India fears losing Nepal to China after Communist returns to power

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Chinese President Xi Jinping met with the then Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal in Beijing in March. The change of government is unlikely to affect Nepal's amicable ties with China. Photo: Xinhua

The left-wing coalition formed by the two Communist factions in Nepal this month comes as the end-result of a stunning upset in the country’s parliamentary elections, in which the incumbent Nepali Congress party was cast out of power.

The coalition, formed between the Unified Marxist–Leninist and Maoist Centre factions of the Communist Party of Nepal, took two-thirds of the vote and is set to be at the helm of the landlocked Himalayan nation for the next five years.

A police officer stands guard as officials start counting votes in Kathmandu's city hall a day after parliamentary and provincial elections in Nepal. December 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Navesh Chitrakar

A police officer stands guard as officials start counting votes in Kathmandu’s city hall a day after parliamentary and provincial elections in Nepal. December 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Navesh Chitrakar

Headlines such as “Nepal turning red” and “Nepal a vessel state of China” were soon plastered across the front pages of newspapers in India, as New Delhi began brooding over the prospect of losing its “buffer” zone on its old foe in Beijing.

It’s believed that Khadga Prasad Oli, whose premiership was cut short by cracks within a previous leftist alliance, will head the new government in a dramatic comeback. Never liked by New Delhi, Oli’s brief tenure between 2015 and 2016 was beset by conflicts with New Delhi. In particular, the latter’s curtailing of petroleum and gas supplies, in a punitive blockade, resulted in a cascading humanitarian crisis.

Now analysts fear that Kathmandu, under the resurgent Oli, may add more fuel to New Delhi’s feuds with Beijing, at a time when the Chinese army’s purported militarization of the Doklam Plateau in the summer still rankles with Indians.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (right) talks to the then-prime minister of Nepal, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on March 21, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Lintao Zhang

Chinese party mouthpieces including The People’s Daily and its sister paper The Global Times have been quick to insist that Beijing does not intend to turn Nepal into a pawn, and urged New Delhi not to view its regional relationships through a hidebound, zero-sum prism.

It would, the papers said, be wise for India to make conciliatory overtures toward Nepal, given the hefty backlash that met New Delhi’s attempts to oust the unpliable Oli in 2015.

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Nepal, caught between two contending powers, has to play a tight balancing act. Photo: Getty Images

“Any sharp-elbow tactics from India will only boomerang and push Nepal further closer to China… And it’s wishful thinking to make Nepal another ‘sentry’ country to fend off China, when our nation’s economic and political clout is more intimately felt in Nepal than ever,” noted a Global Times editorial.

With India-Nepal relations in turmoil, Beijing has revved up a slew of reconstruction projects announced in the wake of the 2015 Nepali quakes.

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An artist’s impression of the China-funded Pokhara new airport project. Photo: People’s Daily

A new campus for the Nepali National Armed Police Academy was commissioned in July, and a modern airport is being built in the nation’s second largest city, Pokhara, aimed at spurring connectivity and trade, not to mention tourism in the scenic nation. The road connecting Pokhara and Katmandu was also built with Chinese capital.

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