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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2398

New Winds In Nepal

By R.C. Saldi - Syndicate Features

Nepal’s China tilt is continuing. It was pronounced during the short lived the K.P. Sharma Oli government. The regime change that has seen the return of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda to the driver’s seat appears to have made some dent but not much of a difference.

Take electronic voting machines (EVMs), for instance. India donated EVMs during the Constituent Assembly elections held in 2013, as Kathmandu wanted to test electronic voting practices. For the local bodies elections slated for the 14th of May, China is providing some 30,000 ballot boxes while the EVMs negotiations are on with a British company.

Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan visited Kathmandu in the last week of March (2017). He promised heavy equipment and logistic support for the Nepalese Army. China is also holding its first ever joint military exercise with Nepal. The very announcement of military exercise made the eye brows to raise. Analysts, however, aver that such exercises would be cause for concern only if China uses it as an instrument to increase its clout in the strategic space to the disadvantage of India.

The clamour for changes in the India-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty is gaining traction again. The demand is coming from a section of politicians, who are familiar faces in New Delhi too. Ostensibly, this has something to do with the Treaty provision that deals with military buys by Kathmandu from third countries.

Article V of the Treaty signed in 1950 stipulates: “The Government of Nepal shall be free to import from or through the territory of India, arms, ammunition or warlike material or equipment necessary for the security of Nepal. The procedure for giving effect to this arrangement shall be worked out by the two governments, acting in consultation.”

In the letters both sides had exchanged on 31st July 1950, the day the Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed, India and Nepal agreed that:

“Any arms, ammunition or warlike material and equipment necessary for the security of Nepal that the Government of Nepal may import through the territory of India shall be so imported with the assistance and agreement of the Government of India. The Government of India will take steps for the smooth and expeditious transport of such arms and ammunition through India.”

So much so, accepting the Chinese help would mean contravention of the India-Nepal friendship treaty. It is not for the first time though that Kathmandu has sought to breach the Treaty. It did so once in 1989, and imported arms and ammunition from China without informing India. The last consignment was, however, cancelled when the South Block pointed out the Red Lines.

Today, India retains its privileged position as the largest supplier of military hardware to Nepal army. It has been providing training facilities as well. The obvious question therefore: Does Nepal want to carve out a new path by forcing amendments in the 1950 Treaty? The jury is out.

As pointed out at the outset, the K.P. Sharma Oli regime was closer to China than India. As Prime Minister, though for a short period, the CPN-UML leader, had signed as many as ten bilateral agreements with China covering free trade, road connectivity, rail link from Shigatse (Southern China) to Rasuwagadhi (on the Nepal border), financial cooperation, and transit facilities – all aimed at lessening Nepal’s dependence on India. Nepal’s third country trade through China is also engaging the attention of both sides, going by latest reports in Kathmandu.

Nepal’s incumbent Prime Minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal visited Beijing last month (March 2017) for a regional conference and held discussions with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the conference. Xi was to have visited Nepal last October. The visit was cancelled at the last moment after regime change in Kathmandu.

Much like his predecessor, Prachanda considers the Trade and Transit Treaty with China as of paramount importance to Nepal. He is said to focus on rail and road connectivity projects and cross border power transmission lines. Volume of trade between the two countries is steadily raising. So are the Chinese projects in number.

Whether China will replace India as the largest trading partner of the Himalayan country is too early to say. One thing is clear though. China will be only happy to herald that turn around sooner than later. And it is working overtime to roll out the red carpet, having deftly exploited the opening provided by the Madeshis, who had blocked the India-Nepal border last year to drive home their own concerns to their government.
On its part, India is addressing the Nepalese requirements. As a matter of its standing policy. This is clear from the MoU signed on the 27th of March. Under the accord, India will meet Nepal’s full requirements of petrol, diesel, kerosene, aviation turbine fuel and cooking gas, till March 2022.

New Delhi has also revived the India-Nepal Joint Commission. Officials of the two countries are meeting regularly to review the pace of various India aided projects.

Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu visited Kathmandu to attend Nepal Infrastructure Summit. India has agreed to extend a soft loan of $ 340 million for 15 road projects.

An estimated 91.58 billion rupees will be pumped into the 900 MW Arun III Hydropower project. The World Bank had abandoned the project in 1994. India offered to revive the stalled project when Prime Minister Modi visited Nepal. Surplus power from Arun III will be wheeled from Dhalkebar (Nepal) to Muzaffarpur (India).

Having said this, there is no gain saying that New Delhi needs to play a more assertive role in the region. It must constantly review diplomatic and political equations developing in its neighbourhood, and redefine its priorities for mutual benefit.

This will be the perfect anti-dote to Beijing’s calibrated efforts to undercut New Delhi’s growing clout with countries of the region and the western powers, particularly the United States.

Does this formulation sound like a call for a more assertive Indian diplomacy? If so what.

A country of India’s size with long borders, and large population cannot allow a drift. More so when it is an acknowledged soft power and hailed as the emerging major power with a stake in peace and tranquillity in the region.

* R.C. Saldi - the writer is a former Special Correspondent of All India Radio in Kathmandu

- Asian Tribune -

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