India Fiddles, China Plays: Major Shift in Nepal, Pakistan Policy
NEW DELHI: India’s sad and bad relations with her neighbours---in particular Pakistan and Nepal---has given a huge boost to China in the region, much to the dismay of Indian diplomats who are passively watching diplomatic initiatives taken in the past to keep South Asia secure go up in smoke as it were.
India’s relations with Nepal, a Kingdom that many would boast of “eating out of our hands” till not so long ago has moved decisively towards the East. The recent recall of Nepal’s Ambassador to India Deep Kumar Upadhyay charged with conspiring with the Indian Ambassador in Kathmandu to topple the Oli government is a serious case in point.
The cancellation of Nepal President’s five day visit is the second indicator that Nepals PM Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli has more or less succeeded in what was initially seen as just a threat, in moving out his eggs from the Indian basket and transferring them safely to Beijing. And despite the Ambassador’s warnings of spoiling relations with India when these were just moving back on track, has adopted the “I do not care” approach that keeps the road between Nepal and China open and well tarred.
Indian diplomacy took a hostile turn after Kathmandu did not allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address a series of public meetings in that country just before the Saarc summit. Responding to local pressure, Kathmandu called off these meetings. The cold Indian response turned positively hostile on the Nepal Constitution controversy when New Delhi used the Madhesi concerns to start an economic blockade of Nepal.
This blockade, as a senior Nepal officer told The Citizen at the time, was perhaps the most traumatic event in India-Nepal relations as it completely deprived the country of essential commodities and placed the Nepalese in deep deprivation leading their government to panic.
At that time PM Oli decided to move towards China but as the sources said, he was well aware that the transition of dependency would take a minimum of six months if not more. Beijing responded very positively to the overtures and stepped in almost immediately with a supply of essential gas to help Nepal tide over the bitter winter months. As the sources said, the hardship to the people was unimaginable and the anger against India reached new heights in Nepal.
Subsequently PM Oli has had a very successful week long visit to China, several agreements have been signed, and reports from both Kathmandu and Beijing suggest a burgeoning relationship that are intended---at least for the moment---to eclipse Nepal-India ties. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, that involves the land and maritime old Silk routes has a strong taker in Nepal now, even as New Delhi continues to regard it with deep suspicion and has opted to stay out of it.
A few steps taken recently by India and Nepal to bridge the widening chasm in relations has now received a severe setback with the recall of the Nepalese Ambassador to India, yet another charge on India for trying to topple the government of a sovereign state, and the cancellation of the Presidential visit at the last moment. New Delhi has been caught by complete surprise, and in more knowledgeable and sensitive sections of the foreign policy establishment, deep dismay.
More so as China, despite efforts, had earlier not been able to replace India in Nepal for political, social, economic and geographical reasons. But the economic blockade and what Nepalese describe as the “arrogance” of the Indian government, have now placed Nepal-China relations on the fast track with sources pointing out that PM Oli is determined never to allow his country to be held “ransom” by such blockades again. There is palpable anger in Nepal about New Delhi’s “tendency to treat as as your backyard,” as a Nepal journalist said.
Significantly, the Chinese footprint in Pakistan has grown larger over the last months with now Chinese soldiers being sighted at the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. This has rung alarm bells here, as it is a clear indication of the growing bonhomie between Pakistan and China as seen in the frequent high level visits for several years now, and the almost intimate strategic and political relationship that has been placed, rather effectively, under an economic umbrella. The large scale presence of Chinese officials, workers and now even soldiers at is being explained as part of the projects undertaken by Beijing---from the Gwadar port, to the occupied land of Kashmir, to now the LOC.
What is not making an impression on Indian foreign policy makers, at least not publicly so, is the evidence that Pakistan has rejigged its policy assessment to conclude that talks with the Modi government are not possible in the foreseeable future. And has been indicating that while the lip service in support of the comprehensive dialogue will remain in place, it will open new doors for China at what now seems to be an escalating pace.
New Delhi seems to be remain mired in a tit for tat policy, but both Pakistan and China are using the atmospherics of this to forge stronger strategic bonds. Even as both ratchet up pressure on India to ensure that the basic status quo with each remains, and when tampered with, is restored. For instance the Indian objections to the Pakistan High Commission’s dialogue with the Hurriyat leaders, because of which bilateral talks were cancelled, has been restored. New Delhi, under pressure from Washington where Islamabad took its case, has conceded ground on this and said it has no objections. These talks with the Hurriyat leaders carry great symbolic value for Pakistan, as these demonstrate its claim over Kashmir, and establish the state as ‘disputed.’
Insofar as China is concerned, the recent climbdown on the Chinese dissidents conference in Dharamshala is a case in point. New Delhi in its tit for tat foreign policy decided to grant visas to controversial Chinese dissidents for this conference, after Beijing used what India described as a “hidden veto” on its proposal to declare Jaish e Mohammad chief Masood Azhar a terrorist.
At the end of the controversy, India has cancelled the visas, and the conference as well to appease China on the Tibet issue that remains a bottom line in these bilateral relations, while China has not given an inch at the United Nations on Azhar. It will not, as this ‘technical hold’ on the Indian proposal was also to strengthen its relationship with Pakistan that has given it a big strategic and economic foothold in its land, and so is clearly more important to Beijing at this point in time.
Interestingly,indications from Pakistan suggest a shift in policy wherein a decision seems to have been taken to end this strategic obsession with talks with India. Pakistan is moving away from its obsessive preoccupation with India, opening all doors to China, forging new relations with Russia, keeping Washington on its side, and unlike India keeping out of thorny issues in South Asia. The equations have changed ever sine the Pakistan Army replaced civilian NSA Sartaj Aziz with a military general, with Islamabad now clearly looking at forging new relations, and becoming a player out of the Indian and Kashmir shadow in the world. A shift that is attracting world attention through high level visits, even though it not being noticed in New Delhi.