Friday, February 04, 2005

ASSESSMENT: Out comes the China card

+ Though defeated, India persisted in its support for the Dalai Lama. China, on the other hand, pursued a policy of actively courting its smaller neighbors in South Asia and supporting countries openly opposed to India, like Pakistan - where Beijing went on to supply Islamabad with nuclear and missile technology. In other neighboring countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Asian giants became engaged in a fierce competition for influence and strategic leverage with varying degrees of success at different points of time. +

05/02/2005

Out comes the China card
By Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI - Prithvi Narayan Shah, the 18th century founder of modern Nepal, famously described his fortified kingdom in the Himalayas as a yam between the two boulders of India and China.

That perception never escaped his descendants, and certainly not the astute and ambitious King Gyanendra, who looks for support for his "royal coup" from Beijing, while snubbing New Delhi and pro-democracy powers like Britain and the United States.

Uncharacteristically, for a country that shares an open border with India, as well as deep cultural, economic and military ties, all communications with its big neighbor were cut immediately after the February 1 coup in which King Gyanendra sacked the government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba for the second time in just over two years and took full control of state power.

The king accused Deuba's government of failing to conduct parliamentary elections and being unable to end a Maoist insurgency that has killed over 10,500 Nepalis.

"There is no way we can engage the government of Nepal even in making a proper assessment of what is happening," India's Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said at a press briefing Wednesday.

It couldn't have helped that India retaliated by announcing that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would not attend a regional summit in Dhaka slated for February 6-7 soon after the king indicated that he would participate.

In sharp contrast to India's reaction at the dismissal of Deuba's multi-party government and suspension of democracy, China prefers to see the coup as an internal affair. "As far as we are concerned it is Nepal's internal affair," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said in Beijing soon after King Gyanendra assumed direct control of the country.

But leading South Asia expert Professor S D Muni says there is more to Beijing's approval of the king's actions. He sees the sudden closure of the Dalai Lama's office in Kathmandu and de- recognition of the Tibetan refugees center last week as a sure sign of a deal with China.

"Such actions were obviously made to please Beijing, which has viewed the multiparty government as pro-India and also pro-West,"' Muni told IPS in an interview.

Beijing has certainly been purring with pleasure at getting Nepal to do what it could not for the past 45 years - cessation of support for refugees fleeing Tibet to settle in Nepali territory or India, where the Dalai Lama runs his government-in-exile in Dharamsala.

Hours before the coup, spokesman Kong Quan was quoted describing the closure of the Dalai Lama's office and the refugee center as a "just decision made by the Nepalese government in accordance with its sovereignty and maintaining its sovereignty".

The flight of the Dalai Lama from Tibet in 1959 to seek asylum in India has been the root of unremitting hostility and suspicion between Asia's two largest countries and led to the 1962 Indo-China war.

Though defeated, India persisted in its support for the Dalai Lama. China, on the other hand, pursued a policy of actively courting its smaller neighbors in South Asia and supporting countries openly opposed to India, like Pakistan - where Beijing went on to supply Islamabad with nuclear and missile technology.

In other neighboring countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Asian giants became engaged in a fierce competition for influence and strategic leverage with varying degrees of success at different points of time.

Although King Gyanendra has drawn international condemnation, he can take comfort in the example of the repressive military regime in Myanmar that has successfully defied calls for the restoration of democracy and wards off sanctions by getting both India and China to play ball.

This won't be the first time that Nepal has used the China card against India, though on earlier occasions that game failed miserably because of cultural and geographical factors.

Indeed, the current crisis in Nepal is a throwback to 1960 when King Gyanendra's father, King Mahendra dismissed a democratically elected government and suspended parliament, the constitution and party politics.

India reacted by using the same words it is using now, "a setback to democracy", although New Delhi was more worked up over Mahendra insisting that a road be built from Kathmandu to China over the Kodari pass in the Himalayas - which fell outside the purview of the 1950 Indo- Nepal Treaty. If that road was built, it meant a possibility that Chinese troops could have traveled overland through Kathmandu to arrive at the common India-Nepal border.

China's easy annexation of Tibet, however, drove Nepal to sign the Arms Assistance Agreement in 1965 that established India as the main supplier of arms to Nepal and also recognized military links between the two countries.

By 1989, the situation had eased enough for Nepal to assert itself and order big-ticket items from China, such as anti-aircraft guns and medium-range missiles, straining ties with India.

India, angry that Nepal was veering again militarily toward China, in contravention of the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty, imposed a crippling blockade on the land-locked country.

The next major crisis came in December 2000 when Islamist militants hijacked an Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan with support, according to New Delhi, from Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence, which seemed to have a free hand in Nepal.

India then suspended flights to Kathmandu, crippling tourist traffic, the mainstay of Nepal's economy, and refused to reopen the route until permission was granted for Indian officials to separately frisk tourists boarding its planes on the tarmac.

With the changed situation after the February 1 coup, India's influence over Nepal has taken a beating. In opposing the Gyanendra regime India can, at least for now, count on backing from the international community, if reliance is placed on the condemnatory statements issued by the European Union, the US and the United Nations.

Ranged against that is the all-weather Lhasa-Kathmandu highway and numerous Chinese- supported infrastructure projects, such as roads, bridges, factories, hospitals, stadiums, conference centers and the spanking new Nepal Television building, which was inaugurated just a day before the coup.

"The new building of Nepal Television indicates that a new milestone of friendly relations between the governments and peoples of our two countries is being laid," said Deuba, a pro- monarchy politician, while inaugurating the building in one of his last actions as prime minister.