Nepal holds a significant place in China’s South Asia assertiveness which is prominently visible in recent years as the Communist Party of China is overtly meddling in the domestic politics of Kathmandu. But China has not limited itself to the higher echelons of Nepali politics but has spread its tentacles deep into the local political discourse of the tiny Himalayan country.
If we ponder over the present scenario, increasing Chinese influence at the lower rungs of government in Nepal, from education to social media, from elections to economy at the local level, from cultural to social aspect, is a sign of China’s new role in the country. The Chinese are now increasing their footprint in the soft power domain, where once India enjoyed a tight grip. In the political dynamics, where hard and soft power goes hand in hand, China has the luxury to wield both in Nepal to execute its nefarious goals.
Beginning with local-level politics, where municipal and village-level elections are major units of the decision-making process, Chinese involvement has increased manifold. Last year, municipal elections were conducted in Kathmandu Valley, where an independent candidate, Balendra Sah won in the Mayoral race. During his election campaign, he was often seen with Chinese embassy staff and journalists in several restaurants and it was alleged that enormous Chinese funding was instrumental in his triumph. After he assumed office, he met the Chinese ambassador, Chen Song and during the meeting, in order to pander to the Chinese, he underscored the similarity between festivals, dress, and cuisine of both countries and pitched for a new approach to promote it at the local level. Furthermore, his campaign against street vendors was frowned upon by citizens as the capitalist agenda to make space for Chinese outlets in the valley.
However, Chinese involvement is not restricted to municipal councils but also at the village level. China has propounded one man, one village policy to sway the elections and to give a push to the Chinese propaganda in villages. Apart from this, many Chinese-funded factories are running in places that are in geographical proximity to China, and in some cases, Chinese nationals are the owners. The economic power is showing significant outcomes in elections as these factories are the source of money for political parties. The Chinese are supporting independent candidates also, who could help them after the polls to expand business in many districts.
Besides politics, education is one of the important areas where Chinese are trying to make deep inroads in Nepali society. Many private schools in Nepal have made it mandatory to teach Mandarin to primary and secondary students. Teachers of these courses are also being subsidized heavily by the Chinese government. At the higher secondary level, China has already proposed the establishment of Madan Bhandari technological university just 80 kilometers from the Indo – border at Makwanpur. Under the Chinese vision of the ‘’educational silk road’’, many scholarships have been offered by the Chinese government to Nepalis students, teachers, and even civil servants, which will create a solid base for the Chinese narrative in civil society and especially among Nepali elite class.
Culture is a realm where India has had a strong foothold in Nepal because of shared cultural heritage and history but growing Chinese presence in this area poses a threat for New Delhi. China has adopted a long-term approach to increase its influence in the region by establishing educational and cultural centers. Confucius Institutes (CI)
are one of the major institutes to export Chinese culture to foreign lands. In 2007, the first such center was established at Kathmandu University and later on at Tribhuvan University and it may expand its reach in other universities. In the disguise of imparting Chinese culture and language proficiency, these institutes have become a hub for surveillance activities in Nepal and keep an eye on any anti -China activity. Further since 2012, around 30 Chinese study centers have been established. Now this is an alarming issue for India as these centers may act as a catalyst in anti-India activities and can turn local Nepalis people hostile towards India. In Biratnagar ( Nepal ) one such center has been established which is just a few miles away from the Jogbani( Indiancity ). Security agencies like Shastra Seema Bal earlier had detected surveillance and military communication devices around these centers. Their modus operandi is analogous to the Chinese Communist Party like pasting pictures of Chinese leaders on walls and showcasing the valor of Chinese soldiers. Periodically, the officers and staff associated with these centers write columns in the local newspaper which mostly caters to the Chinese agenda and fosters an anti-India narrative.
Since the dawn of the internet, social media has gained behemoth traction in manipulating the psychology of common people. In recent times, TikTok, a short video-sharing platform, which is very popular among Nepali youth and middle age population has become a Chinese tool to run anti-India campaigns. Some videos are floating on TikTok which are skewed towards the Indian image, portraying India as an enslaver of Nepal. The Millenium Challenge Compact ( MCC) deal between the USA and Nepal is also depicted as a neo-colonial project of India and the USA.
The Chinese proxy war in Nepal is far more dangerous than the conflict along the borders. The Chinese are not leaving any stone unturned in the cultural realm, where India has a catbird seat. As they have started playing at ground level, this is high time that India should take concrete measures to counter China’s growing dominance.
India has historical links with Nepal and is enmeshed with Nepalis through the strings of culture which is a tenable aspect to develop closer relations. China, despite being culturally alien to this Himalayan land has managed to turn the tables in its favour. Nevertheless, India can revamp its approach and assert its soft power.
On the educational front, India should establish IITs and vocational institutes for the development of technical know-how and more attractive scholarship schemes should be offered to bring the Nepalis youth to India. In the cultural sphere, India has a single cultural center located in Kathmandu. In order to enhance the cultural ties, a greater number of cultural centers should be initiated to strengthen Beti-Roti ties. In addition, since both countries have cultural and religious connections, therefore, they share many festivals. In view of this similarity, an arrangement can be made through which citizens from the countries can come together and celebrate their common festivals. For example, the creation of a joint association on Chhath fest will act as a medium to transcend the borders and build cultural relations. Cultural connect will thereby improve the deteriorating political relations as well.
From the vantage point of Nepal, it had no choice but to choose ‘’strategic promiscuity’’ with India and China. The mighty northern neighbor is standing at the door to entangle in a proxy war with India, a war where China can have leverage. India needs to strike the hammer where the Chinese chain is weak. Working on strong areas of the soft power domain of India in Nepal needs a new approach, new reforms, and new initiatives to wipe out Chinese influence. With respect to Nepal, ‘’Culture is power’’ and India should update its soft power tools to build stronger relations with Nepal.
Source: Financial Express