With tensions escalating between the US and China, the Himalayan country of Nepal has emerged as a new frontier between the two rivals competing for geopolitical influence.
While the US has denied any malice in intention, China believes it is an American ploy to court Nepal into the Indo-Pacific strategy.
In February, Nepal’s Parliament ratified a $500 million US government aid under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) after weeks of back and forth among the ruling coalition. The issue sparked mass protests in the country over fears that Kathmandu could lose its sovereignty.
The ratification sent alarm bells ringing in China, which shares a border with Nepal and has been assisting it with several developmental projects under its Belt and Road Initiative.
Chinese State media Global Times had then referred to the pact as US manipulation of Nepal aimed at targeting China.
It was followed by a flurry of high-level visits by US officials to Nepal. The most significant visit, however, was of the Commanding General of the US Army Pacific, Charles Flynn.
The US reportedly invited Nepal to join its Strategic Partnership Program (SPP), sparking protests within the country all over again due to it being a military contract.
Different political party's cadres clash with police during the protest against Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grants by US government for Nepal, which is table to Legislative assembly for the ratification, on Sunday Feb.20. pic.twitter.com/PXZSZt1C6E
— Angad Dhakal (@AngadDhakal) February 20, 2022
Local Nepalese media reported that the US has been urging Nepal to join the SPP since 2015, and it forwarded a draft agreement to the Nepali government for review in April this year.
Nepalese Prime Minister Deuba has met with many parties since receiving the draft. However, in a rare move, the Army clarified that signing the SPP was neither on its agenda nor it would be.
According to officials familiar with the text, the six-page agreement contains ten clauses. It offers to supply Nepal with US$500 million over five years and non-lethal equipment for the Nepal Army.
According to the officials, the US has also offered to work with the Nepal Army in cyber security, terrorism, intelligence sharing, high-altitude training, humanitarian relief, and disaster management.
While the United States decried the news about a proposed SPP as false, China has taken it as an opportunity to have its displeasure known.
“State Partnership Programme (SPP) is not and has never been a security or military alliance. SPP has existed for 25 years worldwide and is recognized as a beneficial bilateral program,” said Charge d’Affaires of US Embassy in Nepal Manual P Micaller, Jr.
Chinese Experts Express Geopolitical Insecurity
Chinese concerns about a military relationship between Nepal and the US emanates from the fact Nepal shares a boundary with Tibet, also known as Xizang Autonomous Region in the communist country.
Chinese experts believe the new grant will bring Nepal closer to the US military alliance. Any such possibility would pitch China’s principal rival in its backyard and near a very sensitive region.
The state-run Global Times report asserted that many people feel that the United States’ aim and intention to deepen military cooperation with Nepal has long been part of the US Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China.
The acceptance of the US-sponsored MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) program in Nepal in February, according to observers, shows that the West has strengthened its penetration and intervention in Nepalese politics in recent years.
The SPP is likely to go through a similar procedure. Qian Feng, Director of the Research Department of Tsinghua University’s National Strategy Institute, said the SPP would increase security links between the two nations militarily if the MCC has reinforced US control and influence in Nepal economically.
Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba stressed on March 26, when meeting with SC&FM Wang Yi, that Nepal will continue to firmly adhere to the one-China principle and never allow any forces to use Nepal's territory for any anti-China activities. pic.twitter.com/2XbM3WzPb1
— Zhang Meifang张美芳 (@CGMeifangZhang) March 29, 2022
“The US has always valued the geographical importance of Nepal, which borders Southwest China’s Xizang Autonomous Region. Since the Trump administration, the US has been trying to include Nepal in its Indo-Pacific strategy to achieve its multiple political and security goals toward China,” Zhang Yongpan, a research fellow of the Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, suggested.
On May 20, Uzra Zeya, the US Under-Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights and the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues under the Joe Biden administration, paid a visit to Nepal. Her visit to two Tibetan refugee camps in Kathmandu drew attention from the media and China’s ire.
Qian Feng lent credence to that argument by asserting that since Nepal has long been at the vanguard of stopping in-exile “Tibetan separatist” forces from undermining stability in Xizang, this phrase will complicate the security situation in western China and increase threats.
However, the Chinese concerns might not wholly be unfounded.
After the Dalai Lama escaped to India, China launched a security operation in Tibet in 1971, and some Khampas began to settle along the Himalayan border in Nepal’s northern region. They allegedly began anti-China operations from Nepali territory.
The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) initiated a covert campaign to promote the Khampa revolt in 1958. The CIA trained the guerrillas and offered them ammunition and financial support, while India provided intelligence support to the insurgents battling the People’s Liberation Army.
The Khampa activities were aided by using Nepali territory by the CIA. After Nepal finally organized its Army against the Khampa, the operations were ended.
However, US military association with Nepal has again stirred concerns in Beijing as the two (US & China) remain embroiled in a bitter contest.
“China has traditionally maintained that the US is out there to split the country and help Tibet get independence. They cite the 50s uprising as the root of their concern, but the situation has changed tremendously.
The Chinese frequently disrupt Tibetan refugee elections and polling in Nepal, which happens nowhere else in the world”, Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor in Chinese Studies, Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi told the EurAsian Times.
US Strategy To Counterbalance China
Nepal has become a significant part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)by funding several developmental projects in the last few years. In certain quarters, there is a belief that the American MCC is aimed at countering China’s BRI.
Following Nepal’s ratification of the MCC, Beijing attempted to persuade the country to accept BRI funds for specific projects. However, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba clarified that Nepal only wanted Chinese grants, not loans. It potentially encouraged the US to come forward with another agreement, the controversial SPP.
Professor Kondapalli further told the EurAsian Times, “China is frustrated with Americans in Nepal. They believe they can throw money on countries and treat them as tributaries, as we have seen in Sri Lanka and how the Chinese got hold of Hambantota.
In 2017, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Nepal and advised the government not to take Chinese loans if it does not need them. Now, with America sending money to Nepal, the Chinese are taken aback because they did not think any other power would challenge them in Nepal besides India.”
The US has already cultivated India, a formidable counter to China’s expansion in the Asian region. However, close integration between the US and Nepal would help create a balancing act in the Himalayas with Beijing, given that the PLA constantly challenges India’s position at the LAC.
The document published in some online outlets that purports to be a military deal between the United States and Nepal is fake. By policy, the United States does not ask countries to join the State Partnership Program and only responds to requests to do so. ++
— U.S. Embassy Nepal (@USEmbassyNepal) June 14, 2022
According to the Global Times, the leaked document reads that the agreement strengthens the “partnership, in defense and security,” between the US and Nepal. One of the clauses in the leaked report mentions that the “US National Guard and US contractors, related vehicles and light aircrafts operated by or for the United States, may use such agreed facilities and areas for training, transit, support, and related activities, refueling, temporary maintenance of vehicles and aircraft, accommodation of personnel, their dependents, communications, staging, deploying of forces and material.”
Chinese experts view this as an American ploy to infiltrate the border regions near China, a precedent that would be unacceptable to Beijing. However, it makes sense for the US, whose power is being challenged by China in the Pacific with its onward march.
China has also been expanding its influence in the Latin American region, which has traditionally been the American sphere of influence, EurAsian Times had earlier analyzed.
Further, the US strategy of countering China in the Himalayas was hinted at when General Flynn announced a high-altitude exercise with the Indian Army troops.
As tensions between US and China continue to rise, the rivalry could unfold in all regions of the world. Nepal maintains the status quo, but Chinese fears remain, and pressure tactics on Nepal could rise.