Saturday, 16 January, 2021
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OPINION

Taking On The Himalayan Challenge



Dhruba Hari Adhikary

Incredible but true.
Just over a year ago, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi met each other in the south Indian city of Chennai for their second informal meeting, being held a year after their first rendezvous in Wuhan, China. Xi then flew into Kathmandu for his first State Visit to Nepal. Those visits, said Xinhua quoting a senior Chinese official, aimed at injecting “new impetus” in China’s relations not just with Nepal and India but with the South Asian region as a whole.
What is in front of us all today is not a friendly scenario. The friendly gestures and overtures India and China exchanged a year ago have vanished swiftly and steadily. And rest of the world is watching their belligerent postures with growing anxiety. Needless to emphasise, growing intense animosity between them has placed Nepal in an unenviable position. It is in this context Kathmandu has tried to play a balancing role with both of Nepal’s neighbours. Besides, observing genuine neutrality over their border --- and broader --- dispute is a formidable challenge, which often reminds the trying times of 1950s and early sixties. The 1962 war is not something to be forgotten easily.

Sincere efforts
In spite of internal political instability, Kathmandu has made sincere efforts to help reduce tensions in the Himalayan segment of Asia and these efforts remain moderately effective thus far. Prudence has guided Nepal’s government to employ Nepali Army’s potentials for a military-to-military engagement with neighbouring armies. The first attempt surfaced in the form of a visit by India’s army chief, General M. M. Naravane earlier this month. It was a rather difficult proposition in the context of controversial remarks Naravane had made last May, regarding Nepal’s opposition to continued Indian occupation of Kalapani region. Although there was no provocation, General Naravane had gone to the extent of accusing Kathmandu of raising the issue on someone else’s behest, hinting at Beijing.
Naravane’s broadside was bound to ignite public outcry, and it did. But before it could take a turn for the worse, the Indian Army chief issued statements nullifying his previous utterances. In Kathmandu, Nepal’s army leadership did its bit as a result of which the situation considerably eased. The immediate outcome resulted into the visit even if there were lingering concerns in the security circles. Maintaining a reciprocal tradition, Nepal’s head of state bestowed upon General Naravane the title of ‘Honorary General’ of Nepali Army. All in all, he received a befitting welcome in the land of brave soldiers, reminding him of glorious history of the Gurkhas.
As was expected, this planned army-to-army interaction turned out to be a tool of diplomacy. This event led to resumption of other regular diplomatic activities between Nepal and India. Foreign secretary-level talks became the starting point. After all, our bilateral relationship is a multi-faceted one.

Sensitive balance
However, Nepal’s physical size and location makes it imperative for Nepal to maintain friendly ties with China as well. “Nobody, however friendly, can think for us about our relations with India and China and the sensitive balance implied in it,” said Professor Y. N. Khanal, in a book published twenty years ago. He was a seasoned diplomat who had had first-hand experience as the ambassador to all three countries that matter most to Nepal: India, China and the United States.
Khanal’s perspective is shared by latter-day diplomats with equal, if not more, emphasis. Dinesh Bhattarai is one of them. “Nepal cannot protect its national interests by establishing intimate relations with one and ignoring the other,” said former ambassador Bhattarai in an article he wrote in 2019 (Connect Himalaya). He also served as foreign affairs adviser to two former prime ministers, namely Sushil Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba. Nepal’s turbulent history records several wars and battles it fought on both fronts - north and south. Obviously, the lessons learnt over centuries have persuaded the present-day rulers to maintain equitable, and thereby peaceful relations with neighbours sharing borders with Nepal.
The arrival in Kathmandu early next week of General Wei Fenghe, China’s Defence Minister, needs to be understood in its proper context. Besides being a State Councillor, Wei is a member of China’s powerful Central Military Commission. According to a high-placed official source, his fleeting day-long stay in Nepali capital is being billed as a ‘working visit’. The ministerial hat he wears obviously attracts the attention of civilian authorities and political leaders in Nepal. This is but natural as he happens to be the first Chinese visitor after President Xi’s sojourn last year. After all, he was invited by Nepal’s defence minister when he went to China.

Pledges & commitments
While some of the multiple issues high on the agenda may be discussed at the political level talks, bulk of the substantive discussions might be held during Wei’s meeting with Nepal Army Chief, General Purna Chandra Thapa and his senior colleagues. One of the subjects that has bothered Nepalis for some time pertains to media reports claiming that there have been border violations, especially in the north-western district of Humla—the other side being the Tibet Autonomous Region. Officially, this has already been denied, the visiting minister is expected to further clarify the matter, thus assuring the friendly people of Nepal. China is aware that Nepal has a firm commitment to pursue One-China policy that disallows Nepali soil being used against the northern neighbour.
When the army generals of two sides meet, Nepal’s army chief, General Thapa, gets the opportunity to offer identical assurances that Nepali Army’s newly-established directorate on border survey and monitoring would go a long way in settling recurring border issues. In fact, he can float an idea of forming a joint mechanism to address complaints relating to encroachments. They can agree to direct defence attache’s of respective embassies to co-ordinate their works as they are the ones who run military diplomacy on day to day basis.
The hosts and the visitors in uniform might also agree on the overall expansion of cooperation under which China has been providing equipment and training opportunities to the members of Nepali Army. The military leaderships have also a possibility to revive the joint military exercise which has been delayed due to COVID-19 pandemic. Like Nepali Army, China’s PLA has also been an active participant in the UN-led peacekeeping missions across the globe. In other words, Nepali and Chinese soldiers continue to share their experiences in the fields of far-away lands as well. In extraordinary times, when clouds of uncertainty hover on the horizon, it is the army which has to take on the unfolding challenges.

(Adhikary is a journalist active since 1978 and writes on regional issues. dhrubahari@gmail.com) 

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