The impressive Guard of Honour laid out at Tribhuvan International Airport for Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe, who visited Kathmandu, turned many heads. On arrival, protocol meetings with both the President and Prime Minister were held in a crisp manner followed by a single round of 15-member delegation-level meeting with Nepal Army Chief and his staff. The team departed for Islamabad the very next day. While on the surface the delegation level meeting appeared as crisp and as Pine Green as the PLA uniforms, one of the topline Indian news channels claimed that the team had ‘curtailed’ their visit and also skipped Bangladesh due to unforeseen developments. This has left many Indian thinkers fishing in murky waters.
General Wei is said to have come with an aim of implementing the bilateral understandings reached by both countries in the past, however, he also stated that the visit will promote bilateral military cooperation between Nepal and China, and take the existing friendly relations between the two neighbours to a new height. While the former could be in concert with FDI investments and the ubiquitous Belt Road Initiative, the latter is probably contextual to the recent border issues that Nepal raised with India. Are they somehow linked in the Han scheme of things?
Given that the Media Jedi may be rightfully in the ring, it is worthwhile to crystal gaze into the Himalayas for ripples of Chinese intentions. Not surprisingly, this visit comes close on the heels of Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s first visit to Nepal.
Though predictability is not a facet of the Chinese establishment, the stupendous Chinese 56 Billion Nepali Rupees financial assistance promised by President Xi at Kathmandu in October 2019 could be a debt trap. Instead of bringing forth a Shangri la to Nepal, the rising public debt could lead to China garnering vital real estate, yet another Hambantota, albeit this time, in the Himalayas.
Hambantota. For those who came in late, in June this year the New York Times published an article: “How China Got Sri Lanka to ‘Cough up’ a port”. Hambantota is a man-made port just 240 km from Colombo built into an obscure coastal town by a Chinese state-run company on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Notably, it showcases 17m depth, capable of berthing VLCC vessels. Very large Crude/LNG or Container carrier vessels are the modern day behemoths of the high seas driving international commerce. But sadly, on completion in 2012, with tens of thousands of ships passing by along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, Hambantota port drew only 34 ships. Conceptualised hurriedly, foregoing basic Bathymetric survey and ‘viable hinterland identification for cargo potential’ it was commercially a dud.
The port, which was touted as a great step up in Sino-Sri Lankan cooperation by the ruling elite of the Emerald Isle, is instead a glaring example of Chinese neo-colonial design and intent. The modus operandi, as in all Chinese financial ventures, is literally theatrical: Gentle loans are extended initially with a caveat of contractual bids exclusively from Chinese companies. Then using Chinese expatriate labour, the project moves forward with minimal transparency. As the project costs slowly exceed the planned outlay, fresh loans are extended coupled with renegotiation of old loans at very steep interest rates. The host nation now is in a quandary, by then the whale is already harpooned. As the public debt soars the renegotiated loan became unmanageable, the lender settles for a Quid Pro Quo and the asset is taken over.
Today Hambantota port and 15,000 acres of prime land are Chinese assets within Sri Lanka. The Port may be commercially unviable but is of great strategic value, a perfect linchpin in the HAN ‘String of pearls’ that rims the Indian Ocean. The once obscure ‘Hambantota’ rings a whole new concept in contemporary geopolitics.
Power in the comity of nations is showcased to demonstrate the pitch of intentions. In September 2014 a Chinese submarine surfaced at a privately owned berth in Colombo Port on the very day that Japanese PM Shinzo Abe arrived on a State visit to Sri Lanka. Mr. Abe was to inaugurate the Colombo Passenger terminal built with Japanese assistance. Déjà vu’ Don Corleone and the ‘Khartoum’ trick. Welcome to the Han way of calling the shots in the 21st century.
Back to Nepal, the message was evidently not lost out on the Himalayan map; as the high-powered Chinese delegation departs for Pakistan, the polity of Nepal seems to be experiencing considerable relief. Has the $2.7 billion trans-Himalayan infrastructure financing as a part of Belt Road Initiative become a formidable burden looming large?
Political rift is reverberating in Nepal. The ruling duo of Nepal, the PM Oli and ‘Prachanda’ now seem to be at political distancing along with social distancing on many issues. Has the chocolate candy coating worn off the bitter financial pills decorating the Chinese Christmas tree? Like the fragile Himalayan eco system that is on the brink, this burden is soon going to heavily erode the fragile hill economy of Nepal.
India, on the contrary, has been an eternal friend. It is indeed true that much of cultural and military link of Nepal lies with India. Socially the Madhesis of Terai region have cultural affinity with people of the North Indian plains and militarily ‘The Gurkhas’ form an inseparable complement of the Indian Army. Way back in 2012 Nepal’s Baburam Bhattarai government wanted to ban Nepali Gurkhas from joining Indian Army but back-tracked when the reality slowly dawned upon the hill nation. Besides 25000 serving Gurkha soldiers on a handsome Indian Army Salary by Nepal Standards, there are more than 70,000 Gorkha Rifles retirees, 17,000 Assam Rifle retirees and 11,000 widows in Nepal are paid pension every month by India; a welcome source of remuneration in a largely unemployed Nepal.
On the world economic stage if any nation has deftly followed up Adam Smith’s summation on public debt as enunciated in Wealth of Nations, it is the People’s Republic of China. They seem to be committed to experimenting with the idea: If a state can be conquered with debt; you might as well avoid using military power.
Learning from the Doklam issue of Bhutan, India needs to act fast diplomatically, economically and militarily. After opening with ‘Kings Indian Defense’ on the Himalayan chessboard and letting the Han control the center squares, India should now be turning proactive with a Victor Kramnik 2012 foray onto the flanks to return a stronger position.
The ‘Belt Road Initiative’ in the erstwhile Himalayan Kingdom it could well prophecy a repeat of the Sri Lankan ‘Hambantota’. The contentious India-Nepal border issues if left to simmer, would present PLA a perfect opportunity to posture militarily in the region. Going by the adage, a stitch in time saves nine.
The author is a veteran of the armed forces having served all along the frontier with China. As an aviator he has carried out extensive operational flying in Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal and Ladakh. Familiar with PLA border meetings in Sikkim, he has pursued South Asian geopolitics in depth.