Aakriti Vinayak, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi
China is making its influence keenly felt in Nepal today. China is using different strategies from road connectivity, hydroelectric projects to using soft power as an approach to forge linkages with Nepal. China’s concentrated effort to use soft power diplomacy in Nepal – with heavy investments in religion, education and tourism – has been a success on the high tables and between the government elites, relations have been institutionalised. One sees a prospective future for Nepal where there is an attempt to tilt more and more towards China – on almost every front – economic, cultural and regional. When Nepalese president Bidya Bhandari released the Nepalese edition of the book, Governance of China by Chinese president Xi Jinping, Upendra Gautam the General Secretary of China Nepal Study Centre said that the event befittingly heralds Nepal and China relations into the 21st century kinship where soft power plays a paramount role (Gautam 2016).
Under former Nepalese prime minister Prachanda, China started using Buddhism as a tool of soft power by attempting to get involved in developing Lumbini as a major Buddhist pilgrimage centre, upgrading infrastructure and constructing an International airport there. Prachanda made efforts with help of the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation (APEC) Foundation, but the project could not go far beyond the planning stage. Nepalese questioned the government for giving projects to China without any formal agreement and in response, Prachanda suggested that India, Nepal and China should forge a strategic partnership to develop Lumbini (Parashar 2012). The project was later taken away from APEC. Since then China has been systematically pursuing a multi-dimensional engagement with Nepal.
China has set up 35 China Study Centres in Nepal and proposes to open one in every district of the country. The centres highlight ancient and civilizational links with China. These study centres are said to be disseminating anti-India propaganda and reinforce Chinese diplomacy (Ranade 2013).
A Nepal-China Mutual Cooperation Society (NCMCS), funded by the Chinese Embassy in Nepal, was established in March 2005. The primary aim of NCMCS is to strengthen diplomatic relations between the two countries as well as to disseminate an image of a friendly China and that of a hegemonic India (Bhattacharya 2009). Besides, there are other associations like the Nepal-China Executives Council in Kathmandu and a Nepal-China bilateral consultation mechanism was constituted in 1996 that promote bilateral cooperation and exchanges. At the 11th meeting of the Joint Consultation Mechanism, the Nepalese side expressed hope that cross-border connectivity, infrastructure development, diversification of Nepal’s trade, promotion of investment and tourism would receive priority in the implementation of the MoU on cooperation under China’s ‘belt and road’ initiative (Kathmandu Post 2017a). There are also some friendship associations like the Nepal-China Friendship Association in Lumbini and the Nepal-China Youth Friendship Association in Pokhara.
Kathmandu University has established a Confucius Institute (CIKU) to promote the study of Chinese language and culture. This Institute has trained over 20,000 Nepalese since its establishment in June 2007 (Li 2017). Dina Nath Sharma, Nepal’s minister for education, while speaking at the celebration of CIKU’S fifth anniversary in June 2013, underlined that such events not only strengthen relations between the two countries but also help in increasing the contacts at the people-to-people level (Jain 2017).
The Chinese embassy in Nepal also started giving language courses to Nepalese officials. As a Nepalese joint secretary at the Ministry of Education told Xinhua, ‘Nepal has a lot to learn from China in the sectors like technology, education system, culture, trade and tourism. Learning about these areas is possible only through language, so we felt it’s necessary to train our officials first for knowledge and technology transfer’ (Xinhua 2017).
On the tourism front, too, China is investing heavily by revising the air services agreement between the two countries. Nepal, on the other hand, has waived visas fees for Chinese nationals and made the yuan convertible for tourists and businessman. The Nepal Embassy in Beijing has stated that ‘Nepal expects to grab a larger share of the Chinese outbound travel market as China has announced Nepal Tourism Promotion Year 2017 in a bid to encourage its citizens to visit the Himalayan republic’ (Kathmandu Post 2017b). Nepal has witnessed constant growth in Chinese tourist arrivals since June 2009. About 9,000 Chinese visited Nepal in 2001, the year China listed Nepal as a tourist destination. In 2013, this number reached 90,000 (Gosai 2015). After the earthquake in 2015, however, there was a dip in the numbers of Chinese tourists. Leela Mani Paudyal, Nepal’s ambassador to China said that ‘The promotion year will help Nepal’s tourism market to revive that has been affected by the earthquake and the trade embargo in 2015’ (Kathmandu Post 2017b).
Despite having only a little direct historical and cultural links, the soft power element has been a success at the government level. However, there are inbuilt geographical, cultural limitations for China. The dictates of geography and socio-cultural roots keep Nepal and India closer to each other. Will cultural or soft power institutionalization reach the Nepalese and the Chinese people? It might take a while yet.
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Gautam, Upendra. 2016. ‘Book penned by Xi Jinping an essential reading for Nepal’, Rising Nepal, http://therisingnepal.org.np/news/16171 (accessed on 31 July 2017).
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Jain, BM. 2017. China’s Soft Power Diplomacy in South Asia: Myth or Reality? Lanham: Lexington Books
Kathmandu Post. 2017a. ‘Nepal China Joint Mechanism reviews status of bilateral relations’ 20 June, http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2017-06-20/nepal-china-joint-mechanism-reviews-status-of-bilateral-relations.html (accessed on 27 July 2017).
Kathmandu Post. 2017b. ‘Nepal expects fillip from tourism’ 7 January, http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2017-01-07/nepal-expects-fillip-from-tourism-promo-in-china.html (accessed on 24 July 2017).
Li, Jan. 2017. ‘Nepal offers Mandarin lessons to officials’, People’s Daily, 14 February, http://en.people.cn/n3/2017/0214/c90000-9177888.html (accessed on 31 July 2017).
Parashar, Utpal. 2012.`Prachanda wants Indian involvement in Lumbini project’, Hindustan Times, 10 November, http://www.hindustantimes.com/world/prachanda-wants-indian-involvement-in-lumbini-project/story-cjmdabySE5xxW66DP8gdDI.html (accessed on 27 July 2017).
Ranade, Jayadeva. 2013. China Unveiled: Insights into Chinese Strategic Thinking. New Delhi: KW Publishers Pvt.
Xinhua. 2017. ‘Nepal education ministry officials to take Chinese language course’, 12 February, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-02/12/c_136051164.htm (accessed on 27 July 2017).