Why Nepal’s coming elections are of great interest to China

The indications are that Prime Minister Deuba will return to power in the general elections but this time the Chinese stakes in these elections are higher than before. With his third-term presidency, Xi Jinping is more than eager to realize China’s illegal territorial claims in India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Nepalese Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi(Photo: Twitter)

General elections are scheduled in Nepal on November 20, 2022 to elect the 275 members of the House of Representatives - 165 members from single-member constituencies plus 110 members from a single nationwide constituency. The election will be held alongside provincial elections for the seven provincial assemblies.

 Local elections in Nepal were held on May 13 in six metropolitan cities, 11 sub-metropolitan cities, 276 municipalities and 460 rural municipalities but re-election had to be ordered in 79 polling centers by the Election Commission of Nepal because of violence between supporters of different political parties and accusations of booth capturing by the CPN (UML). The re-election was held on July 7. Post the elections, Nepali Congress emerged as the single largest party in Nepal followed by the CPN (UML) and Maoist Centre.

 Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress was appointed Prime Minister of Nepal on July 13, 2021 by the Supreme Court of Nepal. He has served as Nepal’s prime minister thrice earlier (1995-1997, 2001-2002 and 2017-2018) and is president of the Nepali Congress since 2016. 

Deuba’s cabinet consists mainly of the Nepali Congress, Maoist Centre headed by Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” and the Janata Samajwadi Party which is a conglomerate of former Maoists and Madhesi leaders of Nepal. This alliance of political parties came about in opposition to former prime minister K P Sharma Oli dissolving the House of Representatives. The Supreme Court reinstated parliament after Oli had dissolved it in December 2020 and May 2021, eventually forcing him out of office.

Strategic claims

Mao Zhedong contemplated Tibet as the palm of China (which was invaded and occupied) and Nepal as one of its five fingers, implying Nepal must be made part of China or sucked inexorably into Beijing’s sphere of influence. Mao also had similar designs for the other “three fingers” which are in Indian territory, and Bhutan as the “fourth finger”. For these reasons China initiated, armed and supported the Maoists insurgency in Nepal, plunging the country in a bloody civil war that lasted 10 years and nine months – from February 1996 to November 2006. Beijing has always wanted a government in Kathmandu that does not favor India.

Prachanda and Oli, Chinese mascots since the Maoists insurgency-induced civil war, have been trying to outdo each other to remain in Beijing’s good books. China succeeded in merging the CPN (UML) headed by Oli and the Maoists Centre led by Prachanda to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). But the NCP dissolved in March 2021 after it underwent an internal split in 2020 because of disagreements between Oli and Prachanda,

Prachanda served as prime minister of Nepal twice during 2008-2009 and 2016-2017. Before his first premiership, he reportedly told the Nepalese media: ”Our ultimate war will be with the Indian Army”. China accords him red carpet treatment during his visits to China even when he is not the prime minister.  

Oli served as prime minister of Nepal during 2015-2016 and 2018-2021. During his first premiership, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal. The bilateral partnership was elevated to ‘Strategic Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship for Development and Prosperity’, execution of the Belt and Road Initiative was accelerated and the China-Nepal Agreement on Boundary Management System was signed.

Oli's aggressive postures

During Oli’s second premiership, he published a map showing three areas of India as part of Nepal without discussion with India. Oli took a confrontationist approach with India, established new posts and helipads close to the Kalapani area and for the first time in 70 years deployed the army in these posts. Activities of Pakistan’s ISI went up in Nepal and China was given oil drilling rights in the Terai region bordering India. 

PLA troops in uniform have been observed mining minerals in northern Nepal by foreign journalists in the past. But as prime minister, Oli completely ignored Chinese intrusions in Nepal.  The PLA and China’s border police occupied Nepalese territory at the Limi Lapcha area of Namkha Gaupalika (rural municipality) of Humla by removing the boundary pillars and constructing nine buildings. In June 2020, Nepal's Survey Department of Agriculture Ministry claimed China had encroached in 10 places comprising nearly 33 hectares of Nepalese land and that China has also been diverting the flow of rivers to increase its territory.

Deuba has always been for resolving any issues through diplomatic initiatives and mutual relations but, ahead of the upcoming general elections, Oli said on November 4: “We will bring back land, including Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura (from India). We will not spare even an inch of our land.”

Beijing's growing interest

The indications are that Prime Minister Deuba would return to power in the general elections but this time the Chinese stakes in these elections are higher than before. With his third-term presidency, Xi Jinping is more than eager to realize China’s illegal territorial claims in India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Based on the average annual remittance of about US$ 1.021 billion by Nepalese migrants working in India, Nepal estimates around one million Nepalese migrant workers in India as of 2021. On the other hand Nepalese in China number only about 3500-4000. At the same time, China has been questioning why Nepalese youth join the Indian Army. With the military standoff with India since April-May 2020, China has been recruiting Tibetan and Nepalese youth into the PLA.

With India replacing the regular enrolment in the army with four-year short-term tenures under its Agnipath scheme, China would be tempted to recruit Nepalese in large numbers and deploy them within Nepal under the garb of protecting the BRI or another pretext if it can coax or coerce the government in Kathmandu to agree. 

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal.)

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