China’s Increasing Military Diplomacy in Nepal

 By Shaurya Vardhan

A nation with a long-standing tradition of soldiering and military service, Nepal’s geographic location has found it in the midst of a power struggle between the military powers of China and India.

As the two nations compete to become the dominant country in the region, Nepal is positioned in the middle of these power dynamics. Acknowledging the martial tradition of the Nepalese, both India and China, have tried developing bilateral and multi-lateral military relations with Nepal to strengthen the military diplomacy.

The Nepalese have found themselves using their culture of warfare as a tool of diplomacy in many situations before. During the time of British rule in India, the Rana dynasty shared a very strong bond with the British administrators. The British deployed Gurkhas against Indians during the revolt of 1857, and then against the Tibetans during the campaign led by Sir Francis Younghusband in 1904. Gorkhali troops of mainly 4 castes (Magar, Gurung, Rai, Limbu), continue to serve in foreign armies, paramilitary forces and policies[i].  Approximately 77,640 Gurkhas serve in the armies of India, United Kingdom, Brunei and Singapore.

At a time when the landlocked nation of Nepal, is aiming to reduce its dependence on India for majority of its imports, China is posturing and projecting itself as the better and less authoritarian alternative for Nepal, which was seen prominently during the 2015 blockade of Nepal. India, for its own part has constantly been unable to live up to the promises that have been made to Nepal, owing to the growing Indian economy’s need for resources and the difference in political ideologies of various parties that form the government. In most such cases, China has more than willingly rushed to fill in the vacuum left by India’s unfulfilled promises.

A prime example of this would be the construction of the Police Academy that India had promised during the 1995 Police Talks between India and Nepal that were held in New Delhi. The next mention of this police academy was made during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal after assuming power in 2014. A plaque for the same was commissioned post which the project was shelved again. The Chinese enthusiastically stepped in and began construction of the academy in 2015 and in 2017 handed over this state-of-the-art facility to the Nepalese. The entire project was undertaken by China Railway’s 14th Bureau Group Co. Ltd[ii]. The Nepalese have time and again expressed their appreciation to the Chinese for the same. Similar stalls by India on the Mahakali River power project and the India funded road network in Southern Nepal have severely damaged India’s credibility among the people of Nepal. This poor image transcends from the public to the military and security sector as well.

India and Nepal have a strong history of military cooperation, arms sale and joint training. Despite this, it is no surprise that Nepal is looking at further deepening its security ties with China. India had until 2005 been supplying lethal and non-lethal military supplies to Nepal in their use against the Maoist Insurgency. These included the INSAS (Indian National Small Arms Systems) Rifles. In August 2005, an encounter with Maoists in Kalikot led to the martyrdom of 40 Nepalese security personnel. Nepal blamed the INSAS rifles for their underperformance and tendency to overheat as the cause of failure in this particular operation. The then Army spokesman Deepak Gurung even went on to say Nepal needed better weapons to defeat the Maoists[iii].

It was in the same year that, post the removal of the democratically elected Prime Minister and cabinet by King Gyanendra, that India decided to halt supply of weapons to Nepal, which it only resumed at a large scale in 2013 out of fear of increasing Chinese influence[iv]. It was only 9-months post India’s self-imposed ban on weapons sale to Nepal that King Gyanendra in November 2008 received truckloads of arms and ammunitions supplies from the Chinese which was delivered in utmost secrecy via the Kodari region[v]. This wasn’t the first instance of Chinese Arms supply to Nepal. The first major instance was in 1989 when China supplied Anti Aircraft Guns, SSM missiles and AK-47 rifles after there was a failure in trade negotiations between India and Nepal[vi]. When India voiced its disapproval for the same, Nepal emphasized on its sovreignreigty and freedom. More recently, in October 2018, China pledged NPR 2.5 Billion as a grant to the Nepalese Army, for use in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Operations and Equipment[vii]. China also provides scholarships to Nepalese officers in Chinese Military Universities, and regularly invites officers from Nepal for dialogues, seminars and discussions[viii].

In terms of military cooperation, military exercises play a major role in strengthening joint operational capability and camaraderie between forces. The first bilateral exercises between China and Nepal were held in the year 1988. The purpose of these exercises was to use the jungles of Nepal to train the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in jungle warfare and inversely provide the Nepalese Army with operational lessons from the PLA. These exercises did not see continuity but the close bilateral relation between the armies remained. The first set of bilateral exercises between India and Nepal titled Exercise Suryakiran were conducted in 2011 which continue till date.

A major turning point in this equation was when the Nepal Communist Party came to power in 2018. The new prime minster, K.P. Oli was understood to have an inclination towards China and in June the he visited China and sign 14 key agreements related to a variety of issues[ix].

In September, India hosted the BIMSTEC Military Exercises titled MILEX which was aimed towards development of joint counter terrorism capability. Nepal, pulled out of the exercises at the very last minute which was done due to internal pressure by various faction across the ruling and opposition party[x]. The very same month, a contingent of the Nepalese army travelled to Chengdu, which is situated in the Sichuan province for Exercise Sagarmatha II[xi]. Chengdu, is the headquarters of the Western Theatre Command of the PLA which is responsible for operations along the China-Nepal and the Indo-China border. Though the size of the troops involved in this exercise is minimal compared to the Suryakiran Exercises, it is the timing of the exercise and the conditions surrounding it that must ring an alarm bell for India.

For far too long, Nepal has been too reliant on India for economic and security purposes. Witnessing the rise of China from up close has made Nepal reconsider its stance and it has aimed to create a balance between its northern and southern boundaries. This balance will only be created when Nepal increases its economic and military interactions with China, the process of which has already begun with Nepal on its way to becoming a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative having already signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the same. Though more recently, Nepal has voiced its concerns over the environmental consequences of such large-scale construction in the Himalayas, they still very much are a part of the project[xii]. Thus, Nepal continues to carefully tread between the two powers ensuring that it is never in a position where it faces repercussions from either side.

In conclusion India no longer has the strong influence that it exerted over the government and the people of Nepal, and China now has a foothold in the region that it is increasingly looking to build upon. Nepal’s position will increasingly determine the geographic connectivity of the region, which will ultimately determine the power dynamics in South Asia. These dynamics are bound to get further disturbed by an increasing military cooperation that is emerging between China and Nepal which will greatly affect the security situation and power blocs among the South Asian neighbours.



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