By Claude Arpi
Beijing is strengthening its grip over Kathmandu as in the long run it wants to control Nepal for political and strategic reasons.
The situation in Nepal is rapidly spinning out of control, though the recent resignation of Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal had some unexpected effects. Even if Maoist deputy chief Baburam Bhattarai does not become the 35th Prime Minister of Nepal, dark clouds are gathering over the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom.
Mr Zhou Yongkang, a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China, one of the nine bosses of the Middle Kingdom, arrived in Kathmandu on August 16. The ‘unexpected’ outcome of the Prime Minister’s resignation was that the visit had to be postponed by a day: China’s security chief was supposed to land on India’s Independence Day.
With the increasingly all-pervasive Chinese presence in Nepal, resentment against India is growing deeper, mainly fuelled by pro-China elements. The popular news portal, Telegraph Nepal suggested that instead of “making fresh commitments for physical packages, India needs to change its behaviour towards its smaller neighbour. Nepal just needs the good will”. Before his arrival, reports mentioned that Mr Zhou Yongkang had a “secret gift package” in his luggage; a Nepali daily reported: “The contents of the package have been kept a guarded secret.”
The visit of the former Minister of Public Security and presently Chairman of the Central Political and Legislative Committee was anyway significant because Mr Zhou Yongkang is responsible for law and order and intelligence in the Politburo. The importance of the visit was visible by the size of the 60-member delegation accompanying Mr Zhou Yongkang, who is the senior-most Chinese official to visit Nepal after the end of the monarchy.
The visit, however, did not follow the script. The Himalayan News Service reported, “The resignation of Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal has poured cold water over Chinese leader Zhou Yongkang’s much awaited visit to Nepal.” Mr Zhou Yongkang had planned to raise Beijing’s concerns about the activities of Tibetans in Nepal. A review of the Nepal-China Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1960 was also expected to be on the delegation’s agenda).
But it did not happen. Apparently, he did not mention “a single word regarding the Tibetan issue during the hour-long meeting with Mr Khanal, though it was widely projected as the main agenda of the visit”. According to a senior Nepali official, “The Prime Minister’s resignation was the reason behind their mind change. They might have thought that it was not the right time to raise serious issues as the Government had become a caretaker.”
In his meetings with Mr Khanal, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Nepali Congress president Sushil Koirala and former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, Mr Zhou Yongkang expressed “awkwardness” about the Prime Minister’s resignation on the eve of his visit. He added that China would like to see stability in Nepal. In his meeting with Home Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha, he said Nepal needs to improve its weak security arrangements along the Nepal-China border and Beijing would help Kathmandu on this.
Nothing has been since mentioned about the “special gift” for the Nepali people that Mr Zhou Yongkang was said to have brought with him, but he did signfour agreements. These included agreements on strengthening Nepal’s police force, funding a hydropower project and increasing the annual Chinese assistance to Nepal. The first agreement will have the most serious consequences for India and Tibetan refugees. An amount of $1.4 million will be earmarked to “strengthen the capacity of Nepali security agencies”.
On July 27, Mr Wang Chaun Qi, the head of International Cooperation in the Chinese Ministry of Public Security Affairs, had asserted that the amount would be spent on training, workshops, and language training (Chinese and Tibetan) for Nepali border police. In other words, it would be directed at stopping Tibetans from transitting through Nepal on their way to India.
This came soon after Thinley Lama, the Dalai Lama’s representative in Nepal (he is a Nepali national) was arrested by Nepal Police from the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office in Kathmandu. His crime? He had organised a Press conference to urge Kathmandu to provide basic rights to 20,000 Tibetan refugees living in Nepal under the new Constitution which is being drafted. He also wanted to give factual information on some accusations against ‘Tibetan nationals’ reported in the local media.
Two youngsters had been arrested from Kathmandu Airport trying to clandestinely migrate to the US with Tibetan identity papers. He said the papers were fake. The background of the problem is the quasi take-over of Nepal by the Chinese authorities and the impossibility for genuine Tibetan refugees to get valid papers. Soon, China will train Nepalis to spot and arrest Tibetan refugees. China’s new Ambassador to Nepal, Mr Yang Houlan, has already been meeting political leaders and Ministers, asking them for help to stop all activities by Tibetan refugees in Nepal.
China has not only strategic interests in Nepal, but also economic ones. At the end of the year, a new land port will open at Kyirong in Shigatse Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region. According to China’s Tibet Online, when completed, it will be the biggest land trade channel between TAR and South Asia. Practically, it means more Chinese presence in Nepal. Beijing may one day be in a position to provide the Himalayan nation with its energy needs.
China is not ‘helping’ Nepal without larger reasons. Recently, the news agency IANS reported: “Nepal is gearing up to explore for uranium mines in its remote mountainous north, adjoining the border with Tibet.” The discovery is located at Mustang which was the CIA-sponsored Tibetan base till the 1970s. Mr Krishna Dev Jha, a senior engineer at the mines, and the Geology Department have affirmed that “work will start this year”. According to IANS, “Mustang remains high on the Chinese radar.” If China were to control the uranium mines, it would be able to kill two birds with one shone: It would get an important supply of uranium and also manage an important entry point for Tibetan refugees.
A friend who often travels to Nepal was showing me pictures of PLA soldiers working in northern Nepal. When they saw him, the soldiers hid their faces. But for how long will they hide this reality?
Claude Arpi is French-born author, journalist, historian and tibetologist. This article has been reproduced with the author's permission.
The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.