Professor Ma Jiali is a South Asia expert associated with China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think-tank operating under China’s state council. Also a member of China-India Track to Dialogue, Jiali is an eminent expert on Indian affairs. The Executive Deputy Director of Center for Strategic Studies of China, he specializes in studying China’s foreign policies vis-à-vis India and Nepal. Purna Basnet caught up with Jiali in Beijing recently. Excerpts:
Rumor has it that dissident faction of UCPN (Maoist) got Beijing’s blessing to break away from the establishment faction. Is that true?
It is possible that some Nepali Maoist leaders looking to break away and adopt the revolutionary path sought support from China. But China will not support such a cause. China does not favor party splits of any kind.
Bud did China at least sympathize with the Maoist dissident faction?
Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal is a famous leader. If this fame could be cashed in properly, it could contribute to Nepal’s transformation. We want to see the Dahal-led party grow stronger and consolidated. This is really important. As Maoists have high regard of China, it won’t ever hurt Dahal (faction). Yet, these are just our wishes for a leader like Dahal. We do not dictate terms to him.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) has seen a lot of ups and downs in its 90 years of history. But we always prioritize common good, settling minor differences within the party. As regards political parties of other countries, China cannot judge which party is good and which is not. So it is out of question for CPC to favor one party group over another.
China has a big stake in the peace and constitution process of Nepal. But Nepal’s Constituent Assembly has been dissolved without completing the twin task. What does Bejing have to say about this?
The current political situation of Nepal is complex. Yet there is no alternative to consensus among major political parties, including Maoists. Only consensus will help them complete those tasks. It could be possible that the US or India is trying to influence Nepal in this situation. But China stays away from any sort of interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. The political parties themselves must take bold decisions to break the political deadlock.
But since elections for a new CA have been already announced, will the parties be able to forge a consensus as you suggest?
If the situation remains unchanged, conducting elections will be a tough task. But if the parties come together on this issue, China believes elections will be possible. Consensus is important also because Nepal desperately wants stability. If the next election is successful, China has a special package of economic assistance for Nepal. We are thinking about how to fully help the new government and accelerate development projects in Nepal.
Does China believe that federating Nepal will pose a security threat to it?
The federal agenda of Nepal has become knottier because of irreconcilable proposals coming from various sectors—political parties and Madhesi and Janajati sections and India’s keen interest. It is difficult to comment further on the issue now.
Are Indian and Chinese interests in Nepal on a collision course?
At the moment, bilateral relations between China and India are really good. Yet, doubts remain on issues of border disputes, the Tibet agenda, South Asia and political affairs of South East Asia. India and China do not see eye to eye on these issues. India and China’s policies vis-à-vis Nepal are of great importance for the two countries. But we believe that Nepal should conduct itself by balancing the interests of the two countries. Also, there are concerns that taking advantage of special relations with Nepal, India has been meddling in Nepal’s political and economic affairs. There are reasons behind such concerns. But China does not want to strengthen its relation with Nepal to control it. Our relations are based on bilateral interests. China does not want to confront India in Nepal. Each of us maintains our relations (with Nepal) in our own ways.
Some Chinese analysts are of the view that both China and India’s interests in Nepal are increasingly growing. Is that the case?
China is a liberal country. People are free to express their views. But the truth is that the US and India are consolidating their influence a bit at a time in Nepal. Many have come to realize this. But China will not follow their footsteps. China has its own strategy and interests. China has its own concern about the current political situation in Nepal.
The problem is that India does not want to treat Nepal on equal footing. It does not want to talk to Nepal face to face across the table.
It is often said Tibet is the only Chinese concern vis-à-vis Nepal and China offers assistance to Nepal merely to control Tibetan activities on Nepali soil. Is it true?
As you know, Tibet is a sensitive and vital concern for China. China wants to assist greater stability in Nepal in particular and South Asia in general. China has been offering help to different governments in Nepal in line with this philosophy. But if political instability and transition in Nepal are prolonged, it will be hard to rein in anti-China activities there. We expect that Nepal will produce a stable and powerful government after the next election. And anti-China activities will also be controlled.
As a country sandwiched between two Asian giants, what role do you envision for Nepal in regional politics?
If China, India and Nepal work hand in hand, it will be for everyone’s good. But this is easier said than done. Between China and India, there is a forum called track two dialogue, of which I am also a member. This is a forum to discuss issues related to China and India. We never include any third country in that forum. I think Kathmandu is ready for the discussion on the trilateral agenda of China, India and Nepal. But Delhi does not seem to want this. The problem is that India does not want to treat Nepal on an equal footing. So it does not want to talk to Nepal face to face across the table. To discuss issues face to face with three countries implies that all three countries are equal. This could benefit India but surprisingly it does not want this to happen. This worries me a lot.
There was talk about road connectivity between the three countries. Any progress on that front?
China is a good neighbor for South Asian countries. Provinces like Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan etc are neighboring states of south Asian countries, including Nepal and India. We want to develop transport connection with our neighbors, because with direct connectivity, bilateral relations can be sustained. We want to expand Lhasa Railway not only up to Nepal but up to Delhi and other South Asian countries. But this project has hit a snag. India, in particular, does not want Lhasa Railway to be directly linked with Kathmandu. In fact, it is trying to obstruct the operation of the project. But in my view, this is a Cold War era mentality of India. With railway infrastructure in place, China will be in a better position to help Nepal and Nepalis will greatly benef. China had planned to construct road network connecting Yunnan of South China with India and Burma. But as Delhi showed no will, the project could not take off.
This is the reason why China wants a strong and stable government in Nepal, so that Nepal could work independently. China will discuss the issue of Kathmandu-Lhasa Railway with India. And China expects that India will respond positively toward building roads and railway networks connecting three countries.
Is China willing to assist Nepal in the Lumbini Development Project?
As far as I understand, Lumbini Development Project under the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF) has been halted for some time. It has come to the fore that various organizations from Nepal strongly opposed the project and some even used their influence to stop the project from taking off. Well, I do not have proof of this. But I think my guess is right. There are great many Buddhists in China and they want to visit Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini. If Lumbini project could see the light of the day, this would be really good for Nepal and China.
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