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Is a ‘Great Game’ over Nepal, a la Curzon, on the cards?

MR_JOSSEBy MR Josse
KATHMANDU: At the conclusion of my column last week on the ‘Prexit’ maneuver, I had briefly referred to the ‘Great Game’, arguing that Prachanda (Maoist chief) and Deuba (NC captain) had willy-nilly been co-opted into the ‘Great Game’, a phrase coined by British Viceroy Lord Curzon to describe the inexorable 19th century struggle for influence in/control of Afghanistan between Czarist Russia and Imperial Britain, the latter being represented by the British Raj in India.
FORWARD POLICY
Before venturing further into this disquisition, let me recall that aside from Afghanistan, Curzon believed that the Russians’ “passion for a pan-Asiatic dominion” subsequently pivoted to Tibet. Though British policy succeeded in keeping the Russians out of Tibet, “Curzon failed…in his objective of bringing Tibet under some measure of protection from India, and so the reassertion of Chinese authority there was inevitable once a strong central Government was established in Peking.” (Vide: Neville Maxwell’s ‘India’s China War’).
In more contemporary times, as China reasserted her authority in Tibet, following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, India and China gradually drifted into conflict, mainly over divergent claims on territory based on borders drawn by Imperial Britain before the sun finally set on the British Raj in August 1947.
As Bruce Riedel recalls (Vide: ‘JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War’), “India’s major dispute with China was over territory in the Askai Chin portion of Kashmir that India claimed and China controlled…It was there that (India’s) Forward Policy was most vigorously prosecuted and confrontations with the Chinese were the most volatile.”
Against this backdrop, let me now refer to China’s expression of concern over the recent clashes in Jammu and Kashmir – a relatively rare event in the annals of Sino-Indian relations. It came in the wake of the killing of rebel commander Burhan Wani and two of his associates by Indian security forces and widespread, prolonged disturbances that it ignited in that disputed, inflamed territory.
(The state of Jammu and Kashmir, as existed on August 14, 1947, is a disputed territory, registered as such by the United Nations Security Council. While it is more than evident that a new generation has now emerged championing the free Kashmir cause, it may be useful to recall that it was as far back as July 13, 1931 when Kashmiris first rose in rebellion against the oppressive rule of the Dogra king.)
An official Chinese statement, Beijing’s Global Times informed, detailed: “China has taken note of relevant reports. We are equally concerned about the casualties in the clash and hope that the relevant incident will be handled properly…The Kashmir issue is left over from history. China holds a consistent stance and hopes relevant parties will address the issue peacefully through dialogue.”
This public piece of advice to New Delhi from Beijing must obviously have been galling. Coming after a series of policy decisions by Beijing not favorable to New Delhi’s interests – including China’s objection to India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – it is hence not difficult to interpret the abrupt expulsion from India of three Xinhua correspondents (Hindustan Times, July 24) as a form of retaliation.
Notably, there are other more potent signals suggesting that Sino-Indian relations are fast souring. For instance, McDaniel Wicker, Asian Security Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC., writes, inter alia, “India and China are on a collision course.”
Referring to the NSG issue as merely “the latest sign of tension to emerge between the two Asian giants”, Wicker predicts, “further competition and even confrontation await”, arguing that China’s intent is “to remain the sole Asian power stretching from Siberia to the Arabian Sea”, while asserting that “Beijing routinely blocks Delhi’s efforts to play a larger role on the international stage.”
Wicker goes on to say that “while conflict is unlikely to break out, China has been updating and reinforcing its forces stationed in Tibet and this disagreement serves as a foundation for other worries…Of particular concern to China are India’s burgeoning friendship and even partnerships with Western powers and their Asian friends…These efforts, combined with India’s engagement with ASEAN nations and Australia, further exacerbate Beijing’s feeling of encirclement and could further ramp up Sino-Indian tensions…China’s navy boasts increasingly capable systems and ambitious missions, including near India’s Nicobar and Andaman islands and further in the Indian Ocean.”
WHERE NEPAL FIGURES
So, you might well ask, how and where does Nepal figure on the Sino-Indian chessboard? As I attempted to explain last week in this very space, the latest twists and turns in Nepal’s Byzantine politics – specifically, the sudden attempt by the Maoists/NC combine to topple a coalition widely perceived as China-friendly – are timed not only when India seems, once again, to be on a Forward Policy trajectory – this time, vis-à-vis China/Tibet – but precisely when the movers and shakers of Hindustan are transparently determined to climb aboard a global, Western-driven, anti-China bandwagon, convinced of garnering commensurate geopolitical rewards for doing so.
In any case, the country now stands virtually polarised between two opposing political groupings and interests: one, an openly pro-Indian Maoist-Congress-Madeshi conglomeration and the other a ‘nationalist’ mass that well understands the strategic value for Nepal to maintain close ties with China for existential purposes, among others.
In the quagmire of Nepali politics new, extraneous and even dangerous geopolitical factors and considerations have been injected. Already, Nepal suffers from an overdose of extra-regional interest, overt as well as covert. It will be extremely edifying to monitor how things develop henceforth, including on the Sino-Indian relations, and the wider anti-China movement, fronts.
One can only hope that Nepal will not plunge into the terrible abyss of civil strife – inviting perhaps even foreign military intervention – as Sino-Indian competition in/over a deeply polarised nation escalates into a modern version of Curzon’s ‘Great Game’, the focal point being Nepal, not Afghanistan!

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