. Japan is expanding military-to-military cooperation in the Asia Pacific and Indian-Ocean regions, leading to the first-time overseas deployment of Japanese troops in Iraq after World War II, and Japanese defence-diplomats are making all the presentation and underwriting documents for such cooperation, which includes joint exercises, joint naval patrolling, and so on.

A Chinese submarine intruded into Japanese territorial waters recently. Since Taiwan has advanced monitoring systems, they informed the US under an old defence agreement, and the US in turn alerted Japan. To prevent recurring intrusions, Japan broke away from its traditional silence on issues concerning China, and deliberately created quite a shindig on the errant submarine. The Japanese logic is, the Chinese will intrude again, no question of that, to test Japanese seaboard defences, but with care, and ensure they are not detected this time. From the Japanese perspective, this meets their requirements half way. The Chinese won’t have a free run of Japanese territorial waters any longer.

The diplomat recounted this story to contrast with the fear or apprehension she encountered among foreign-office officials dealing with China. One and all refused to discuss relations with China, although this was all very friendly, and this did not come out of a reluctance to tell, which is understandable, but from fear of upsetting the Chinese some way, anyway. “You are holding two intruding Chinese vessels in the Andamans,” the diplomat pointed out, “and yet, you are not willing to confront China. We had an intruding Chinese sub which got away, but yet we made quite a noise to scare China. If you don’t make a noise, China won’t care.”

Put that against suggestions from a section of strategic analysts who want a common US, UK, China front against coup artiste Gyanendra, and you know immediately it is worse than rubbish. As we have earlier pointed out, the US and UK have their own priorities and interests, which may or may not match India’s, plus, when it comes to one’s own frontyard, one has to safeguard one’s own interest as best as possible. As for roping in China in an anti-Gyanendra alliance, well, good luck.

For years, China has been trying to divide India and Nepal, and this exercise commenced significantly in the early-Eighties, when China expressed major interest in developing Nepal’s infrastructure, and Nepal-China economic relations have grown since. King Gyanendra was always known for his pro-China leanings, even when his brother, Birendra, ruled the Himalayan kingdom, and his ne’er-do-well son, Paras, has inherited his father’s taste for things Chinese. King Gyanendra forced the Nepal cabinet to shut down the Tibetan cultural centre affiliated to Dalai Lama’s politics after Paras’s Christmas weekend visit to Hong Kong, and the coup happened after his second January trip. The Chinese refused to condemn the coup, and it is unlikely they will provide their good offices to advance India’s case in Nepal. These things happen in fairy tales.

What China is instead doing is rolling its military infrastructure into disputed territory in Ladakh, Aksai Chin, where two mammoth helipads will accommodate more than three-hundred helicopters to mount air surveillance on Ladakh and J and K. What such surveillance will achieve is unknown, although it will certainly expose Indian defences, while there is a possibility of sharing the surveillance data with Pakistan, to get analyses and new angles. The second side to this development is that it makes a fait accompli of Aksai Chin as Chinese, because no great power builds military infrastructure on a territory it intends to vacate. In short, even as border talks with China sputter off and on, China’s declared intention is not to vacate grabbed territories. So much for preaching love to the Chinese.

Finally, the third intelligence, about Nepal hinting at invoking the peace and friendship treaty to get Indian troops to fight the Maoists. Under the open clauses read together with secret annexures to the treaty, we are honour-bound to come to Nepal’s defence, regardless of the dictatorial nature of the ruling regime. In the 1971 war, the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) fought the surprised and overwhelmed Pakistanis – even in terrible circumstances, the Gurkhas are great fighters, and these were mint-fresh troops – and again in the Kargil War, the Gurkhas were glorious. When Kargil bodybags reached Kathmandu to public protests, then King Birendra had to reiterate his compulsions under the treaty.

When the Indian ambassador, Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, met the RNA chief, General Pyar Jung Thapa, in his Kathmandu headquarters this week, Thapa hinted at invoking the treaty to seek Indian troops. Officials say New Delhi was immediately divided on the request, with foreign minister Natwar Singh insisting on no assistance, and prime minister Manmohan Singh urging a gentle, more measured response, in view of the RNA’s extraordinary past contribution. The Indian position, as it was eventually communicated, was that while India could not deny troops, if asked, this should still be the last option, and in any case, Nepal ought not to go public on this, and force India’s hand.

But the honourable position is this. If King Gyanendra’s battle with the Maoists – it has gotten to air strikes now – gets worse, or out of control, and he sues for help, then India cannot back out. No honourable neighbour would. Like it or not, Nepal is India’s baby, so to say, to handle, and it would be foolish to work towards a multinational front. No self-confident or aspiring power shirks from its own responsibilities. And, second, it is time the cabinet committee on security sits down and knocks up all the worst-case scenarios on Nepal, including five-lakh expected Nepalese refugees, Maoist infiltration and possible regrouping with the Naxalites in Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh, and the ultimate nightmare of the Indian Army taking on the Maoists. It is not the battle as the consequences of it. If the NSA, M.K.Narayanan, understands any of this, now is his opportunity to prove his worth. So far, the government is hopelessly confused. And let us stop dreaming of warm Chinese summers.