Chinese stopover militarily significant, politically symbolic
He came. He met. He left.
Chinese State Councillor and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe on Sunday landed in Kathmandu for a day-long stopover during which he held a whirlwind of meetings with Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, also the defence minister, President Bidya Devi Bhandari and Nepal Army Chief Purna Chandra Thapa before flying straight to Pakistan in the evening.
The major takeaway of Wei’s visit, according to officials, is an understanding on resuming Chinese supplies of various non-lethal military aid to Nepal, which had been halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Nepal Army said Wei also carried the message of his government that it is positive about resumption of training and student exchange programmes and following up on defence assistance that have been impacted in the wake of the pandemic.
There, however, is more to this than meets the eye.
The visit of Wei, who is also a general in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, was aimed at reasserting what was already communicated to the Nepali leadership, especially Prime Minister Oli, also the chair of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, according to at least two high-level sources.
The sources said that ahead of Wei’s visit to Kathmandu, a three-member high-level Chinese team had arrived in Kathmandu on November 24 and communicated Beijing’s concerns to the top political leadership of Nepal’s ruling and opposition parties.
Despite Beijing’s growing concerns vis-a-vis the rift in the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and the Nepali Congress’ new-found rhetoric over land encroachment by China in the Humla region, Wei did not touch upon any political matters during his meeting with Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Oli.
“Since Beijing’s message had been already communicated, his arrival means the assertion,” said a source familiar with the development, who did not wish to be named citing the sensitivity of the matter. “In diplomacy, it’s more symbolism, less is said.”
According to the sources, the Chinese advance team—two from the Chinese Military Commission and one from the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party—had met with Oli, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the other chair of the ruling party, Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, Sher Bahadur Deuba, the leader of the main opposition, and senior officials from various agencies.
The team had communicated China’s various political and security concerns, the sources told the Post.The Chinese team had arrived just two days before Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla landed in Kathmandu on a two-day visit.
During their meeting with Deuba, the sources said, the Chinese team expressed their concerns about the border encroachment issue in Humla, which the Nepali Congress has been fiercely raising, largely based on a report by Jeevan Bahadur Shahi, the party’s Provincial Assembly member in Karnali.
The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu, on November 13, had even written to the Nepali Congress, expressing its displeasure at the ways the issue was being raised. A few days before, the Global Times, the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, had also implicated the Congress party as the main institution behind “fabricated reports” on Chinese encroachment.
Confirming the visit of the Chinese advance team, a ruling party leader told the Post that during their meetings with the top leadership of the ruling party, they communicated that China is in favour of political stability in Nepal and that it wants to see continuation of the present establishment in Kathmandu.
“The team members communicated Beijing’s view that it has a high-level understanding with the present NCP leadership and that it wants to see the continuity of the present regime in Kathmandu,” said the leader familiar with the visit and the meetings, who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.
Upon his arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport, where he was welcomed by Home Minister Thapa, Wei said his visit was aimed at implementing bilateral agreements reached between China and Nepal.
“My visit is aimed at enhancing mutual military assistance and strengthening the existing ties between the two countries,” said Wei in a brief comment to the Rastriya Samachar Samiti news agency. “Ties between China and Nepal are strong and I am here to take this relationship to new heights. I am confident about having a result-oriented visit.”
Though Prime Minister Oli as the defence minister is Wei’s counterpart, the Chinese official first headed to the Nepal Army headquarters where he received a guard of honour before holding the delegation-level talks.
“Bilateral discussions at the delegation level were held mainly on issues pertaining to resumption of training and student exchange programmes and follow up on defence assistance impacted due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the Nepal Army in a statement. “Wei and the delegation viewed both the proposals positively and affirmed that bilateral cooperation should resume as soon as possible, including exchange of high-level visits. Wei also pledged to provide additional assistance to the Nepal Army in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Discussions on signing of the protocol for the agreements worth around 300 million RMB (approximately Rs5.4 billion) which were reached during two high-level visits last year by Deputy Prime Minister Ishwar Pokhrel, who then held the defence portfolio, in October, and General Thapa, in June, according to the Nepal Army.
“Basically these supports are related to construction and engineering equipment and logistics for Nepali peacekeepers, among others,” Brigadier General Santosh Ballav Paudyal, spokesperson for the Nepal Army, told the Post.
Wei is the senior most Chinese official to arrive since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kathmandu in October last year, the first by the Chinese head of state in 23 years. Wei is the second Chinese defence minister to visit Nepal in the last two decades, after Chang Wanquan’ trip to Kathmandu in May 2017.
Chang, who was the first Chinese defence minister to arrive in Kathmandu in 16 years, led a 19-member delegation for a three-day visit. Chang’s visit had taken place on the eve of a planned military exercise between the Nepal Army and the People’s Liberation Army, the first between the two countries.
Wei’s visit also comes days after a visit by Indian Foreign Secretary Shringla who concluded his two-day Nepal trip on Friday. Shringla’s arrival in Nepal was preceded by two back-to-back visits from the south—by the chiefs of Indian Army and India’s foreign spy agency early this month and in the third week of November, respectively.
Wei’s brief but hasty dash to Nepal, with a 20- member delegation, comes also as a reminder of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s half-day stopover in 2012.
After spending a little over two hours at the Army headquarters, Wei headed to Baluwatar for a meeting with Oli.
During the meeting, Oli reiterated Nepal’s commitment to one-China policy and assured Wei that Nepali land will never be allowed to be used against China, according to Rajan Bhattarai, Oli’s foreign relations adviser.
“The prime minister said that Nepal is committed to implementing the agreements reached during the visits of President Bhandari and his to China as well as President Xi’s to Nepal,” Bhattarai told the Post. “The prime minister also said that Nepal wants to learn from China’s steadfast progress on socio-economic fronts made in such a short span of time.”
According to Bhattarai, the prime minister also appreciated the way China managed to take the Covid-19 pandemic under control.
Bhattarai said Wei, in response, appreciated Nepal’s commitment to one-China policy and said that Nepal and China share trouble-free relations and are ready to contribute to each other’s development and prosperity.
Apart from its interest in Nepal’s political matters, which is also evident from the Chinese embassy’s overt engagements with the ruling party leadership, Beijing has concerns about the sluggish implementation of projects under its Belt and Road Initiative, to which Nepal signed up back in 2016. Analysts in interviews over the past few days told the Post that Beijing is also keenly watching the geopolitical engagements in the region, including an understanding between the United States and India to counter China.
After about year-long frosty relations, New Delhi is already in a bid to effect a rapprochement with Kathmandu just as Beijing was expanding its sphere of influence in Nepal.
Wei wrapped up his visit by paying a courtesy call on President Bidya Devi Bhandari in the evening.
The Nepal Army stated that it is confident this visit will help in further strengthening and expanding the cordial military-to-military relations between the two countries.