Liu Jianchao, the head of the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, visited Nepal on July 10. The four-day visit of the eight-member team marked the second high-profile visit from Beijing within the span of four months after the ratification of the US’s MCC pact by Nepal in February. Beijing had crossed diplomatic lines in labelling the MCC pact as a “pandora box” and had lobbied to not ratify the pact. Immediately after the ratification of the pact by the parliament, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Nepal in late March. The routine visits of foreign leaders form an integral part of cooperative engagement and visits of Chinese leaders could also be seen in a diplomatic light as an attempt to court Kathmandu. However, it is clear that there is much more to these heightened Chinese engagements than mere diplomatic manoeuvres.
Beijing hasn’t hidden its interests in uniting the communist parties of Nepal and reinstating the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) ideological counterpart in Baluwatar. It is, therefore, that the flurry of high-profile visits from China holds significance when talks of the communist coalition are already making rounds within Nepal. Even during this visit, Liu’s team is reported to have urged communist leaders to reconcile their differences and unite once again or at least forge an electoral coalition for the upcoming provincial and federal elections.
Beijing has perceived the ratification of the MCC pact as evidence of Nepal slipping away from its sphere of influence – and ever since, it has escalated engagements with Nepali politicos to restore the lost influence that Beijing enjoyed while the communist coalition (the NCP) was at the helm of the Kathmandu administration. And to restore the lost influence, Beijing wants the communist forces to reunite again. The ideological affinity between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the communist parties of Nepal makes it easier for Beijing to exert influence over Kathmandu – albeit communism now is largely relegated to a nominal identity by both the Chinese and Nepali communist parties.
This isn’t the first time that China has gone to length in facilitating the coalition or merger of the Nepali communist parties. The CCP leaders had played an instrumental role back in 2017 in bringing together two main communist parties – CPN UML and CPN Maoist Center – which had led to the formation of the NCP. In 2019, the CCP leaders even trained the leaders of the NCP on “Xi’s thought”. Chinese influence in Nepal had reached its heyday when the NCP was in power. For instance, Nepal had voted in favour of Beijing’s new security law for Hong Kong introduced in the midst of Hong Kong pro-democratic protest – which had provisions of harsh penalties for vaguely defined political crimes– at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR).
Not only did China receive Nepal’s support on the international platforms but also Beijing had greater influence over the internal affairs of Kathmandu as long as the NCP remained in power. Later, when the NCP was on the verge of a split, China through its ambassador Hou Yanqi made several attempts to avert it but to no avail. Then, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, during his visit in late March, asserted that China would make concerted efforts to explore the governance model conducive to economic stability and growth. This statement too hinted at facilitating a communist coalition – the statement could be construed as Beijing’s desire to see some replica of the Chinese communist authoritarian governance model in Nepal in the long run. Now that provincial and federal elections are nearby, Liu has asked the communist parties to reunite again.
In essence, these attempts of China to push for the communist coalition amount to direct interference in the internal affairs of Nepal and cross all diplomatic lines that a nation is supposed to adhere to. The call for jointly exploring a governance model conducive to stability and growth is tantamount to the call for a regime change in a euphemized tone. The call is not only against the diplomatic protocols but also undermines the autonomy of a sovereign nation. After decades of political transition, and a herculean task of state restructuring, Nepal has secured a multiparty democratic governance model as its cherished achievement – and China’s repeated calls to search for a better governance model and direct interferences could become major challenges in our transition to democratic maturity. Further, that China no longer pretends to obfuscate its newfound approaches in interfering with Nepal’s internal affairs doesn’t portend well for the relationship between the two nations.
On the other front, those issues that China should have prioritized in these high-profile visits have largely been sidelined. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project has been in limbo for years now – and China has shown little to no interest in giving the project the much-needed traction. The agreement of the BRI project with Nepal, its loan component and other issues surrounding the project should have been the major agenda of the visit. Similarly, cooperation between the two nations on multiple fronts – trade, education, health, and environment among others – should have been prioritized. But it appears as if China seems occupied with the intensifying geopolitical rivalry in the region and is making attempts to court Kathmandu again to score a goal against the US-India camp rather than genuinely seeking to deepen the Kathmandu-Beijing ties.