By Liu Zongyi —China and Nepal kicked off their first-ever joint military exercise, code-named “Sagarmatha Friendship 2017,” on April 16 at Nepal Army’s Para Training School in Kathmandu. The drill will last 10 days and its main purposes are counterterrorism and disaster relief. It was said the two countries initially planned to hold a battalion-scale military exercise. However, facing strong opposition from India, Nepal had to compress the size of the military exercise and changed the venue to a military school. But even so, India’s security strategy observers and media paid close attention to the military exercise.
It’s a normal development for China to hold a military exercise with Nepal as Nepal is China’s friendly neighbor. There are many countries which have held joint military exercises, including India, with China. South Asia is a terrorism-prone region. Now that China and Nepal have developed closer economic relations, Nepal hopes to join China’s Belt and Road initiative, for which regional security and stability is a necessity.
In addition, Nepal is located in an earthquake zone with frequent occurrence of natural disasters. In the 2015 earthquake, Nepal suffered a great loss. China’s active participation in Nepal’s post-earthquake relief has left a deep impression on Nepal. Through the joint military exercise, China and Nepal can learn from each other about disaster relief techniques, and thus, accumulating experience for dealing with disasters.
The joint military exercise shows that the bilateral diplomatic relations have expanded from political, economic and cultural to the field of military defense. But for China, this is just one aspect of the overall national security outlook proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The overall national security outlook emphasizes common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security. It hopes to strengthen cooperation with countries around the world in security, improve the neighborly friendship pattern, promote the development of common destiny with surrounding countries, and work together to deal with various issues so as to realize the goal of sharing dignity, sharing fruits of development and sharing security.
For Nepal, the joint military exercise has a deeper significance. For starters, it shows that Nepal moves forward in its pursuit of a balanced diplomacy among major powers. Since the 1990s, balanced diplomacy has become the basic principle of Nepal’s foreign strategy, which is established based on Nepal’s nationalism and anti-Indian sentiment. Nepal’s dependence on India in political, economic, cultural and other aspects as well as India’s ambition to make Nepal its sphere of influence has made most people in Nepal fear losing their national independence as Sikkim did.
In addition, Nepal is not only worried about terrorism and extremism but also national separatism. Holding joint military exercises with China can contribute to deterring ethnic separatism in Nepal.
Whether it is for China or Nepal, the joint military drill is aimed at maintaining regional peace and national stability. Nepal has taken a cautious attitude to avoid provoking India. The drill does not violate the Treaty of Peace and Friendship inked by Nepal and India in 1950.
Due to geographic, political, economic, historic, religious and cultural factors, India has wielded much bigger influence over Nepal than China. Nepal cannot cut its economic ties with India. The Indian security and strategic circle has watched the joint drill between Beijing and Kathmandu closely, because of India’s long-held South Asian hegemonic mentality.
India views small South Asian countries such as Nepal and Bhutan as its sphere of influence and a strategic buffer zone against China. It sees their relations with China from a geopolitical standpoint and a Cold-War mentality. Nepal has held bilateral military exercises with India and the US before.
Given the rise of nationalism in India, especially the prevalence of nationalistic sentiments among India’s diplomatic circles, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a tough China policy since assuming office. India is concerned about China’s economic cooperation with South Asia and the region around the Indian Ocean and wants to push back China’s influence.
Over the past two years, India has raised a couple of unreasonable requests toward and imposed pressure on China, dragging the Sino-Indian relations into a vicious cycle. If New Delhi does not change its mentality, it will be paranoid about every cooperation between China and South Asian countries.
China has a clear-cut approach toward China-Nepal-India trilateral relations. It hopes Nepal can become a bridge between China and India. By pushing forward the China-Nepal-India economic corridor, it can boost development in all three countries. No matter how India views cooperation between China and Nepal, such cooperation will continue to expand, as it fits the interests of both peoples.
(This article was originally published in The Global Times on April 20, 2017. The author is a senior fellow of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. [email protected])