New Delhi: It’s rare that one sees a political party from another country trying to play peace-maker in a neighbouring country — not in a subtle, diplomatic way but brazenly, in full public view. So when a delegation of the Communist Party of China (CPC) spent four days in Nepal, playing mediator between the two factions of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), it drew international attention.
In Nepal, there were student demonstrations against such an interference of a foreign power in internal politics. It’s not just about ideological affinity. CPC’s interference in the sovereign regimes led by Communist parties in other countries, be it in Vietnam, Laos, North Korea or Cuba, would be deemed unfathomable in these countries.
Since the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Nepal in October 2019, however, the Himalayan country is witnessing an increasingly assertive Beijing trying to dictate the political and governmental agenda in Nepal.
“This is a classic case of kissa kursi ka, just that in Nepal it is being played out with the help of another foreign party and that is the Chinese Communist Party,” a senior political leader in Nepal told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
Beijing did not waste a moment to fish in troubled waters in Nepal, sending a high-level delegation to Kathmandu last week even as the country plunged into a political as well as constitutional crisis that resulted in an inevitable break-up within the ruling NCP.
According to the Nepali leader, even though the Chinese have said that the latest visit by the delegation led by Guo Yezhou, Vice Minister, International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC), is a “goodwill visit”, their intention is clear and that is “to unite the NCP at any cost. It doesn’t matter to them whether the Prime Minister is (KP Sharma) Oli or Prachanda or Madhav Nepal”.
Although the NCP is believed to have been broken into two factions — one led by Oli and other by former prime ministers of Nepal Pushp Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda, and Madhav Kumar Nepal — they are yet to announce it formally and that has put question marks.
“They will never announce it officially because both Oli and Prachanda want to yield power and become the Prime Minister. Oli first came to power in 2015 riding on anti-India rhetoric which is why they also changed the map with India when he became the Prime Minister for the second time, but in every other promise the NCP has failed. So they are now taking the help of the Chinese,” said a second political leader in Nepal.
The Chinese delegation and its objective
Within less than a week of PM Oli announcing the dissolution of the lower house of Nepal’s parliament on 20 December, Beijing had sent a delegation under Guo with the objective of uniting the NCP.
Guo had played an instrumental role in the creation of the NCP which was formed in May 2018 by uniting the two major Left parties of Nepal — the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) led by Oli, and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), led by Prachanda.
Prior to Guo’s visit this time, the Chinese envoy to Kathmandu also held a series of back-to-back meetings with both factions in an effort to understand the main reason behind the split.
Similar steps were taken earlier this year in April and May when the NCP seemed headed for a split.
During the latest visit, Guo met leaders of NCP as well the leaders of the opposition Nepali Congress (NC) in Kathmandu. He is expected to report about his meetings to his bosses in Beijing Thursday.
According to sources, the six-member Chinese delegation held day-long meetings with Nepal President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Oli, Prachanda and Nepal. On Tuesday, it met a delegation consisting of the senior leaders of NC.
“The two factions seem to have gone too far so I don’t think anyone can unite them now. But in Nepal, communism is such an animal that it cannot be trusted ever. China has its own interest and since Nepal is their immediate neighbour they would like to see the country as a rising power with political stability. Otherwise, communism is an alien culture to Nepali tradition,” Dinesh Bhattarai, Nepal’s former ambassador to the United Nations, told ThePrint.
On Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that as a “friend and close neighbour” of Nepal, it hopes the quarrelling parties in Nepal will “take into account the national interests and the big picture, properly manage internal differences and commit themselves to political stability and national development”.
Showing strength in Nepal
According to Nepali government sources, Beijing sent the delegation on its own despite not being invited formally because it recognises the fact that it can “show strength” in this small country.
While a number of leading political leaders of Nepal have called out China’s brazen interference into the internal affairs of the Himalayan nation, there have been widespread protests in Nepal by student activists shouting anti-China slogans.
Nepal is the only country where the CPC wields a certain kind of leverage. In communist countries like Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and Cuba, it has no influence of any kind.
“Nepal is not a communist country but it shares a large border with China. It is a country that has undergone rapid changes since the 1990s with the onset of globalisation. People there do not believe only in communism. But having said that, it’s true that the Chinese Communist Party is indeed taking advantage of the situation,” said Manjeev Singh Puri, former Indian ambassador to Nepal.
China’s influence in Nepal has been on an upward trajectory ever since President Xi Jinping came to power and brought the Himalayan country under the embrace of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“Chinese investments in capacity-building programs in Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bangladesh further reflect its strategic interests to increase influence beyond just trade and investments. But China’s new influence has also faced difficulties in South Asia, with deeply entrenched democratic systems and frequent political change and instability,” said Constantino Xavier, fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress.
China is also assisting Nepal in the building of the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network.
CPC running governance modules in Nepal
Ties between China and Nepal got upgraded to strategic level during President Xi’s visit there in October 2019. He became the first Chinese leader to visit the country in 23 years.
Even before the present political crisis took place in Nepal, the CPC has been holding virtual workshops giving lessons to Nepali leaders on running the party and the government.
“Not surprising that the way the CPC operates abroad reflects its role and values at home. But rather than just crudely exporting its political model to South Asia, China has been more sophisticated, learning and adapting by reaching out to different parties and diversifying its outreach,” Xavier said.
“China has also played a more strategic game of shaping governance to increase its influence in policy sectors, from transportation to telecommunications, through the media, think tanks and academia and organisations close to decision-making circles,” he said.
Xavier added that the current crisis in the Nepal case reflects how “China’s interference is leading to a popular backlash”.
Tibet a factor
The 1,389 km-long China-Nepal border is the international boundary between the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and Nepal.
According to Puri, this is also one of the main reasons why the Chinese plan to bring Nepal under its indirect control.
“China’s geopolitical heft and expansion plans cannot be taken lightly and it is a cause of concern for India because it has serious consequences. And Nepal also does not want to have an adversarial relationship with China,” said Puri.
“Besides, Tibet continues to remain a sensitive issue for China and so they have to keep their control directly or indirectly over Nepal. But this is also true that India should remain cognisant of the Chinese moves there,” he added.