Nepal-China Ties: Whirlwind Tour
Those were the times when avid China watchers and perceptive pens, especially since the 1960s through the 1970s and the 1980s, closely followed the events unfolding in Nepal’s northern neighbour, Communist China. They were also the times when the Cold War gathered momentum, arms race escalated and proxy, or even direct, wars were fought for and against regimes spawned by capitalist and Communist ideologies.
In South Asian region, India and China were involved in a brief but bitter war in 1962. India and Pakistan fought at least two major wars. East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh in December 1971. The now-defunct Soviet Union engineered the December 1979 coup in Afghanistan and installed a puppet regime.
Placed between two large neighbours with ideologically opposing political systems, Nepal faces the exacting rigours in the conduct of its foreign policy. After all, Nepal exclusively borders with China on the north and India on the east, west and south.
Hence, any authoritative material on either of the two immediate neighbours attracts attention for those devoted to the study of these two giant nations. In this regard, Hiranya Lal Shrestha’s book, edited by the long-time journalist Prem Kumari Pant and published by Nepal-China Society to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between Nepal and China makes a welcome read. Nepal’s most prolific producer of books on relations with various countries, Shrestha can take the satisfaction of presenting the latest publication as most voluminous and best edited, though typos in many a creditable publication, and the one under review is no exception.
Eventful six decades
The 566-page book’s title says it all: “Sixty Years of Dynamic Partnership”. With nearly half of the contents constituting valuable annexes covering various statements, agreements and the like, it is the most comprehensive chronicle of the various issues, stages, events and personalities involved and directly associated with the conduct of Nepal-China ties. That it consciously or otherwise steers away from mentioning Mana Ranjan Josse anywhere is a conspicuous lapse considering that Josse ranks as the most knowledgeable Nepali scribe on Nepal-China ties.
There have been dramatic and, at times, unpredictable changes in the two countries over the decades but their bilateral relationship paced ahead, with varying degrees of intensity as the outcomes of causes, contexts and consequences of events not infrequently affected by third party interests.
As far as Nepal’s bilateral relations with China are concerned, no less than 2,000 years of recorded history underscores a long history. Buddhism in the first century and Princess Bhrikuti’s marriage to Tibet’s ruler in the seventh century, Faixian and Xuanzang visits to and their writings on Nepal, and Bhim Malla’s 32 trade houses known as “kothis” in Lhasa and Xigatse in Tibet in the 17th century are few of the major events that give a bird’s eye view of the ties.
Also of note is that Narendra Dev, during the Lichchhavi period, regained his throne with support from China and the latter was provided with several thousand cavalrymen to avenge an insult committed by the ruler of a north Indian state against the emperor’s emissary. Nepal-Tibet and Nepal-China Wars in the 18th and 19th centuries indicate some of the setbacks in the relationship.
First the Soviet Union in 1917, during the dying days of World War II, emerged as the first Communist country, and then China in 1949 embraced communism, much to the alarm of the champions of the no-holds-barred profiteering capitalism in the West. Communism in the Soviet Union collapsed with the disintegration of the country in the early 1990s. Founded in 1921, the Communist Party of China has a membership of 82.6 million, making it the only and by far the largest political party in the State.
Nepal and China set up formal diplomatic relations in August 1955, and Chinese and Nepalese ambassadors to New Delhi were respectively and concurrently appointed ambassadors to also Nepal and China. In the same year, Nepal sent a delegation to the first Afro-Asian conference in Bandung. Likewise, the year 1956, the year that marked King Mahendra’s Coronation, saw Nepal join the United Nations membership. In October 1961, Nepal and China signed a treaty covering their common border extending 1414.88 km during King Mahendra’s visit to Beijing when the monarch and Mao held a meeting with neighbourly minds.
Following Nepal’s initiative, India in 1969 withdrew its military mission and army communication personnel who had been posted in the northern areas bordering China since 1951. Five years later, the Tibetan armed rebel Ge Wangdi was killed in an operation by the Nepalese army at Tinker in 1974, and, with it, the Khampa rebellion was settled for good. King Mahendra rebuffed suggestions that the Araniko highway, the first of its type linking Tibet with Nepal, should not take off. In 1967, the vital link was opened up for vehicular traffic.
Author Shrestha mentions cooperation between American and Indian intelligence in establishing a training centre with 22 camps for Tibetan rebel army in Dehradoon’s Chakrata in India, which closed down in 1972 following Nixon’s landmark trip to Beijing.
There have been high level visits between the top leaders of both the countries. King Birendra’s first trip to China was in December 1973, several weeks after his India visit, though his first visit abroad was to the NAM summit in Algiers in September the same year. The first head of state to visit China ten times from 1966 to 2001, he was also the first foreign head of state to pay a trip to Tibet.
Chinese Premier Li Peng, during his Nepal visit in November 1989 at the height of Indian economic blockade on this country, said: “China understands [the] current situation in Nepal. We consider it unjustified for a neighbouring country to impose blockade against Nepal because the direct victims of this blockade are ultimately the Nepalese people. As a big country in South Asia, we hope India, in handling this issue, will be more magnanimous and generous.” Five months later, Indian External Affairs Secretary S.K. Singh arrived in Kathmandu with a draft treaty proposal that sought “to coordinate and cooperate with India in advance while taking decision [by Nepal] on issues pertaining to security and water resources”. The Marich Man Singh Shrestha government rejected the proposal, as King Birendra thought it in the national interest to settle domestic issues with the Nepalese political parties pressing for reforms rather to give in to undue foreign pressure.
When King Birendra, on the occasion of his 1975 Coronation, proposed that Nepal be declared a Zone of Peace, China immediately endorsed it. Eventually, 115 other nations followed suit. The endorsees included all but the Soviet Union among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The Soviet stand was apparently guided by the fact that it had a 20-year military alliance with India that never endorsed the peace proposal made a year after India tested its first nuclear explosion.
Author Shrestha comments: “King Mahendra, Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai were the principal architects of the Nepal-China relations. Their demise was an irreparable loss to both the countries.”
Editor Pant, who also heads Nepal-China Society, writes: “Chairman Mao Zedong and premier Zhou Enlai of China and Nepal’s King Mehandra and Prime Minister B.P. Koirala are those iconic figures who made huge contributions for heralding a whole new era in the Nepal-China ties, whereas visionary leaders like Deng Xiaoping alike further consolidated the friendly and cooperative relations between these countries. King Birendra’s role, too, is unforgettable in the history of Nepal-China relations.”
A railway now links with Lhasa and Xigatse in Tibet, raising hopes in Nepal that the link would be extended to Nepal as well in the not too distant future—perhaps before China overtakes the United States as the No. 1 economic power house by the next decade and perhaps before China’s fifth generation leadership is led by Xi Jinping completes his second tenure in office. Chinese investment in Nepal could expand at a faster pace and employment opportunities for Nepalese youth could also see a spurt, as Chinese labour gets increasingly demanding over wages and welfare schemes. Most of the three million Nepalese labour force in West Asia would find an alternative avenue in China. The picture should be clear well within the next two decades.