January 6, 2012
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.
As baseball's New York Mets struggled toward their historic 120-loss season in 1962, their manager, Casey Stengel, famously lamented of his feckless team: "Can't anybody here play this game?"
The same might be asked of the various players in Nepal's carnival of political and diplomatic dysfunction: the dominant United Communist Party Nepal (Maoist), the pro-Indian Nepali Congress, the Madhesi parties representing the interests of the ethnically Indian lowlanders of the Tarai, and even the ostensible grownups in the geopolitical game, the diplomats of India and the People's Republic of China (PRC).
Nepalese politicians dramatically describe their nation as "a yam between two rocks" to illustrate the vulnerable circumstances of a small nation trying to maintain its equilibrium and independence between two overbearing regional superpowers.
It would seem that Nepal could plausibly regard itself as the mountain maiden wooed by two determined and deep-pocketed suitors, instead of an imperiled potato.
However, halting efforts to exploit Sino-Indian rivalry to Nepal's benefit have been consistently frustrated by Nepalese weakness, exacerbated by the factionalism, opportunism and corruption endemic in local politics.
Thierry Dodin, Director of TibetInfoNet, described the state of play to Asia Times Online:
Nepalis often daydream of a "triangular relationship" between China, Nepal and India, and all Nepali rulers of the 20th century fantasized about "counter-balancing" India with China.
The reality, however, is that China is not really interested, because there is not much in for them in Nepal and its general attitude towards small neighbors is far more appalling than India's. But they do instrumentalize Nepali angst of "Sikkimisation" (ie the swallowing of Sikkim into India in the early 1970s) for their policy of keeping India under pressure.
This is the reality of the "triangular relationship" and this is why China makes only symbolic (and always very visible) "presents" to Nepal, here a road, here a congress hall etc.
For many Nepali politicians the "Chinese card" is something they fancy playing with, but with their almost total dependence on India (resulting from the facts that no Nepali government has ever done well in terms of development, that corruption is pervading daily life and the country still dwells in a sort of post-feudal limbo), there's not much they have to offer. Not much, except occasional severity against Tibetans.
The most recent manifestation of Nepal's political crisis is the handwringing over the postponement of Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Nepal.
The official explanation for the abrupt postponement - which came just one week before December 20, when Wen was expected to lead a 100-person delegation to Kathmandu - was that Chinese domestic economic and budgetary concerns "at the end of the fiscal year" demanded Wen's attention.
This was a somewhat plausible reason, given that China is approaching a leadership transition and wanted to smooth over bumps in the road - like the widely-reported Occupy Wukan action. As the Wukan uproar subsided, the avuncular Wen was indeed setting the tone for the moderate government response, calling for greater protection of farmers' rights.
As evidence that China's internal issues had prompted the delay, observers also pointed to the fact that Wen's visit to Myanmar, presumably a more pressing item on his agenda in light of the vigorous United States diplomatic engagement with the Naypyidaw regime, was also postponed.
Nevertheless, cancelation of the geopolitically significant and highly anticipated trip was a genuine debacle.
The local Nepalese media were filled with lamentations and accusations that the Nepalese government under Dr Baburam Bhattarai had botched the China brief by announcing the visit unilaterally and prematurely before Beijing issued a statement.
In addition, it was alleged that Wen's advance team had been alarmed at heightened anti-PRC activity by the Tibetan community in Nepal and the disturbing news that "outside agitators" were coming to Kathmandu from Dharmsala in India (home of the Tibetan government in exile) with the intention of confronting and embarrassing the premier during his visit.
A Nepalese newspaper hostile to the government put forward its version of the security backstory:
[Deputy Prime Minister] and Home Minister Vijaya Kumar Gachhadar was found holding meetings with the Dalai Lama’s representatives and considering reopening of the Dalai Lama's embassy in Kathmandu (although, unofficially, the embassy in Lajimpat is in operation). Besides, Gachhadar was found reluctant in mobilizing special security force to curb the free-Tibet activities.
According to a source, the Chinese side was aware about the frequent meetings of the free-Tibet activists and the activists had operated three camps specially to organize demonstration programs here. They had already collected about one thousand signatures of people who were ready to organize demonstrations during the visit of the Chinese prime minister. Also, it was learnt that plans were afoot for immolation acts by some Tibetans during this important visit.
The Chinese Embassy was unhappy from the disclosing of the date of the visit of Wen and also the schedule of the visit of such a high-level leader.  In addition to the activities alleged above, further allegations had appeared in the local press that Gachhadar, who holds the security brief as home minister, had previously refused to visit Beijing to discuss security arrangements, further heightening Chinese suspicions.
The framing that Nepalese security preparations had been found wanting was buttressed when, in late December - after Wen's visit had already been canceled - Gachhadar flew to Beijing to provide security assurances to the Chinese government.
For some inexplicable reason, Gachhadar's entourage let it be known that he had requested a meeting with Wen, an official considerably above his pay grade, leading to the predictable public embarrassment when the Nepalese request was turned down, and reinforcing the prevailing image of the Bhattarai administration's inexperience and incompetence in handling the important Chinese relationship. Per the Himalayan Times:Gachhadar, an invitee of the Chinese government, expressed his desire to pay a courtesy call on Wen, only to learn about the latter's busy schedule. Sources attributed this to lack of coordination between Nepal's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs.
The Nepali Embassy in Beijing downplayed the matter, saying it was never directed to arrange the meeting. "We were not told to arrange such a meeting," said Narayan Dev Panta, Charge d'Affaires at the embassy. "Had we been directed, we would have taken the initiative, though it's not easy to meet such a high-profile Chinese leader." Panta even said the DPM's visit was mainly focused on security issues. 
These stories derive traction from the perception that the current Nepalese government, under (India-educated) Bhattarai, is determined to strengthen relations with India - at China's expense if necessary.
India is an overbearing and politically unpopular presence in Nepal. Although Nepalese politicos across the ideological spectrum allegedly line up for Indian favors and support, perceived truckling to New Delhi is not viewed kindly.
The negative depiction of Gachhadar also draws on a rather widespread unease among Nepal's traditional elites at the rapidly growing population and incrementally expanding influence of the "Madhesi" ethnic and political groupings of relatively recent Indian immigrants who populate the Tarai - the agricultural lowlands of Nepal adjoining India.
The Gurkhas and other highland ethnic groups that have dominated Nepalese political life for the past three centuries have traditionally treated the Madhesi as second-class citizens. Despite their Indian origins, the Madhesi are also viewed with an apparent lack of enthusiasm by the Indian government as a source of instability and criminality along the border.
However, the Nepalese national government finally seemed to find its way out of political gridlock - 17 attempts to elect a prime minister had failed because of widespread detestation of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN)-Maoist and distrust of its methods and intentions - when Bhattarai forged an alliance with a coalition of Madhesi parties and Gachchadar, from the Tarai, entered the government as deputy prime minister.
This new political grouping has excited the instinctive factionalism of the pro-Indian Nepali Congress, the UCPN-Maoist faction led by pro-China party supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda (the prime ministerial candidate who had failed to close the deal 17 times), and the radical base of the UCPN-Maoist, which would like to abandon the parliamentary charade and return to armed struggle.
Faced with this storm of politically motivated criticism from left and right, Bhattarai - who previously enjoyed a rather exalted reputation as the cool-as-a-cucumber brains of the UCPN-Maoist - has seen his reputation and career outlook take a major drubbing.
As far as China is concerned, it would appear that Bhattarai's government - which took office end-August 2011 - has discharged its One-China obligations - specifically, the undertaking to block anti-Chinese ie pro-Tibetan independence/Dalai Lama activities on Nepalese soil - with a certain seriousness.
On September 2, the Nepalese government banned observance of "Tibetan Democracy Day".
Also in September, Nepalese authorities toyed with refoulement (return to China against their will) of 23 Tibetan refugees. This would have been a breach of the "Gentleman's Agreement" sponsored by the United States, by which Tibetan refugees who make it into Nepal are handed over to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kathmandu and sent on to Dharmsala.
Since the disturbances in Tibetan regions of the PRC in 2008, China has shown special interest in these refugees, many of whom do not fit neatly into the category of refugees fleeing oppression, since they return to Tibet after a session of religious tourism (or, China undoubtedly suspects, more nefarious activities) in India.
After insistent representations by the United States and the European Union - which hold considerable influence in Nepal thanks to the country's dire economic and fiscal straits and resulting reliance on foreign aid and non-governmental organizations munificence - the refugees were sent on to Dharmsala.
In October, Nepalese authorities detained Thinley Lama, who officially heads the (apolitical) Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office (the Tibetan "embassy" in the Lajimpat district of Kathmandu referred to above) and is unofficially the Dalai Lama's representative in Nepal.
Thinley Lama's visit with the police, presumably a shot across the bow of Nepal's rambunctious Tibetan community (which includes a growing number of young Tibetans that the Nepalese government has shortsightedly disenfranchised by refusing to regularize the residency status of Tibetans born inside the country post-1989) came as the new, post-Dalai Lama secular government of Lobsang Sangay sought to make its mark with anti-Chinese demonstrations in India.
In November, a gathering suffused with political and anti-Chinese ire over the wave of self-immolations by monks and nuns inside Tibetan ethnic areas of the PRC was squelched by Nepalese security forces clad in crisp, high-tech imported riot gear.  In a November report titled "Tibetan Refugees in Nepal: Difficult Days Ahead", the Telegraph Nepal reported:
Reports coming from Ministry of Home Affairs have it that the Tibetan refugees living in Nepal will have difficult and trying times ahead. The government will soon review its policies on the Tibetan refugees that is likely to be more stringent, reports confirm.
Spokesperson Sudhir Kumar Sah of the Home Ministry tells Rajdhani Daily, November 13, 2011, that "The government is in a very difficult situation since the Tibetans have begun setting themselves on fire. The government of Nepal is committed on its one China policy. We will not allow any activities that go against the interest of our neighbors. This will lead to a situation where the government may have to slash all the facilities being granted to the Tibetans residing in Nepal, such as that of their freedom to move even."With remarkable prescience, the Telegraph concluded: “China may hold up this high-level visit to Nepal. The likelihood remains.” 
As Saransh Sehgal reported in Asia Times Online, US Congressman Peter Wolf threatened to cut off aid to Nepal if the authorities toed the Chinese line too enthusiastically over the plight of Tibetan refugees:
We're not just going to cut them, we're going to zero them out ... If they're not willing to do it, then they don't share our values and if they don't share our values, we do not want to share our dollars. 
If Wen's security team and ambassador Yang Houlan are dissatisfied with the Bhattarai administration's efforts to choke off anti-PRC demonstrations, it is probably because they see the percolating unrest in Kathmandu as a symbol, not of laziness or of pro-Indian perfidy on the issue of Tibet, but of the Nepalese government's disturbing inability to overcome the centripetal tendencies toward faction and dysfunction that characterize its efforts across the complete spectrum of governance.
In addition to their inability to create a national unity government (Bhattarai governs through a precarious majority), Nepal's bickering parties have been unable to make progress on writing a new constitution and integrating Maoist fighters into the national security structure.
Instead, antagonists in the opposition parties and hostile factions within the UCPN-M are apparently succeeding in their effort to add Bhattarai's government to the grim, unbroken record of political futility that has characterized Nepalese governance over the past three years.
Bhattarai has, apparently without exaggeration, characterized his administration as the "last chance" for peace and unity. If his government collapses, a splintering of political factions, collapse of the 2006 agreement ending the civil war and a return to armed conflict is a real possibility.
That is something that the Chinese government finds disturbing and frustrating.
Just as the United States obsesses over the collapse of central authority in Somalia and the creation of a radical Islamicist haven, it seems the PRC frets about continued weakness, deadlock and drift in Nepalese politics, and the possibility that consensus on supporting the One China policy by leaning on Tibetan activists will evaporate and Nepal will turn into a running political and security sore on the PRC's vulnerable Tibetan flank.
Chandra Lal Giri, president of the Asian Studies and Research Center in Kathmandu, returned from a conference at Tsinghua University and told the Telegraph Nepal:
[Chinese intellectuals] are worried by the prolonged transitional period in Nepal. They fear that political insatiability may boost the morale of activists of Free Tibet Movement in Nepal. Therefore, the Chinese intellectual wish the Chinese government supporting Nepal in ending the current transition period. They also want their government to further provide substantial economic assistances to Nepal. They think that a politically stable and prosperous Nepal will be in the overall interest of both China and Nepal. 
In an October exchange with reporters, China's ambassador Yang made the significant statement that China was prepared to bend its traditional stated policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries to participate pro-actively in Nepal's peace process. 
Ironically, Dodin of TibetInfoNet told Asia Times Online that successful creation of an effective national polity in Nepal - the stated goal of all of the beleaguered nation's interlocutors, from the PRC to the European Union to India and the United States - may not be a blessing for Tibetans:
I would not say things have got any better or worse under the Bhattarai government. But I would say that, in case this or a further government manages to reinstitute a better control of the state apparatus, the question will rise whether this has a positive or negative impact on Tibetans.
Certainly, China will then massively lobby for Tibetan-unfriendly rules and regulations, rather than, as it is now, deal with a messy situation. China's wish of seeing a stable and harmonious Nepal is genuine, already because, as all despotic regimes, they hate uncontrollable mess over everything. Just then, it will be essential that not only the executive is strong (as China would prefer it, hence their former support for the king), but also the legal system, courts and human rights organizations.
The postponement of Wen's visit (which Gachhadar, on his return from Beijing on December 30, optimistically but vaguely stated would be rescheduled "soon") is, perhaps, a disturbing indication that the PRC has concerns that include but go beyond the embarrassment of anti-Chinese demonstrations or the alleged pro-Indian leanings of Nepal's government.
It may be that the PRC government doesn't see a clear way forward in Nepal, and prefers to wait, rethink and rebalance before it commits Chinese resources and Wen's prestige to the trip - and to the Bhattarai government and Nepal's future.
1. Wen's visit cancelled Great setback to Bhattarai government Who is the victor, who is the vanquished?, People's Review, Dec 15, 2011.
2. DPM bid to meet Wen flops, The Himalayan, Dec 27, 2011.
3. More than 100 Tibetan protesters detained in Nepal, MSN, Nov 1, 2011.
4. Tibetan Refugees in Nepal: Difficult days ahead, Telegraph Nepal, Nov 13, 2011.
5. Nepal bends to China over Tibet, Asia Times Online, Dec 6, 2011.
6. Strengthening of Indo-US relation is aimed at containing China, Telegraph Nepal, Sep 7, 2011.
7. Intl. forces escalating anti-China activities in Nepal: Amb. Houlan, Telegraph Nepal, Oct 17, 2011.