Monday, 30th October 2017

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India wary as China spreads Nepal reach

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  • Published 22.12.09

New Delhi, Dec. 21: When Nepal army chief Chhatraman Singh Gurung was being feted with the honorary rank of general in the Indian Army here last week, his deputy was quietly signing a deal with a visiting Chinese military delegation in Kathmandu.

To analysts in Kathmandu, the two developments will inevitably evoke a familiar description of Nepal -- that of “a yam stuck between two boulders”. The boulders, of course, are India and China.

But in New Delhi, the military establishment is concerned that India’s army and government are risking losing a space they have traditionally held on to.

General Torun Jung Bahadur Singh, who was acting as army chief in Kathmandu in the absence of Gurung, signed a deal with Major General Jia Jialing, deputy director in the foreign relations cell of the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army. The Chinese pledged 20.8 million yuan (Rs 14.2 crore approximately) as aid for “non lethal” military equipment.

Nepal’s ammunition-starved army is looking for newer and surer sources of supply since India began turning off the tap of military aid in 2001 and then almost brought it to a halt in 2005.

To the defence establishment in New Delhi, the signs are unmistakable: China is stepping-in in Nepal just as it had in Sri Lanka and before that in Myanmar because India has been chary of continuing with military aid to neighbours beset by domestic troubles.

Sri Lanka has all but moved on after brutally crushing the three-decade LTTE insurgency with military might in May this year. Sri Lanka’s army was using Chinese weaponry and ammunition apart from the outdated Indian equipment it had in its arsenal.

In Myanmar, where India was shy of courting the military junta because of Delhi’s political support to the democracy movement of Aung San Suu Kyi and the fear of international criticism, it has stepped up visits and exchanges. Three years ago, India even supplied field guns and a maritime surveillance aircraft to Myanmar.

But by then the Chinese were everywhere, investing in Myanmar’s ports, highways and industries and helping prop up its army militarily.

For the military establishment in India, the waning of goodwill in Sri Lanka and Myanmar is a loss that it is now trying to make up. In Nepal, senior Indian Army officers say, there cannot be a waiting period.

Nepal is vastly different for India from the island nation or from Myanmar. With neither of those countries does India have an open border. The unique India-Nepal relationship grants reciprocal citizenship rights (minus voting rights) to the residents of each country. Nepalese Gorkhas serve in the Indian Army in large numbers.

The move to fete General Gurung and resume arms supplies to Nepal’s army, sources argue, should be seen in this context — and not merely from the point of view of touching off sensitivities among the Himalayan nation’s Maoists.

One officer said that when Prachanda headed the government before being forced to quit over the reinstatement of the former Nepal army chief, General Rukmangad Katawal, there were moves by Kathmandu to get closer to China.

Prachanda’s defence minister and former chief of the Nepal Maoists’ militia, Ram Bahadur Thapa (Badal), visited Beijing in September 2008. The Chinese army’s deputy chief, Lt Gen Ma Ziaotian, who also oversees India-China military relations and was in charge of their two joint drills, met Prachanda in December last year.

Now, Prachanda’s successor and Nepal’s current Prime Minister, Madhav Nepal, is scheduled to visit China on December 26.

The Chinese have expressed concern over the Tibetan protests in Nepal at a time Kathmandu is reported to have sought Indian military help to build an airstrip for its army’s air wing in Surkhet near Nepal’s border with Tibet. The Nepal Maoists have been quick to allege that India intends to use such an airstrip as a base for operations against China in the event of hostilities.

After being given his honorary rank and hosting General Deepak Kapoor at a lavish reception in the Nepalese embassy in Delhi last week, General Gurung is understood to have invited the Indian Army chief to Kathmandu.

Traditionally, a new Indian Army chief’s first visit has been to Nepal where he, too, is given the honorary rank. Kapoor’s predecessor, General J.J. Singh, now governor of Arunachal Pradesh, was twice advised against visiting Nepal for the ceremony. Kapoor has visited many countries and is now in the last leg of his tenure.

Whether Kapoor will accept the invitation and visit Kathmandu before he retires early next year will be a demonstration of the Indian government’s diplomatic intent in the face of the resurgent Maoists in Nepal.

The resumption of arms supplies — armoured personnel carriers, Insas rifles, ammunition and possibly even tanks — to Nepal’s army and a visit by Kapoor will demonstrate not only New Delhi’s resolve in encouraging an “apolitical and professional” military in Nepal but also its determination to maintain its strategic and political space in the Himalayan country that China is nibbling into.