- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Over the past 10 months, the Himalayan nation of Nepal has adopted a potentially explosive pro-China foreign policy strategy designed to expand diplomatic and military relations between the two countries. The genesis of this policy can be traced to February, when dictatorial King Gyanendra seized absolute power by suspending free elections and democratic reforms.

Since then, Katmandu has come under intense pressure from traditional allies India, Britain and the United States, all of which imposed a range of tough sanctions, essentially freezing all military exchanges. All three countries have stated recently that military assistance to Nepal would resume only when King Gyanendra has handed over executive power to a democratic government and addressed human-rights concerns.

Facing the prospect of escalating internal unrest from an alienated public and a rising Maoist insurrection, war-torn Nepal has turned to alternative sources for military support, namely, mainland China. This new relationship poses difficult questions for India and the United States, testing the resolve of the world’s two largest democracies.

In November, Royal Nepalese Army Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa secured a “no strings attached” grant of $12 million from China, the first such assistance since 1998. That same month, Nepal’s Kantipur Daily reported that truckloads of arms and ammunition had crossed over the China-Nepal border under the close escort of the Chinese army.

Just a few weeks earlier, Gen. Thapa met with Chinese DefenseMinisterCao Gangchuan in Beijing. During their meeting, Gangchan indicated that his country would continue to promote military cooperation with Nepal, noting that bilateral relations have “witnessed progress.” Later, Liang Guangile of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army discussed issues related to Taiwan and Tibet with Gen. Thapa.

Although Indian and U.S. military aid to Nepal still far exceeds China’s recent “donations,” expanded military cooperation sends a clear message to New Delhi and Washington that Beijing plans to increase its influence in the region. All of this makes economic competitor and past military adversary India especially nervous. “It is a serious concern for India especially if the [defense] agreement with China is to be a long-term plan,” one Indian defense official said.

In the past, India has supplied Nepal with rifles, Lancer helicopter gun ships, armored vehicles and ammunition in order to support democracy efforts and to repel Maoist activities on its northern border. For its part, the United States has supplied Nepal with millions of dollars in military aid and tens of thousands of M-16 assault rifles, while Britain has provided “non-lethal” equipment such as transport helicopters and trucks.

Nepal’s military relationship with China is a national security concern for India, raising questions regarding China’s ultimate intentions and the use of Nepalese territory to spy on Indian military installations. In addition, the joint Pakistan-Chinese construction project at the port of Gwada and the use of Myanmar’s Cocos Islands by China also have New Delhi concerned.

With several lucrative oil and gas pipeline deals in the works, agreements to jointly construct north-south roads and railways, and ongoing discussions designed to create an “information superhighway” between the two countries, Katmandu is beginning to view Beijing as a powerful and influential regional friend and a possible long-term alternative to India and the United States.

But the government of King Gyanendra has recently bolstered military and political ties with coup supporters Pakistan and Russia as well. Nepalese Foreign Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey visited both countries in October, sending a message to New Delhi and Washington that a growing regional security concern may be on the horizon.

In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November, seven U.S. congressmen urged the secretary to chair a high-level group to discuss, develop and implement a strategy to address the situation in Nepal. “We believe that a package that combines diplomatic intervention, economic development, and restoration of civil security is required to persuade King Gyanendra to embrace democratic governance,” they noted.

Nepal may not become another Tibet in the near future; however, Beijing could gradually bring its considerable influence to bear on the tiny, poverty-stricken nation in an attempt to change the leadership in Katmandu. The first steps have already taken place.

India and the United States should make every attempt to prevent further destabilization in Nepal and deter further Chinese influence, which will only serve to agitate an already unstable regional security situation.

Frederick Stakelbeck Jr. is a foreign affairs analyst based in Philadelphia.

Gary Andres is away.

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