Nepal and China

The New York Times

February 18, 2010

China Intensifies Tug of War With India on Nepal

KATMANDU, Nepal — For years, Nepal never bothered too much with policing its northern border with China. The Himalayas seemed a formidable-enough barrier, and Nepal’s political and economic attention was oriented south toward India. If Nepal was a mouse trapped between elephants, as the local saying went, the elephant that mattered most was India.

But last week a Nepalese government delegation visited Beijing on a trip that underscored, once again, how China’s newfound weight in the world is altering old geopolitical equations.

As Nepal’s home minister, Bhim Rawal, met with China’s top security officials, Chinese state media reported that the two countries had agreed to cooperate on border security, while Nepal restated its commitment to preventing any “anti-China” events on its side of the border.

Details of the meetings were not yet known, but the two countries were expected to finalize a program under which China would provide money, training and logistical support to help Nepal expand police checkpoints in isolated regions of its northern border.

The reason for the deal is simple: Tibet.

At a time when President Obama’s decision to meet with the Dalai Lama has infuriated China, Mr. Rawal’s meetings in Beijing could have greater practical effect on the lives of Tibetans. Prodded by China, Nepal is now moving to close the Himalayan passages through which Tibetans have long made secret trips in and out of China, often on pilgrimages to visit the Dalai Lama in his exile in India.

If it once regarded Nepal with intermittent interest, China is now exerting itself more broadly toward its small Himalayan neighbor, analysts say — partly because of its concern that Nepal could become a locus of Tibetan agitation, partly as another South Asian stage in its growing soft-power fencing match in the region with India.

“Nepal has become a very interesting space where the big players are playing at two levels,” said Ashok Gurung, director of the India China Institute at The New School. “One is their relationship with Nepal. And the second is the relationship between India and China.”

In the broadest sense, India and China share similar goals in Nepal. Each wants Nepal’s political situation to stabilize and is watching closely as the country’s Maoists negotiate with other political parties over a new constitution that would fundamentally reshape the government. Each is also worried about security, as India is concerned about political agitation on the Nepalese side of their shared border, as well as the possibility that terrorists trained in Pakistan could transit through Nepal.

But India is also paying close attention to what many India experts consider newfound Chinese activism in South Asia, whether by building ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, or signing new agreements with even the tiniest South Asian nations like the Maldives. An expanding Chinese presence in Nepal would be especially alarming to India, given that India and Nepal share a long and deliberately porous border.

“India has always been concerned about what access China might have in Nepal,” said Sridhar Khatri, executive director of the South Asia Center for Policy Studies in Katmandu. “India has always considered South Asia to be its backyard, like a Monroe Doctrine.”

From China’s perspective, Nepal’s geopolitical significance rose after Tibetan protests erupted in March 2008, five months before Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. Those protests began inside China, in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and other Tibetan regions, but also spread across the border to Katmandu, where an estimated 12,000 Tibetans live.

Even as Chinese officials were able to block international media coverage of the crackdown under way in Tibet, the protests in Nepal attracted global attention as photographs circulated of the Nepalese police subduing Tibetan protesters. In a few cases, media outlets mistakenly identified the photographs as coming from inside Tibet.

“There was a shift after March,” Mr. Gurung said. “The Chinese realized that Nepal is going to be an important site where they could potentially be embarrassed on Tibetan issues.”

V. R. Raghavan, a retired general in the Indian Army, said that China for years had tacitly allowed Tibetans to cross into Nepal, many of whom were making pilgrimages or attending universities in India. But the March protests made China realize that it had a “southern window” that needed to be closed, he said.

“Every movement of important personages and priests and others from Tibet has taken place through Nepal,” said General Raghavan, now director of the Delhi Policy Group, a research institute.

Chinese officials tightened security on their side of the border in the name of preventing pro-Tibet agitators from slipping into, or out of, the country. They also pushed Nepal to become more vigilant.

Last fall, Mr. Rawal announced that Nepal, for the first time, would station armed police officers in isolated regions like Mustang and Manang on the border with Tibet.

Meanwhile, Tibetan advocates say the tightening border security has already sharply slowed movement. Until 2008, roughly 2,500 to 3,000 Tibetans annually slipped across the border, according to the office of the Dalai Lama. By last year, the number dropped to about 600, a change that Tibetan advocates attribute to closer ties between China and Nepal.

“As they get closer,” said Tenzin Taklha, secretary for the Dalai Lama, “it is becoming more difficult for Tibetans.”

In fact, many Nepalese believe that moving closer to China is in the best interests of the country.

For more than a half century, India has been deeply influential in Nepalese affairs and remains Nepal’s biggest trading partner and economic benefactor, even as some Nepalese resent India’s powerful presence in their country. Nepal’s currency is pegged to the Indian rupee, and citizens of the two countries are allowed to pass freely across the border. More than one million Nepalese work in India, sending back remittances.

But trade with China has quadrupled since 2003, according to government statistics, and Nepalese business leaders want to increase economic ties.

In recent years, Chinese airlines have opened routes into Nepal as the number of Chinese tourists has risen steadily, while Nepalese officials also want China to extend rail service through the Himalayas to the border as a means to increase trade. Nepalese government officials already have asked that China extend rail service into the Himalayas to the Nepal border. If that happens, Nepal would become a link on the same high-altitude line that connects Tibet to Beijing.

Kush Kumar Joshi, president of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said his group was trying to establish special economic zones to lure Chinese manufacturers to Nepal — and for Indian companies, too.

“We need to have both countries as our development partners,” he said.

Mr. Khatri, the analyst in Katmandu, said that India would remain Nepal’s most important neighbor, but that China’s growing presence in the world would inevitably make it a bigger player in South Asia and Nepal, too. To assume otherwise, he said, “would be to neglect the reality.”