Monday, June 27, 2011

India and China wrestle for influence in turbulent Nepal as civil war fears rise

As the Himalayan nation of Nepal struggles to find a political solution to years of civil war, the country has become a battleground for strategic influence between its two giant neighbours, India and China.


As the Himalayan nation of Nepal struggles to find a political solution to years of civil war, the country has become a battleground for strategic influence between its two giant neighbours, India and China.

All the indications are that China is winning as it employs far more deft tactics of diplomacy, and economic and military aid than its rivals in New Delhi.

India, in contrast, has on several occasions been exposed as using the kind of heavy-handed and hectoring tactics it employs all too frequently when dealing with its junior partners in the South Asia region.

This is more than a popularity contest between Beijing and New Delhi among the power brokers of Kathmandu. Nepal and its 30 million people occupy some highly strategic geography between India and Chinese-occupied Tibet.

This is a region where New Delhi and Beijing have several unresolved territorial disputes and there are regular skirmishes. Both countries are upgrading their roads, railways and airstrips along their borders so as to be able to move their armies swiftly to the front if need be.

Nepal became particularly fertile ground for Indian and Chinese rivalry after November 2005, with an agreement to end the country's decade-long civil war in which Maoist insurgents battled the forces of a corrupt and dissolute monarchy.

Elections early in 2008 for a 601-member Constituent Assembly led to the end of the monarchy.

King Gyanendra was replaced by President Ram Baran Yadav as head of state.

But there has been almost no progress in drawing up a new constitution since then. That work was meant to be completed within two years. But there was a political vacuum for the first eight months as assembly members made 16 failed attempts to select a prime minister.

They were then given a yearlong extension to the end of May this year, but they only met eight times for a total of 95 minutes.

President Yadav has now given the assembly a further three months to come up with an outline constitution. But few expect to see any significant developments by the end of August.

The euphoria evident among ordinary Nepalese when the civil war ended has collapsed into disillusionment and even hostility toward the assembly. Many fear a return to conflict.

That's not an irrational anxiety. One of the problems is nearly 20,000 Maoist fighters who are in camps across the country, but who should have been integrated into the national security forces.

All sorts of unresolved details have hindered this integration. The other main party in the assembly along with the Communists, the Nepal Congress Party, is understandably not keen on holding new elections while its main political rivals still have a large standing army.

And the Communists are not a unified force. There is a good deal of squabbling and jockeying for position among the various Maoist factions.

These days, of course, Beijing is not a great supporter of Maoism and, ironically, had good relations with King Gyanendra while New Delhi supported the reformist Congress Party.

But since the 2005 ceasefire, Beijing has sent a steady stream of military aid to Nepal including, most recently, a $20-million package announced by the chief of the general staff of China's People's Liberation Army, Gen. Chen Bingde, during a March visit.

In 2008 Beijing and Kathmandu announced the building of a 770-kilometre-long railway from the Tibetan capital Lhasa to the Nepalese border town of Khasa.

This is due to be completed in 2013 and China is also looking at building six new cross-border highways.

While China has been extending its military and economic bonds with Nepal, India has been fumbling.

New Delhi backed the military in a spat with the Maoist-led government in 2009. It then ignored the universally good advice to never quarrel with people who buy ink by the ton.

New Delhi got into an argument with Nepal's largest newspaper publishing company over "unfriendly editorials," and blocked the transit of newsprint to the media group.

Some members of the assembly have claimed Indian officials have threatened them with various forms of retribution if they don't vote the way New Delhi wants.

China has been careful not to directly provoke India, but is very happy at New Delhi's discomfiture.

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