The recent political crisis and split in the ruling Communist Party threaten Beijing’s strategy in the Himalayan state
Basking in the glory of a massive electoral victory in Nepal, the merger of the two Communist parties (Unified Marxist–Leninist and Maoist Centre) in 2018 appeared then as a triumphant era for the Communist movement in the Himalayan state and also the success of China’s strategy to bring the two factions together and form a strong, unified party that shared Beijing’s supposed ideology, and most important, was friendly to Beijing.
This development also saw an increase of Chinese activities in Nepal, including party-to-party cooperation such as training for Nepali politicians as well as law-enforcement agencies.
In 2019, before the Chinese president’s state visit to Kathmandu, the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held a two-day symposium on Xi Jinping Thought for Nepali Communist leaders and cadres.
Regardless of its substance, that symbolized the export of Xi’s ideology to Nepal under the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and projection of his image as an international communist leader in the image of Lenin and Mao.
It is in this context that one attempts to understand and analyze the recent spate of anxious visits by Chinese statesmen to Nepal after a power struggle within the NCP ended up in the dissolution of Parliament and the split of the party.
After Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi’s multiple attempts to hold the NCP together failed, Beijing sent a high-level delegation led by Guo Yezhou, the vice-minister of the International Department of the CPC to bring the two rival factions together. But that mission too was unsuccessful.
However, Beijing has been persistent in pressuring the Nepalese Communists to mend their differences through official channels and visits as well as unofficial signals like imposing an undeclared blockade at the main border points Rasuwagadhi and Tatopani to restrict flows of essential goods into Nepal – allegedly on the pretext of bringing the Covid-19 pandemic under control.
Hit hard by the blockade of cross-border trade, recently Nepali businessmen protested against China’s unilateral action and demanded that it respect the international trade and transit agreements signed between the two countries. Nevertheless, China continues to maintain the trade embargo – seemingly as a tactic to pressure its Communist counterparts in Kathmandu to heed Beijing’s words.
China’s strategy has been to keep the Nepal Communist Party intact in order for the latter to remain in power, as the rift within the NCP could derail Beijing’s strategic and geopolitical calculations in the country vis-à-vis India. Hence there are several reasons for China’s increasing interests and activities in Nepal’s domestic politics – sometimes contradicting its own stated principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of another country.
Politically, as Nepal is an enthusiastic participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has many big investment projects in the country, some of them in strategic sectors such as highways, railways, airports and hydropower, as well as telecommunications and finance, while others are in strategic locations in the Tibet-Nepal and India-Nepal borderlands.
The Chinese are concerned that division within the pro-China NCP and the possibility of the party losing power in the coming election(s) could have undesirable effects on Chinese-run projects in the country. With increasing international skepticism toward the BRI, any setbacks to the project are very bad news for Beijing.
Another factor is that in recent years, China’s attempts to repress and intimidate Tibetan refugees living in Nepal have intensified, from putting pressure on Kathmandu to signing international agreements like the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty. Under the MLAT, signatories are expected to serve subpoenas and also collect evidence – which can easily be misused by China to target Tibetan refugees in Nepal.
In exchange for Chinese investments, Nepalese politicians are no longer hesitant to use Tibetan refugees as sacrificial lambs to prove their friendship with China, as it is cheap but very effective grease for Chinese palms.
In fact, some Nepali observers fear that the MLAT could be the precursor to a future extradition treaty with China, something Beijing wants done early, as indicated by Xi during his Nepal visit.
If signed, such a treaty would enable China to get targeted Tibetan political leaders and/or activists living in or visiting Nepal arrested and handed over to Chinese authorities. However, the split within the NCP could delay that indefinitely, and China may not be able to enforce its will on Nepal as it did to Hong Kong.
Strategically, Nepal is a natural part of the Indian subcontinent, and not just in the geographical sense of the term, but more through shared cultures including religion, customs and cuisines, cemented by intimate people-to-people relations, something conspicuously missing in the Sino-Nepali relationship.
However, banking on its deep pockets, China’s long-term strategy has been to undermine India’s influence in the former Hindu kingdom and bring it under its Sinocentric strategic umbrella – where Kathmandu’s infrastructure standards and development strategies are more oriented toward Chinese interests.
During the NCP’s rule, Chinese investments in Nepal’s strategic sectors have been on a steady ascension – and Kathmandu’s opting for Chinese gauge standards over India’s for its nationwide railway network is a case in point.
It is important to note that, to a certain extent, China’s strategic inroads into Nepal were smoothed by India’s unofficial blockade of Nepal in 2015. Nevertheless, the internal feud within the Nepalese Communist forces and ensuing political instabilities in the country may not be in China’s strategic interests – and Beijing is concerned whether Kathmandu’s strategic orientation will continue to bend in its favor.
In Nepal, the Communists had been united enough to win the election but they are too disparate to share the spoils of the victory.
To some extent, Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s bid to take a leaf from Xi Jinping’s rulebook, such as his attempt to consolidate power by undermining the base of his opponents such as party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, as well as his authoritarian tendencies to restrict civil liberties including the freedom of speech and media freedom, is to blame.
Moreover, what Oli failed to recognize is that Nepal’s political system is completely different from China’s and he cannot force his will on the nation or even within the Nepal Communist Party. It is fundamental for Oli to understand that his party came to power through the ballot and can only remain in power through the same means, whereas Xi’s party rose to power “through the barrel of a gun” and remains so with the same force.
That and other failures by Oli have proved to be fatal for the Communist government in Nepal. He is stubborn enough to upset both Dahal and former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal but not strong enough to alienate them within the party.
A united front led by those two veteran leaders poses a formidable challenge for Oli’s political ambition to be the future Xi Jinping of Nepal. The partition of the party is just the beginning of many things that could complicate Nepal’s political well-being as well as its constitutional continuity.
All in all, it appears that the Chinese Communists thought they had completed their mission in Nepal when they put the two rival parties in the same bed without realizing that they harbored different dreams.
But the Chinese are not having it; they appear to be unyielding to the intricate complexities of Kathmandu politics still haunted by the decades of political instabilities and complicated by the geopolitical reality of being landlocked and sandwiched between the two Asian giants vying for strategic heights and political space.
What happens in Kathmandu has a lot to do with what comes from Beijing and New Delhi and it is, therefore, imperative for the Nepalese leaders to learn the art of balancing to maximize their leverage and never putting both hands in just one glove.
Palden Sonam is a visiting fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute based in Dharamsala, India. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflects those of the Tibet Policy Institute. This article was originally published in Asia Times on 04 February 2021.