Nepal-China Relations: A South Asian Perspective

Professor Lok Raj Baral, PhD

Senior Political Analyst, Nepal

China defies many commonly held theories of nation state.  The concept and practice of nation-state is of recent origin, despite politics being integral to life of individual since time immemorial.  Aristotle even went to the extent of saying that "state is prior to individual" and is organic to life. From cradle to grave, the role of the state is evident and hence politics becomes ubiquitous.  Although 'force' and 'will' have together or alternately had been employed as the basis of the state, its better articulation came only after the signing of the Westphalia treaty of 1816. Later, four elements of the state --- sovereignty, territory, government and population have been accepted as the basics of state.

It has been said that the 'identity of the Chinese was formed before China assumed the status  of a nation state ,unlike in the West , where  the identity  of people, in both Europe and the United States, is largely expressed  in terms of  the nation state" . China's long tradition and other characteristics make what is called a "civilization –state". So the ethos of civilization-state, race, tributary state, and unity make China a uniquely situated country that cannot be compared with the West. Its homogenous population with 92 percent Han Chinese plus the old Confucian tradition of societal behaviours and their impacts on politics need to be taken into account.   

China had   the distinction of being one of the big powers of the world even prior to the emergence of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Its recognition as a permanent member in the United Nations Security Council, which was for some time represented by "Nationalist China" (today's Taiwan) on false grounds because of the non-recognition of the PRC by the Western powers, testifies to China's international status.  Today China has not only emerged as the second largest economy but also assumes the status of a world power. Its rapid economic growth along with its perennially held internal cohesion and political management is perceived by the other countries with inspiration, anxiety and fear.

For Nepal, China has had always been an interactive power directly or through Tibet, which is now the Autonomous Region of China. In recent times, Nepal-China relation has naturally undergone a transformation in several respects. Nepal's formal Treaty relations with India, another emerging power in Asia but still behind China, did not obstruct Nepal's initiative to establish diplomatic relationship with China.  . The five principles of peaceful co-existence ( panchshila) enunciated by Indian Prime Minister Nehru, Chinese Premier Chou En- lai and Indonesian President Sukarno in Bandung in 1955 were the guiding principles for establishing Nepal’s diplomatic relation with China. As these principles laid emphasis on mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, it became easy for Nepal to diversify its policy.   All the three countries ---China, India and Nepal---affirmed them in conducting their foreign policies, though the two Asian giants failed to adhere to these principles following the developments in Tibet in 1959 that strained relations with India.    

 Chinese scholars working inside the country echo some underlined "strategic culture" for conducting relations between China and other states. In the present context too, principles are always affirmed despite their actual application in realpolitik. A Chinese scholar has thus stated the characteristics of a new ‘strategic culture’ of China:    “ The strategic culture , in its new diplomacy and new security concept,  is embodied in four credos: pursuing partnership and not leadership; friendship , not confrontation; commitment to equal and mutual security and common prosperity; putting economics over politics ; and recognizing the diversity of the world, emphasizing co-existence in peace, and pursuing cooperation in a multilateral framework”.

Nepal's foreign policy since its policy of diversification, started in the late 1940s, was motivated by expanding and extending national, regional and international statuses at the same time. And such aspirations became a reality since the fall of the Rana regime in 1951. It went much beyond the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship concluded with India in the wake of the Chinese Communist victory in 1949. Since China, prior to 1949, had become a weak and distant neighbor, it was natural on the side of Nepali rulers ( Rana) to be alarmed at the new developments taking place in Nepal's neighbourhood. This psyche was overcome only after realizing the necessity of having good neighbourly relations with both of its neighbours. And hence the move for formalizing relations with China. It does not mean that our formal relation with China tried to undercut Nepal's traditional relations with other countries of South Asia and the world at large.  And in   1955, formal diplomatic relation with China was established  which in essence created a new understanding of the new geo-political dynamics. Subsequently, however, friction developed between China and India due to the flight of the Dalai Lama from Tibet, and subsequently, leading to the border conflict in 1962.

In the early 1960s, Nepal seemed to have reaped some benefits by the then developing Sino-Indian animosity and conflict, but it was soon restored to reality. Nepal and India, for example, didn't take any precipitous move for undoing the existing bilateral arrangements including the 1950 Treaty. Nor did China ever exert pressure to keep China-Nepal relations at par with India. It has been widely believed and substantiated that Chinese leaders were/are basically guided by pragmatism that is by and large manifested in China's foreign policy imperatives across the world. Knowing its own limitations and compulsions, China, as has been made out by certain members of the international community, cannot be an expansionist power. Its global aspirations and soft spots having conflict potentials might not prompt China to be aggressive unless its vital security interests are threatened.

Nevertheless, diplomatic maneuvers both in latent and patent forms might be augmented in order not to encourage other powers to be too much indulgent in a strategically situated country like Nepal.  India too is concerned about insulating its backyard, and from a realistic point of power politics; such maneuvers cannot be wished away. Yet, country, like Nepal, should try to safeguard its existence by not opting too much for foreign powers' patronage but by developing the country. At a time when both China and India are engaged in enhancing their international status by developing the living standards of peoples, Nepal, being in the middle, can take the advantage of both. First, it should create trust between it and its neighbours and try to work as a bridge between China and India. It means a kind of farewell to classical approaches i.e. playing off one against the other,  to foreign policy.

It should also be understood that China alone cannot create conducive environment without its own better understanding with India. Since both are competitive and cooperative powers at the same time, Nepal's neighbourly policy needs to be more realistic, cooperative and trustworthy. If some misunderstanding develops between Nepal and either of the two neighbours, it should be removed in a transparent manner and through diplomatic channel. In recent years, even India has tried to play down the negative propaganda raised by media against China. On border or on the issue of dam construction or on Chinese alleged penetration into the Indian Ocean areas , India's official reaction is mute. It is worth citing the opinion of an Indian columnist of Times of India who writes: "Indian and Chinese flags will meet in the Oceans, not always as friends. We should develop a language of engagement on the seas with the Chinese, instead of confronting unpleasant surprises that can be sliced and diced in different ways… But it's not a good idea to demonize China in the same way that we have demonize Pakistan…". India's "look East policy" or Chinese move to the Indian Ocean region may be interpreted from different angles. One of such interpretations might be taken as attempts made for strategic purposes. In fact, Chinese are concerned about the smooth maritime passage through the Indian Ocean region and through the Strait of Malacca as supplies of petroleum are possible only through these lanes. India as a power also wants to reach out to the far flung areas to which Chinese does not need to be sensitive to it unless it feels really threatened by such moves.

Nevertheless, pinpricks are caused by" differing perceptions" and by misinformation. India and China have entered into strategic economic dialogue and boundary talks. It has been stated that China-India trade has high potential of being increased (now more than 60 billion US dollars) in the future. Both the Chinese and India tourists are on the increase in all the three countries. Nepal has not yet started of planning its strategic and economic future, despite occasional speeches made by the government leaders including the Prime Minister  that Nepal would be the bridge between the two neighbours. Chinese efforts seem to be on that line as the Chinese official visiting Nepal also visit India or vice versa.

Nepal-China relation should basically be focused on Nepal' overall development. Development of hydropower and infrastructures such as road construction, agro-based industries, tourism can be singled out for bilateral cooperation. The construction of Kodari-Kathmandu road, Pokhara-Baglung road, Ring road in Kathmandu plus many other projects have made a substantial contribution to Nepal's economy.  In recent years, particularly after the 2006 mass movement, China seems to have set its policy agendas explicitly and has shown interest in water resources and in other forms of investments. Recently, the Chinese are trying to involve in West Seti for hydropower development hoping that it may cater the interests of both Nepal and India.  Yet, for any donor, governmental instability and unclear political direction seem to make them hesitant for taking risks. Multiplicity of power centres and hostile atmosphere that is often created by the parties' sister wings or by others has scared the investors. The major parties of Nepal should at least be in common for non-political agendas such as development, areas concerning basic needs of people, and for cooperative foreign policy.

China's entry into South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has given it a new regional identity and its observer status is expected to significantly ease the situation in the region. SAARC can also become a good mechanism for investment in the region if all agree to build trust. However, SAARC has not yet evolved as a viable regional forum owing to divergent perceptions and strategies adopted by the region's countries. So it is too incipient and incoherent organization to find common approaches to develop relations with China or any other observer. Hence for Nepal, whose own   relationship continues to be cordial, should try to make it beneficial for the development of the country, which in turn may also work as a bridge between China and India.

China is now intimately connected to the development of the region both by virtue of being the second largest economy of the world and by being the upper riparian country. Many rivers flow from Tibet to some countries of the region making South Asia-China relations interdependent. Thus, China is increasingly becoming a partner due to geographical proximity, a long history of cultural and trade relations with the South Asian region.

Given the disorderly political, economic and strategic scenarios across the world and negative impacts of world capitalism, countries, big and small, are increasingly becoming vulnerable to the likely upheavals. Recession in world economy, rise of deprived sections of people against the greedy tendencies of  a tiny capitalist, upper middle class or compatriot bourgeoisie accompanied by declining capacity of states and governments to correct such a  wide disparity gap have  overshadowed the regulative and distributive capacities of  states and governments . South Asia is not isolated from such trends. Nepal, situated between  the two emerging world economic and political powers , would naturally be affected by any negative developments  in China and India.

China considers itself a developing country but it has accelerated its pace of development with a mission of becoming an economically well off country.  Yet, there is no dearth of skeptics who think that how far China would be able to make its political system compatible with the changed economic development. As of now, China has been able to maintain its social and political cohesiveness despite some sporadic ethnic and political protests surfaced from time to time.

India- China competitive and cooperative relations will have some effects on Nepal's bilateral relations. It depends on how these powers try to maintain a balance between competition and cooperation. Wooing friends or consolidation of traditional relations with immediate neighbors has therefore become significant in recent years. But, since both the countries are under constraints for not becoming belligerent powers, their cooperative endeavour is likely to forbid them from taking any precipitous policies against each other. China has its own soft spots and perhaps it may not like to risk the advantages it is reaping by having cooperative relations with India or with other countries of the world. India's multiple internal problems and the emerging power configuration in the world would not allow it also to be unrealistic.

China has improved its bilateral relations with other countries of the region which may help develop more conducive environment for the better future of the region. It has also been felt that 'cooperative bilateralism' is a must in South Asia or in any other region of the world. Since China is trying to be actively involved in the countries of the region as an aspiring world power , it wants to be as much cooperative as possible. Similarly, India for example, is trying to improve relations with them. Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal are within the radars of both powers as both are now active in deepening their relations. From Nepali point of view, such relations must be productive, cooperative and sanguine. State-sponsored diplomacy and strategic considerations alone cannot foster relations. These aspects should be buttressed by understanding and trust for the development of the entire region.

Nepal-China relations can be made relevant to bilateral, regional and international contexts. Nepal should   prefer to adopt a low key neighborly policy tilting neither to the North nor to the South. It does not mean that we can create our universe independently of our neighbors. It only objective should be concentrated more on internal development by not playing the classical game of power politics vis –a- vis its neighbors.

It can be said that the changing facets of international politics may attract the potential big powers to be more active in Nepal. But it is up to the Nepali elites to be cognizant of the ground realties. In any case, Nepal can neither totally dismiss its traditional pattern of relations with its immediate neighbors nor can replay the old power game. In the context of Nepal-china relations, many things remain to be explored. First, Nepali should understand their neighbors thoroughly on the basis of deep studies of culture, tradition, society, economy, polity and elites' orientations of regional and international politics. Without knowing a country, how can policy be made? I realized it when I first visited Beijing in June 2010 and after I started reading some books on China. The very idea of 'civilization state' and 'one country, two systems' and impacts of  the past on the present is / was new to us unless we take interest in knowing  the country and its people. How such aspects are changing along with the wind of globalization can also become a good area of study. Our foreign policy makers and politicians too should read it. Moreover, knowing China through the Western standards or values will be equally fallacious. Each country has its own specificity and it is up to the people and leaders of China to adapt changes underway in the world. As it has been said, " the legitimacy of the state, profound and deeply rooted, does not depend on an electoral mandate; indeed, even if universal suffrage was to be introduced , the taproots of the state's legitimacy would still lie in the country's millennial foundations".

Compared to India, China has limited interactions with Nepal, although the level of such interactions is now on the increase. The flow of Chinese tourists into Nepal and the flurry of official visits have intensified bilateral contacts. Even in the case of India, our understanding is not so deep and wide-ranging. We know India as commoners but not as experts or analysts of all aspects of relations. Nevertheless, Nepalis and Indians can communicate and also share common cultural heritage with some distinctiveness of their own. Advantage of language can also be seen at the elite level with English becoming a language for exposures to the English speaking world. 

South Asian region is increasingly becoming significant for regional and global powers due to a number of reasons. First, the global powers, especially the United Sates, continue to be present in the Indian Ocean region for a long time. Diego Garcia airbase and its other bases in the Middle East and in East Asia are not new. Any super power tries to show its global presence in order to deter possible penetration, if not aggression, in the areas vital to its status of a world power. Its resources and military capacity allows it to be active and vigilant. Countries in dire need of external help also invite external powers. Countries are united even to thwart the Somali pirates who are increasingly posing threats to the free movement of ships off the Horn of Africa. Cooperation of all the countries to stem such regular threats has become an imperative.

Chinese political and ideological orientations may not necessarily converge on the political set ups uniformly adopted in most of the South Asian countries. Political pluralism is the dominant ideology of South Asia. As of now, China has been able to balance the controlled politics and liberal economy with the state looming large in managing it.

In conclusion, it can be said that South Asia is increasingly becoming a turbulent region. It is also strategically important for big players of international politics. So the cooperative relationship of China and India matters much for establishing peace and order in the region. Since Nepal's geo-political situation has added its significance, Nepal-China relation is likely to encounter some difficulties in the initial period of transition, but in course of time, political elites of both the countries may better understand the limitations and opportunities. It can also be assumed that Nepali interest --- independence, national sovereignty and territorial integrity ---may be better preserved by pursuing a kind of quiet but realistic policy towards the two immediate neighbors. It  means much attention to be paid to peace and development rather than on a mission of status seeking as had been done  during the royal regime( 1960-90)  First of all, the Nepalis in general and leaders in particular should understand the emerging trends that are taking place in the region and in its neighborhood.

(Paper Presented at a seminar organized by China Study Center in Kathmandu, November 13, 2011)

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