With no diplomatic ties with Bhutan, prevailing border tensions with India and a changing geo-strategic sphere in Nepal, China's Himalayan neighbourhood security is critically tied to safeguarding Tibet
The aftershocks of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan have resulted in China seeking reiteration of its One China Policy (OCP) globally, especially from its Himalayan neighbourhood, to secure loose ends in Tibet, which is another vulnerable region for China. As a result, Beijing has doubled its diplomatic efforts to prevent spillover effects of the Taiwan issue on Tibet. In the Himalayan neighbourhood, Tibet shares a long border with India, Nepal and Bhutan, and China has border disputes with all of them.
Individually, China has long-standing issues with India and Bhutan, in addition to border disputes. India hosts the Dalai Lama and a Tibetan government-in-exile and Nepal has around 30,000 Tibetan refugees. While China targets India on these grounds with no leverage on the matter, it has been able to persuade Nepal to prevent any 'Free Tibet' movement since the 2008 unrest in Tibet. Meanwhile, these loose ends leave China vulnerable in the Himalayan belt, which it has tried to secure over the decades.
On August 14, China’s Global Times newspaper published a commentary titled "Nepal Should be Vigilant about India’s Bid to Encroach its Territory". It finds India’s infrastructure projects near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) violating the status quo at the LAC. While the commentary title reads as a diktat to Nepal, it puts the border dispute between Nepal and India as the basis to warn Nepal. It added: “India has turned to other neighbours to strengthen its control and encroachment on the border between China, India and the third countries.”
Clearly, it is an effort to build upon Beijing'ss own insecurities vis-à-vis India, Nepal and Bhutan. The Global Times commentary exhibits China’s immediate security concerns in the Himalayas in the post-Taiwan episode.
In its reactionary moves, China invited an 11-member Nepalese delegation led by Nepal Foreign Minister Narayan Prasad Khadga on a three-day visit. China offered a grant worth $118 million to Nepal in addition to a $3.5 billion grant promised during Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal in 2019. The new Chinese grant is offered to Nepal in the backdrop of the Nepalese Parliament’s ratification of a $500 million American grant under the Millennium Corporation Challenge (MCC) programme in February. From the day Nepal officially ratified the MCC, the United States has become a focal point of China’s geo-strategic manoeuvrings in Nepal. Several Chinese delegations have arrived in Nepal to revive Nepal’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Although Nepal signed BRI in May 2017, it sits idle, with no projects having moved an inch. Since Nepal insists on receiving more grants than loans under the BRI, the recent grant from China to Nepal is provided in this context. Nepal’s participation in the BRI was seen as a strategic loss for India, which the communist governments in Nepal exploited to its benefit. Following an understanding of BRI, Nepal Army also held two joint military exercises with China in 2017 and 2018 named “Sagarmatha Friendship Exercise”. It was the first time that the two countries had engaged militarily. However, in the last three years, no exercises have occurred though China has insisted.
Nepal's waning interest in BRI
Also, with the fall of the communist government in Nepal in July 2021, China has lost a reliable partner in that country. Chinese media does not shy away from referring to the present Nepali Congress-led coalition government by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba as "pro-India", which is understandable considering the Deuba government has not been very keen on engaging with BRI, holding military exercises with China, and continues to engage with India and the United States on an active footing.
The 39th edition of the month-long joint-military training between the US and Nepal Army named "Ex-Balance Nail" is taking place in Nepal. The exercise focuses on the Law of Armed Conflict and Military Decision-Making Process, which China again sees as a counter-strategic exercise. Also, the growing security and strategic cooperation between India and the United States, especially India’s active participation in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, does not go well with Beijing.
Watching India-US moves
India and the US armies are scheduled to participate in the “Vajra Prahar” -- a joint military exercise conducted alternatively -- from October 14 to 31. The Chinese media has referred to the exercise as “targeting China at the tactical level. New Delhi is no longer shy about its intention to use the US to suppress China”.
Although China may have used tactical defensive mechanics on the Taiwan issue and cried foul at the US for violating the One China Policy, it remains vigilant about the "loose ends" in Tibet. With no diplomatic ties with Bhutan, prevailing border tensions with India and a changing geo-strategic sphere in Nepal, its Himalayan neighbourhood security is critically tied to safeguarding Tibet.
(The author is a Research Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute in New Delhi, a division of the Asia Society India Centre, Mumbai. Views are personal. He can be contacted at Rgupta@asiasociety.org)