Isabelle Duquesne, French Scholar
South Asian politicians, traders and intellectuals call it The China Card. In the geopolitical game, it has been drawn as an attempt to counterbalance the overwhelming influence of India on Nepal.
It has been played for decades, particularly since King Mahendra established diplomatic relations in 1955 and signed the border treaty with China in 1961. His son Birendra strengthened the northern ties, visited the People’s Republic ten times, and purchased arms from Beijing.
Keshav Mishra recalls the two times when India imposed an economic blockade on Nepal. The first time was in 1962, to which China’s foreign minister, Marshal Chen Yi, retorted: “In case any foreign army makes a foolhardy attempt to attack Nepal, China will side with the Nepalese people.”
The second time was in 1989 (partly in response to Birendra importing arms from China), to which Chinese premier Li Peng articulated in a press interview: “China understands the current situation concerning Nepal. We consider it unjustified for a neighboring country of Nepal to impose a blockade against the kingdom because the direct victims of this blockade are the Nepalese people. China supplied goods to Nepal through the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) during the blockade.
This chapter speaks of Sino-Nepalese relations, showing an age- old connection despite the world’s highest mountain range between them. We look at the principles of foreign policy from both sides of the relationship, and the interests that stand behind them. Investment, cooperation, trade, aid, exchanges and security concerns form the basis of the friendly and pragmatic affiliation.
The last section looks at the effects of Sino-Indian relations on Nepal and on the Himalayan region as a whole. Throughout the chapter, the reflection points to the conclusion that China would benefit from an explicit nomination of Nepal as a Zone of Peace, based on the assumption that it was and therefore is supportive of the idea.
The first recorded official relations between Nepal and China date back to the middle of the fifth century BCE. Monks, scholars, philosophers, artists, traders and adventurers travelled back and forth, exchanging news, gifts, inventions and commercial opportunities.
Arniko, a Nepalese architect and artist, supervised the construction of the White Pagoda in 1278 during the Yuan Dynasty. Arniko’s Pagoda in Beijing became a standard of architecture in China, a style that traveled further east to Korea and Japan. It still stands in Beijing today.
(The Arniko Highway connects Kathmandu with the Tibetan border and continues on to Lhasa.
The road runs first along the Sun Kosi or “Golden River,” then the Bhote Kosi or “Tibet River.” It was built through China’s assistance in the 1960s, after the Sino-Indian war. Many Chinese philosophers and learned Buddhist monks travelled the Silk Route seeking intellectual and spiritual exchange with other scholars in the Ganges plains, South India and Sri Lanka. Huen Tsang (603-664 A.D.), in particular, left records about his visit to Nepal.
Nepal’s China Policy after the Making of the Nepali State (l8th-2Oth Centuries):
The 18th century saw the creation of Nepal as a “modern state,” with the founder Prithvi Narayan Shah and his successor expanding territory to further frontiers known as “Greater Nepal.” Nepalese adventurism was then everywhere, including Tibet. The Chinese intervened in favor of Tibet and defeated the Nepalese armies, consequently forcing unto Nepal the Sino-Nepalese Treaty of Betrabati in 1792 that established tribute-paying missions to the emperor every five years (until 1908).
This repetitive act was symbolic of Chinese political and cultural supremacy in the region. However, this would not be the end of Sino-Nepalese conflicts (over Tibet).
During the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16, Nepal asked China for military assistance but was refused. With the superiority of the British military, this implicitly meant that China surrendered its influence in Nepal to the expanding British powers. The British East India Company granted Nepal its independence against exclusive economic ties.
When Nepal once again invaded Tibet in 1854, China intervened like the previous time. The Treaty of Thapathali was concluded in March 1856, explicitly recognizing China’s significant position in the region, forcing Nepal to give a yearly tribute (until 1953) and committing Nepal to help Tibet in the event of foreign aggression.
However, towards the end of the 19th century, Nepal aligned itself with the British Raj in India, contributing to armies that suppressed Indian nationalistic rebellions and supporting their invasion of Tibet.
In 1904, the British military marched to Lhasa. Their motivation was the fear that Russia was extending its influence into Tibet by providing military aid to the Tibetan government (this later proved to be unfounded).
As the British troops invaded Tibet, Nepal rejected Tibet’s request for help. Kathmandu did not want to jeopardize its good relations with the British.
The Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906 recognized Chinese sovereignty over the region. However, when China sought to claim Tibet in 1910, Nepal sided with Tibet and Britain.
Nepal then broke relations with China after Tibet drove the Chinese forces out in 1911, in the wake of the Chinese Revolution (the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 which led Emperor Puyi to abdicate). China then concentrated on its revolutions, civil wars, invasions, famines, the Second World War spreading onto its territory and the ultimate creation of the Communist People’s Republic. Until 1949, Tibet remained independent from all such events and their influence.
Nepal’s China Policy in the Second Half of the 20th Century:
Nepal’s China policy is best understood in relation to events linked with India: two years after the end of the Second World War, India gained its independence and the British Raj left the subcontinent. The separation of its Muslim population into a two-part Pakistan (East and West) occurred in an atmosphere of mistrust that turned into hatred. The exchanges of population between Pakistan and India took place with utmost brutality. Three wars between them and countless skirmishes, particularly in the northwest (Kashmir), have kept a heightened state of conflict in the region for over 60 years, a recent consequence of which was the Mumbai bombing in November 2008.
As explained, India stepped into the dominion over Nepal as previously exercised by the British Raj, directing de facto most of its political and economic development. With the perception of being surrounded by real or potential foes, the security of India depended on its ability to outwardly and inwardly control its neighbors. In the early 1950s, Indian military missions included the provision of training for Nepali troops and the posting of Indian military personnel along the northern border (in 1951, also in response to China annexing Tibet; this long-term military mission did not withdraw until 1969).
Arthur Stahnke gives a comprehensive account of the Sino-Indian political relations and the prevailing regional circumstances that led to the 1962 war between them. This war was the culmination of antagonistic sentiments that had grown between them over the last seven years. There was the border issue, with claims of territory unacceptable to either side, and there was the Tibetan issue, whereby India sympathized with the Dalai Lama, his government in exile and Tibetans in general.
The communist and the democratic ideologies were contrary and their respective agendas to exercise leadership in the developing world stood in competition. China also wanted to stop the perceived Soviet-US-India encirclement at the time.
Pakistan, aware of the Sino-Indian enmity and irrespective of its own pro-western direction, approached Beijing for closer ties. Ayub Khan suggested in 1960 to settle the demarcation between Pakistan-held Kashmir and China, thereby dismissing any possible misunderstanding (implying that the cause for trouble could now only come from India).
After independence, India had inherited Britain’s occupation of parts of Chinese territories. Furthermore, it advanced northward by pushing its borderline to the McMahon Line in 1953.
This was equivalent to an occupation of 90,000 sq km of Chinese territories. In 1959, India claimed the Aksai Chin areas, which counted 33,000 sq km (in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China).
Diplomatic letters between Chinese PM Zhou Enlai (under Mao Tzetong) and Indian PM Nehru between 1959 and 1960 could not resolve the border situation in Aksai Chin.
Nor was it resolved by a visit by Zhou Enlai to Delhi in April 1960. China’s insistence over its territorial rights to Aksai Chin and India’s forward policy of sending troops into the frontier brought the confrontations to a head. Furthermore, border disputes also included an area in the extreme northeast of India, at the Himalayan border, then called North East Frontier Agency (before it was renamed Arunachal Pradesh)-a territorial claim also made by China in then South Tibet.
The Sino-Indian war started in June 1962 between the People’s Liberation Army of China and the Armed Forces of India.
The actual engagement was a Chinese attack on an Indian patrol north of the McMahon Line.
The conflict widened to include the region of Aksai Chin which the PRC regarded as a part of China (a strategic link, via the China National Highway or route G2 19, between the Chinese-administered territories of Tibet and Xinjiang).
In less than six weeks of bloody fighting, the Chinese had driven Indian forces back behind Chinese claim lines.
The war ended when the Chinese secured the disputed area and unilaterally declared a ceasefire on 20 November 1962. Following the ceasefire, China kept most of its claim in Aksai Chin but gave India virtually all of India’s claim in the North Fast Frontier Agency-about 70% of the disputed land.
In the 1960s, therefore, Nepal was anxious to keep on good terms with both neighbors. During the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, it reasserted its neutrality and warned that it would not submit to aggression from any state. Although the warning was directed at China, Nepal continued to support China’s application for membership in the United Nations.
In view of the border conflicts, China had made a preliminary border settlement with Nepal which provided clarity in recognition of its sovereignty.
Nepal affirmed this good foreign policy time and again as it gradually sought to get closer to Beijing, playing the China card. An explicit friendship with China, besides being wise neighborly behavior, was part of the attempt to decrease dependency on India.
While seeking to maintain equal friendship with both, Nepal also hoped that competition between them (regarding investments in Nepal) would enhance its own economic development.
Economic opportunities with China, however, started seriously at the turn of the new millennium, and most particularly since the end of the People’s War.
During a visit to China in August 1979, King Birendra, in his speech at the banquet in his honor, explained: “Nepal’s foreign policy is founded on her desire to safeguard her independence and sovereignty and the related quest for peace. Our commitment to the institutionalization of peace in Nepal and our appreciation of your support for the objective is as strong as ever.” Birendra was referring to China’s positive response to the king’s proposal of the Zone of Peace.
In 2004, as Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister of India and headed a United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the External Affairs Minister, Natwar Singh, went soon after his debut to Nepal.
Besides the key questions of economic cooperation and dealing with the Maoist insurgency, the minister stated that Sino-Indian relations were improving and asked if Nepal would provide a transit route for their trade.
There seemed to be no more “zero-sum game between Nepal, India and China.”
#First published in November 2, 2012/in Archive of Regional News & Views / telegraph weekly/telegraphnepal.com (Republished March 17, 2021 in the larger interest of the readers): Ed.