26 December 2017

China has India surrounded in their new Great Game


NEW DELHI -- Think of South Asia as a giant Othello board. The squares are countries and slices of coveted territory. The players trying to cover the board with their black or white pieces are China and India. 

In the current round, China is winning.

The latest square to come under Beijing's sway is Nepal, where a new pro-China government will be sworn in at the beginning of 2018. This marks a major change for the country, nestled in the Himalayas between the two ascendant regional powers. The incumbent Nepalese government has maintained a pro-India stance.

In a landmark election held over two stages -- on Nov. 26 and Dec. 7 -- Nepal's Communist coalition parties scored a crushing victory to regain power. Although high-ranking officials of the leading Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) have said they will maintain relationships with both China and India, they are not hiding their intention to break away from New Delhi's "micromanagement."

Khadga Prasad Oli, left, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), shakes hands with Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal in Kathmandu on Dec. 17. © Reuters

Economically, India-Nepal ties run deep: Nepalese citizens are allowed to work in India without visas. Imports from India account for 60% of Nepal's total.

In contrast, Nepal relies little on China in part because Mount Everest stands in the way, limiting access between them. But China's ambitious, regionwide infrastructure development drive could help overcome that obstacle. 

Khadga Prasad Oli, the chairman of the CPN-UML, visited China last year when he was Nepal's prime minister and proposed plans for a railway and expanded roads connecting the two countries. A previous government also signed a memorandum that would see China cooperate on the construction of Nepal's largest power station. The pro-Indian government nixed the plans, but now there is talk that the new government will give the go-ahead.

The power shift in Nepal came at "the prodding of China," said R.S.N. Singh, a former officer of India's intelligence agency. Many see the result as part of a cunning Chinese strategy. Beijing's "desperation" to play a bigger role in Nepal, Singh suggested, "was linked to India's tough and uncompromising position during the Doklam faceoff," in which Chinese and Indian troops stared each other down at the tri-junction with Bhutan from June to August this year. 

Nepal is hardly the only country in India's neighborhood drawing closer to China. Until recently, many of the neighbors had been tough negotiators, playing the big rivals off each other to secure sweeter offers of financial support and other assistance. But much to India's dismay, countries seem increasingly inclined to simply move into China's orbit.

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