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Reading the Chinese tea leaves

The Chinese finally have put their imprimatur on Nepal’s new republican order. Or so the conventional wisdom in Nepal seems to be following President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s trip up north.
Over the past decade and a half, while the rest of the world has been discoursing with a mixture of disquiet and delight on how China had outmaneuvered India in post-monarchy Nepal, Beijing has been searching for the kind of trusted partner it had in the palace.
You can’t say Beijing didn’t bend over backwards to conciliate the political parties it had shunned for so long. At the height of royal regime’s crisis in 2006, the top Chinese official in charge of foreign policy arrived not to bolster the palace but mend fences with the agitating political parties.
When the monarchy collapsed, Beijing changed its ambassador so precipitously as to ensure that it became the first foreign government whose envoy presented his credentials to the officiating president. China’s top Nepal hand then donned the uniform of the Nepali Maoist army while attending its function on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
New Nepal’s harsh crackdown on Tibetan refugees in Nepal on the eve of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 drew much international condemnation, but Beijing apparently was not terribly impressed by Kathmandu’s ardor. The election of Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ as premier was hailed a victory for China, but Beijing still had not received the requisite assurances of Nepal’s good faith. When Dahal fell from power, the Chinese yawned loud and wide.
To be sure, the Chinese over this period made substantial political and economic commitments that served to salve Nepal’s collective ego so anxious to break out of India’s asphyxiating embrace. In concrete terms, though little had really changed, a reality that struck hard amid India’s unofficial blockade in 2015.
Theoretically, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli shifted Nepal’s geopolitical locus with the bevy of agreements he signed in Beijing in 2016. As those papers gathered dust amid subdued mutual recriminations, Doklam and Wuhan underscored for Nepal the wild oscillations in Sino-Indian dynamics. Nepali politicians were growing comfortable in their collective equi-non-comittalism before Washington sensed its own opportunities here.
Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave the impression that he was treating President Bhandari as an executive head of state. President Bhandari, too, responded well to critics of the Belt and Road Initiative by asserting that Nepal looked beyond the putative ‘debt trap’ to the grants that might be forthcoming. The president’s use of Nepali amid pauses and numerous rephrasing gave Nepal enough breathing room vis-à-vis other powerful external stakeholders. A pared down list of Nepali projects proposed under the BRI is still a list that can be worked on. How much progress the two countries can make remains in the realm of speculation. But at least we can begin speculating.
The future, without doubt, will be full of imponderables. The results of the Indian elections, the inexorable struggle over the succession of the Tibetan spiritual leadership, the US drawdown in Afghanistan, Russia’s slow but perceptible return to wider South Asian region will be debated ad nauseum for their implications on Nepal-China ties.
The past, however, must not be forgotten. The cordiality Nepal’s first elected prime minister B.P. Koirala got in Beijing in March 1960 was hardly the harbinger of the fate that awaited him and Nepal’s political destiny nine months later. When one leading Kazakh academic described Chinese foreign policy as being akin to a plum – “soft at first, and harder later” – she certainly wasn’t speaking only for herself.

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