Nepali officials say PM Oli’s decision to withdraw from the BIMSTEC military exercises is to reduce dependence on India and expand ties with China.
New Delhi: India has told Nepal it is unhappy about Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s decision to cancel its participation in the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical & Economic Cooperation) military exercises in Pune beginning Tuesday, as well as the signing of a transit protocol with China that would give Kathmandu access to several Chinese ports to end its total dependence on India.
Oli’s order to cancel the Nepal army’s participation in the BIMSTEC exercises is a particularly undiplomatic blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had announced the military show of strength among the Bay of Bengal community of nations at their summit last week in Kathmandu.
According to the Nepali press, the last-minute decision came after “an oral instruction from Oli” barely a day before five officials and 30 junior armed forces personnel were to leave for Pune Friday night.
Highly placed sources in New Delhi told ThePrint that “the Ministry of External Affairs has conveyed its unhappiness” to the Oli government in Kathmandu over the decision.
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India has been trying to project BIMSTEC as an alternative to SAARC, the South Asian grouping of nations, because the Modi government believes Pakistan should be isolated.
Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Bhutan are invited to BIMSTEC, but Pakistan is not.
Nepali officials say Oli’s decision to withdraw from the Pune exercises is a conscious choice to reduce its dependence on India, both on the trade and military fronts, and expand relations with China.
During his visit to Beijing in 2016, Oli had pushed for a transit protocol that would give land-locked Nepal access to send and receive goods via Chinese ports. That protocol was announced Thursday night.
Analysts say that Oli’s decision is a signal that he will not accept “India’s hegemony” in the region, and that there always is China, the other neighbour in the north.
Bending over backwards
At the BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu on 30 August, Modi, however, pushed for a shift in focus to the community’s integration with the Indo-Pacific.
“It is no surprise that the culmination of both India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ happens in this region of Bay of Bengal… The geographical location of our region is linked to the global maritime routes, and Blue Economy also has a special significance in all our economies… I welcome the upcoming BIMSTEC Multi-National Military Field Training Exercises and the Army Chief’s conclave that will be held in India next month,” the PM had said in Kathmandu.
India has been bending over backwards over the past year to accommodate and understand Oli, realising the anger in Nepal in the wake of New Delhi’s 2015-2016 blockade.
The latest example was New Delhi’s refusal to ask India’s ambassador to Nepal Manjeev Puri to be part of the Indian delegation to welcome the chairman of the Nepal Communist Party and former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ during his visit to New Delhi over the last three days.
On the face of it, officials said Puri had been asked to stay back because former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda was visiting Kathmandu. But that is hardly the real story.
In diplomatic protocol, the absence of an ambassador is usually a signal that the incoming visitor is not really that important.
However, Prachanda — widely perceived in Nepal as being “pro-India” since New Delhi brokered the 12-point understanding between Maoist insurgents led by him and the Nepalese government in 2006 — was given a royal welcome these last few days by the Modi government.
Everyone met him, including the prime minister himself. He was feted at the MEA think-tank, the Indian Council for World Affairs. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) think-tank, the India Foundation, threw a dinner party for him, while the PHD Chamber of Commerce hosted a conference.
In effect, Prachanda was treated like the past and future prime minister of Nepal.
But for India’s ambassador not to stand and wait in honour of Prachanda was a message to Oli that New Delhi understood his sensitivities — which is that Prachanda is just a co-chairman of the Nepal Communist Party, not the PM of Nepal.
However, despite the so-called downgrading of Prachanda’s protocol, Oli decided to withdraw from the BIMSTEC exercises.
In fact, the announcement of the transit protocol between Nepal and China was also made during Prachanda’s visit to New Delhi.
The agreement allows the transit of goods from other countries to Nepal, and vice-versa, from all of China’s ports, including Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianygang, Zhanziang, as well as dry ports like Lhanzin, Lhasa and Shigatse in Tibet, bordering Nepal, reported Reuters.
Nepali officials have complained that the turnaround time for containers at the Kolkata port is very slow — as long as three months. Vishakapatnam has also been recently opened for Nepal trade.
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