The inevitable passing of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the radicalization of the Tibetan diaspora and the fervor of the international campaign to free Tibet are bound to keep the Himalayan dispute on the world’s front pages. India, which has sheltered the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of his followers, today increasingly sees Tibet as a bargaining chip with China in its overall bilateral relationship. Home to some 20,000 Tibetan refugees and wedged precariously between the assertive Asian giants, Nepal is likely to become an even more important theater.
From Nepal’s perspective, at least, the issue of Tibet goes beyond the freedom of a land, the liberation of a culture and a celebration of a way of life. The region always has been a conduit for major external protagonists to pursue wider objectives. The British Empire considered Tibet a critical part of the imperial chessboard, a legacy that lives on in today’s geo-strategic milieu where China sees the region as a front rivals are intent on using to contain its rise.The Tibet issue has a peculiar psychological subtext in Nepal. Some of the same people, who profess the greatest admiration for the Dalai Lama and his cause, also hope that Tibet remains under Chinese control. Many Nepalese recognize that an independent Tibet would leave their country without a border with China. They believe such a situation would allow India, which has long invoked its own version of the Monroe Doctrine in the land-locked nation, to tighten its grip.
Although Tibet has been central to the Sino-Nepalese relationship, Nepal’s formal contacts with China did not originate through the region. It began with China’s quest for Buddhist texts, artifacts and codes from the wider Gangetic heartland. In the mid-seventh century, a powerful Tibetan king extracted consorts from Chinese and Nepalese royal households on the principle of peace through kinship. The two wives helped bring Buddhism to Tibet and opened a direct Himalayan route between Nepal and China, bypassing the more arduous one across Central Asia.
As religion and trade began traversing the same Himalayan passes, peace and goodwill began losing ground. As the British sun rose higher over India, Nepal fought two wars with Tibet, precipitating a Chinese invasion. The Nepalese gained peace by entering into a tributary relationship with the Middle Kingdom, a duty they would discharge with utmost diligence. The Nepalese became the last foreigners to pay tribute to the Qing, as the arrangement helped maintain their independence as most of modern South Asia fell under the sway of the British Empire.
Nepal, which fought a third war with Tibet in 1855-56, refused to aid the Tibetans against a British invasion in 1904, but helped secure the withdrawal of the invaders. The diplomatic triumph was short-lived as the tottering Qing formally claimed suzerainty over Nepal. Seeking to preserve its interests in Tibet – and project its independence – Nepal mediated between Beijing and Lhasa in 1912, after which Tibet enjoyed a period of de facto independence.
For all their antipathy for the Qing and for each other, Chinese nationalists and communists pressed their country’s claims on Nepal: Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong both included Nepal among territories China had lost to imperialism.
The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 impelled the leaders of independent India to restore the monarchy at the top of a multiparty democracy in Nepal to forestall a communist advance southward.On the eve of Nepal’s first democratic elections in 1959, Tibetans rose up in a failed revolt against Beijing, prompting the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile in India.
Nepal’s first elected prime minister, B.P. Koirala, sought unsuccessfully to consolidate democracy by asserting Nepalese independence from India and China. When King Mahendra dissolved parliament, jailed Koirala and most of the elected leadership, and abolished multiparty democracy, much more than royal ambition was at play.
Nepal had become a center of Cold War intrigue where the United States and India – the world’s two largest democracies – were working to undermine each other as were the communist giants China and the Soviet Union. By the end of the 1960s, Sino-American rapprochement put the two nations on the same side in Nepal for the duration of the Cold War.
As the 1980s drew to a close, a new round of unrest in Tibet merged with student protests in Beijing, culminating in the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. The fall of the Berlin Wall inspired the Nepalese to bring down the palace-led partyless Panchayat system, with Beijing a mere bystander.
With the kingdom’s democracy turning rancorous, Nepalese disciples of Mao launched a bloody insurgency, a convulsion exacerbated by the assassinations of King Birendra and almost the entire royal family in a June 2001 palace massacre. India, like the United States and Britain, opposed King Gyanendra’s February 2005 coup, widely perceived to have enjoyed Chinese backing. Beijing, which accused the Nepalese Maoists of soiling the Great Helmsman’s memory, armed the palace against the rebels. Yet a year later, as the royal regime faced massive popular protests, Beijing distanced itself from the monarchy and befriended the Nepalese Maoists.
Chinese policy toward Nepal has been marked by much ambiguity, which both Beijing and Kathmandu have benefited from. One school of thought sees limited Chinese interest in Nepal, where phases of Beijing’s assertiveness are the exception. In keeping with its foreign policy of unsentimental pragmatism, this school contends, China could easily concede Nepal as part of India’s sphere of influence.
Chinese assertiveness, however, is likely to grow as its interests in Nepal go beyond the issue of Tibet to encompass its wider South Asian strategy. Nepal is only country that maintains diplomatic representation in Lhasa and Beijing reminds Kathmandu with ever greater regularity the responsibility that flows with the privilege. Enticing Nepal with promises of greater commercial benefits as part of its massive investments in Tibet, Beijing is intent on committing Nepal to firm political, security, economic and cultural agreements.
Should tradition become a more dominant part of Chinese regional diplomacy – as also seems likely – Nepal’s status as a former tributary to the Middle Kingdom is likely to drive Beijing’s policy. This is bound to raise anxiety levels in India, whose own relations with China sit uneasily atop planks of cooperation, competition and confrontation that are vulnerable to extra-regional pressures. (Global India Newswire)
(Sanjay Upadhya is a U.S.-based Nepalese journalist and author. This essay was excerpted from his latest book, ‘Nepal and the Geo-Strategic Rivalry Between China and India (London and New York: Routledge, 2012, 228 pp).
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