March 20, 2013
“Beijing moves to safeguard strategic interests in South Asia”, written by Jayadeva Ranade, was published yesterday by DNA. The last half of the article should be of particular interest to those who monitor the precarious status of Tibetans living in Nepal.
There are discernible moves by China in recent weeks to safeguard its strategic interests, especially in South Asia. These are part of adjustments that the new Chinese leadership, prompted by its assessment that China is facing an adverse international environment, is carrying out. China’s policy towards Asia will become evident as senior foreign ministry appointments approved by the National People’s Congress (NPC) are implemented.
Meanwhile, Beijing posted a new ambassador to India this January, reportedly for the first time with the rank of vice minister. The recent ambassadorial appointments to Myanmar and Nepal, however, attract special attention. These portend that Beijing will pursue its foreign policy objectives in these countries of strategic importance in a more determined fashion.
Fifty seven-year old Yang Houlan, till recently China’s Ambassador to Nepal, had his tenure cut short and was posted to Myanmar earlier this February. Reports assert that the work done by him in Nepal was appreciated in Beijing and he was specially selected for the assignment in Yangon.
China has had decades-long close ties with Myanmar’s military junta and these are now getting loosened. Over the years, China has made sizeable strategic investments in Myanmar, including the almost completed oil pipeline from Kyaukpyu Island in Rakhine to Kunming, capital of China’s Yunan province. It is currently in the process of constructing a gas pipeline along the same alignment. The restoration of normal ties between the US and Myanmar, soon to be followed by the likely ingress of US companies is a serious concern for Beijing.
An additional complication is Tokyo’s interest in Myanmar. China’s influence in Myanmar is now at risk.
Yang Houlan’s main task in Myanmar will be to preserve the close ties between the Myanmar and Chinese authorities and ensure continued Chinese influence. Reflecting Beijing’s concern at the developments in Myanmar, China’s foreign affairs establishment has taken the unusual step of appointing retired 71-year-old vice foreign minister, Wang Yifan, as its special envoy for Myanmar. He will reinforce Yang Houlan’s efforts from Beijing.
The appointment of China’s new ambassador to Nepal, Wu Chuntai, is more interesting. Nepal has been the focus of Beijing’s attention for a few years now because of the activities of the Tibetan refugees. Chinese influence has spread rapidly throughout Nepal coinciding particularly with the political ascendance of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chairman of the UCPN-Maoist, better known by his nom de guerre ‘Prachanda’.
Prachanda is well known to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). He is a vice president of the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF) managed by Xiao Wunan, a Chinese communist cadre reputedly close to Chinese President Xi Jinping. The APECF is actively involved in trying to co-opt Tibetan Buddhists and persons of Tibetan origin in Nepal to prevent ‘anti-China’ activities and undermine the Dalai Lama’s influence. It has plans to broaden its range of activities to include Tibetan Buddhists residing in other areas along India’s vulnerable Himalayan border and is especially targeting the Tibetan Buddhist clergy. The APECF last year proposed a capital-intensive plan to develop Lumbini, which is the Buddha’s birthplace and a town situated on Nepal’s border with India.
[For more information on APECF click on my "Lumbini: Birthplace of Buddha" file.]
China’s new ambassador, Wu Chuntai, brings special skills to his assignment. Immediately prior to being posted to Kathmandu, he was the deputy director general of the department of external security of China’s ministry of foreign affairs. The department is headed by Quo Guohong, a former ambassador to Nepal. This department handles counter-intelligence, protection of Chinese personnel posted in embassies overseas, and security-related work relating to Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. Usually the heads of chancery, or officials in-charge of administration in Chinese diplomatic missions abroad, handle such work and report to this department.
While Wu Chuntai, who joined the foreign service 27 years ago, has never done an assignment as ambassador, he has been posted to Turkey, the UK, Northern Ireland and as first secretary in Hong Kong. He has extensive experience relating to Tibetans-in-exile.
Wu Chuntai received a positive reception on arrival in Kathmandu and, after presenting credentials to Nepal’s President Dr Ram Baran Yadav on March 11, met Prachanda the following day. During the meeting he discussed the political situation in Nepal and matters relating to Tibetan refugees and Tibetans resident in Nepal. He indicated that China would invest in communications infrastructure projects.
With the arrival of Wu Chuntai, the Tibetan community in Nepal can expect to come under increased pressure in the coming months. The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu is also likely to become more pro-active in infiltrating the Tibetan community in India.
Jayadeva Ranade is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India.