Did Nepal snub India for China with military drill decision, or is it just a nation in flux?
Kathmandu’s withdrawal from BIMSTEC exercises more likely to do with parliamentary power plays than a sign of allegiance, observers say
Nepal’s last minute decision to withdraw from India-led regional military drills is indicative of the struggle facing the South Asian nation’s new government as it tries to strike a balance in its relations with India and China, diplomatic observers said.
Sandwiched between the world’s two most populous countries, Nepal is in the early stages of a new democracy and while there might have been some suggestions of a political move towards Beijing and away from New Delhi, its new leaders appear yet to have found their feet.
Sworn in in February, the ruling party is a coalition of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist- Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), and headed by Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli. In his previous election campaign in 2015, Oli was outspoken about his desire to increase ties with China reduce Nepal’s dependence on India.
Kathmandu had initially agreed to take part in the inaugural Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)’s first ever joint military drills alongside its six fellow members (namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand). But the decision was questioned in parliament on September 5, with lawmakers saying Nepal would not join any military alliance.
Oli’s press adviser Kundan Aryal was quoted by Xinhua last week as saying that Nepal would not join the drill, while the prime minister himself told India’s ambassador to Kathmandu that Nepal was unable to participate due to “internal political pressure”, according to a Hindustan Times report.
The seven days of exercises got under way in India on Monday and end on Sunday.
In contrast, Nepal confirmed it would take part in Sagarmatha Friendship-2 joint exercise with China, which starts on Monday in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan and runs through September 28. The exercise, aimed at improving disaster management and counterterrorism, was last held in April last year.
Nepal’s decision to pull out of the BIMSTEC exercise came soon after China granted it access to four seaports and three land ports, which would bring an end to India’s monopoly over the landlocked country’s trading routes.
Nepal’s defence ministry did not respond to the South China Morning Post’s request for comment.
Speculation as to the strategic relevance of Oli’s decision has been growing, although regional security watchers have said it should not be read as a clear shift in allegiance from India to China.
Bhaskar Koirala, director of the Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies in Kathmandu, said the decision had much to do with internal disputes within the ruling party.
“Regional security is of high importance to Nepal. I can’t see any reason for the Nepalese government wanting to oppose anything that helps with that. Apart from the fact it might make China uncomfortable,” he said.
“There is still much manoeuvring and contradiction inside the party, and some factions lean towards India and some towards China.
“Looking at the broader picture, Nepal is in a period of transition,” he said. “It is currently a weak state with a weak government and weak leadership left over from the previous political situation.”
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Koirala said that revoking decisions because of internal jostling for power could be a trend in the short term for the young government.
“[But] This is not going to be suitable for anyone, not for India, not for China. [These powers] need consistency, and trust [from Nepal].”
Nepal and India have a long history of military cooperation and a joint force mans an 1,800km (1,120-mile) open border between the countries. Delhi has also been the major arms and ammunition provider to the Nepalese Army.
But China has emerged as the Himalayan nation’s biggest investor, accounting for 87 per cent of all foreign direct investment in the first 10 months of the last financial year, according to figures from Nepal’s Department of Industry.
Viraj Solanki, a South Asia research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, agreed that Oli’s turnaround did not necessarily mean a long-term move away from India, saying that domestic concerns would reach beyond party conflicts.
“[The withdrawal] highlights domestic political sensitivities in Nepal towards multilateral military exercises, and its concerns over taking part in a multilateral exercise that could be viewed as being part of a ‘military bloc’, which it has refrained from doing historically,” he said.
Solanki said also that Nepal had much stronger and more institutionalised military ties with India than with China.
Almost 300 soldiers from Nepal and India took part in the 13th annual Surya Kiran exercise, which ended in June, while only 20 will join the upcoming Nepal-China exercise.
Whatever Kathmandu’s reasons for pulling out of BIMSTEC, the lack of an official explanation for the decision did make Oli’s government look bad on the diplomatic front, Koirala said.
“The Nepalese government could have done it in a more diplomatic way,” he said. “[But] they left everyone in a confused state, they did not explain why, and that is irresponsible.”