Nepal’s Joint Military Exercise with China Stirs Diplomatic Concerns in South Asia
The Nepal-China joint military exercise began on Monday, September 17. Marking the second edition of the “Sagarmatha Friendship” military exercise, it first took place in April last year. Twelve personnels from the Nepalese Army commenced military drills with the Chinese army at Chengdu, China’s Southwest capital of the Sichuan province.
The military exercise is predicted to span across ten days, until September 28. These drills between People’s Liberation Army and the Nepalese army are going to focus on countering terrorism activities. Moreover, an additional pivot of this exercise would be disaster management training for both the armies.
While the “Sagarmatha Friendship” military drill is not a novelty for Nepal, the timing caused a diplomatic stir with India. Just days anticipating the drill, Nepal made a last minute decision to withdraw from the joint military exercise of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in Pune, India.
The BIMSTEC regional partnership includes seven countries, namely India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Thailand, Srilanka and Nepal. On August 30, during the BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi specifically requested that all member nations partake in the BIMSTEC military exercise due to be held September 10 onward. Nonetheless, following PM Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s instructions, the Nepalese Army withdrew from the exercise on September 9 despite its initial promise to partake.
Between August 30 and September 9, Nepal witnessed another significant regional development. On September 7, China opened four of its ports, namely Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang, to Nepal. In doing so, China ended Nepal’s landlocked status and thus, its dependence on India for trade routes.
The parallel timing of Nepal gaining access to Chinese ports, withdrawing from BIMSTEC exercise and participating in the “Sagarmatha Friendship” military drill with China stokes concerns for diplomatic observers as they try to make strategic sense of Nepal’s decisions.
Some view Nepal’s actions as a provocation to India. Former foreign secretary of India, Kanwal Sibal, terms the Country’s decisions as “inconsiderate.” According to him, such diplomatic activities on Nepal’s side “alienate Indian opinion”, and “cost will be felt” upon the it dealing with potential contingencies in the future.
Sibal further commented that Nepal ought to nurture its ties with India, rather than “create distrust.” In his opinion, the Country’s participation in the BIMSTEC drill would have garnered Indian support for its joint military exercise with China.
However, others speculate that Nepal’s actions should not be interpreted as a shift in its allegiance from India to China. According to Bhaskar Koirala, director of the Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies, these decisions are a result of internal contradictions within Nepal’s ruling party, wherein some factions lean toward India, whilst others toward China. As a result of recent democratic transitions within Nepal, Koirala believes these decisions stem from a weak administration and leadership.
Viraj Solanki, a research analyst at IISS, London, states that Nepal’s decision to withdraw from BIMSTEC military drills has more to do with its “domestic political sensitivities” regarding the notion of multinational military exercises. According to him therefore, it does not portray a diplomatic shift in its relations with India.
About 300 army personnels from Nepal and India currently participate in the bilateral Surya Kiran military exercise; the thirteenth edition of these drills being conducted in June 2018.