Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a three-day visit to Kathmandu last weekend posturing a shift in its diplomacy and strategic preferences.
Under the garb of safeguarding Sino-Nepal relations for a shared long-term future, Wang strongly opposed any attempt to undermine Nepal’s sovereignty and independence, interfere in its internal affairs and engage in geopolitical games in Nepal.
These have raised eyebrows in Nepal as, according to some analysts, this narrative is reflective of China’s messaging to the effect that Nepal was part of its ‘protectorate’ and was dependent on China in as far as protecting its sovereignty is concerned.
The visit highlighted three clear areas where the Chinese desire their involvement — party to party relations to be built in Nepal; assistance in maintaining domestic and foreign affairs independence; and, furthering Nepal’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
While China has been adopting aggressive and explicit postures against most nations for its own interests, it may be said that China now sees an opportunity to influence Nepal’s political system by using the country’s vast communist network.
Prominent analysts claim that there is a visible shift in Chinese diplomacy. China has become more aggressive and vocal about its position in international relations and particularly on issues related to India and the US. In addition to this, an emerging trend has also been China’s greater involvement in domestic politics, while earlier, it mostly remained compact with economic ties. The overarching interest, in current times, to be involved in South Asian matters is noteworthy.
In a recent interview with China’s state-media, Wang admitted that his visit to South Asia came at a time of the spreading spillover effect of the Ukraine crisis and threats to world peace. He confirmed that China’s neighbourhood holds a top position in Beijing’s overall diplomacy, saying it was “better to be a close neighbour than a distant relative” to South Asian countries.
China’s strong disapproval to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which is an independent US government agency aiming to reduce global poverty through economic growth, is evident both before and after its parliamentary endorsement in Nepal.
China has publicly blamed the US for engaging in ‘coercive diplomacy’ in Nepal, claiming that the $500 million grant came with ‘political strings attached’. Nepal had signed up with the both MCC and BRI in 2017. Nepal, however, is yet to select specific projects under the latter. It is said that there are increasing concerns in China about India and the US fretting with Chinese investments in Nepal. It is rumoured that in private meetings with Nepali politicians and bureaucrats, the example of Sri Lanka is often quoted by them, cautioning Nepal on ‘debt trap’.
China sees this as part of a wider pattern in South Asia, all aimed at encircling it. In a recent article in Global Times, Li Tao of the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, argues that the US is trying to use the MCC compact to make Nepal an important part of Washington and New Delhi’s anti-China coalition. She also adds that Nepal’s decision to endorse MCC will have political, diplomatic, and economic consequences. On February 23, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying termed the MCC compact ‘Pandora’s Box’, while on March 7, a China Daily editorial warned of serious consequences should “any part of the compact be used against neighbouring China”.
Meanwhile, the Nepali media, interestingly, indicated there was a deliberate delay on the Chinese side in broadcasting Wang’s visit. Without timely reporting, Chinese netizens who are dependent on the official press and social media for news had been largely unaware about Wang’s ‘Journey To the West’ until he was already in Nepal on March 25.
Similar low-key reporting was observed when Global Times and other state-owned media took more than a day to react to the ratification of the MCC grant by Nepal’s Parliament on February 27. Whether this was intentional or not, it successfully suppressed the hashtag ‘Nepal approved US aid deal’, which reached the top 11 on Sina Weibo as soon as the state media reported about it.
On Wang’s visit, while Nepal’s own mainstream press focused on the nine agreements inked between China and Nepal along with photo-ops with the Nepalese leadership, Chinese media and cybersphere were fixated on Nepal’s reiteration of the One China Policy and commitment towards ‘never allowing any forces to use the Nepali territory to engage in any anti-China activities’.
The signing of the MCC has no doubt caused serious concerns within the CCP as it was a given that China had enough capabilities to manoeuvre the course of Nepal’s relations with India and the US, and would be able to shelve the MCC. The signing of he agreement is a clear indication that the Chinese are yet to understand the dynamics of Nepali politics.