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Nepal's neighbours vie for influence

By Kumar Malhotra
BBC News

Indian PM Manmohan Singh (left) with Prachanda
Nepalese leader Prachanda has called for a 'revolutionary change' in relations

China is slowly building up its influence in Nepal - and its gain there is India's loss.

That is the assessment in some quarters in India after a spate of diplomatic activity by Beijing in the Maoist-led Himalayan nation, which is struggling to complete a peace process started more than two years ago.

Recent months have seen a flurry of visits by Chinese political and military figures to Kathmandu to discuss bolstering ties.

These include plans to strengthen road links and a railway line between China and Nepal, to help the Nepalese with military training and to re-negotiate a friendship treaty between the two countries, according to reports in the Nepalese and Indian press.

'Substantial concern'

To cap it all, the Nepalese Prime Minister and Maoist leader - Prachanda is expected to visit Beijing in April to finalise some of these projects.

Nepal is linked far too closely to India at multiple levels
Nepalese journalist Sanjay Upadhya

And the Chinese have not just limited their contacts to the Maoist rulers in Kathmandu.

Visiting delegations from Beijing have met Nepalese leaders from across the political spectrum, including a coalition of Madhesi groups from the restive Terai region of southern Nepal, along the border with India.

It's all been too much for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in India, which raised the issue in India's parliament last month, alleging the government was ignoring the growing Chinese role in Nepal.

"There is a substantial amount of concern among the Indian establishment," says Abanti Bhattacharya of Delhi's Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis. "The Chinese are making inroads across South Asia."

There is an obvious explanation for the increased attention the Chinese leadership has been paying to Nepal.

With the 50th anniversary of the exile of the Dalai Lama rapidly approaching, China wants to avoid a repeat of the protests by Tibetan exiles in Nepal that followed the Chinese crackdown in Tibet last year.

"This is very important, and a core issue for China," says Ma Jiali of the China Institute of International Relations in Beijing. He also dismisses the idea that China is in a competition with India for influence in Nepal and that China's gain is India's loss.

China card

But could China ever supplant Indian influence in Nepal even if it wanted to?

"Nepal is linked far too closely to India at multiple levels," says Nepalese journalist Sanjay Upadhya, who has written extensively on relations between India, China and Nepal.

Protest by Tibetans in nepal in 2008
China is wary of Nepal's exiled Tibetan community

The prohibitively high costs of transport from China mean India would remain the main economic partner.

And Beijing retains a residual suspicion of top Maoist leaders, given the close links some of them developed with India after many years of exile during the decade-long insurgency against the Nepalese monarchy.

There are advantages for the Nepalese government in seeking to play the China card.

It may give them added leverage when it comes to re-negotiating the more than 50-year-old friendship treaty with India, a long-standing demand of the Maoists who have condemned it as "unequal".

Sanjay Upadhya says cultivating China is also popular with some sections of opinion in Nepal. "Proximity to China allows the leadership to bolster its nationalist credentials among the Maoist cadres," he says.

It also helps to remind India that it has to tread carefully given the acute sensitivity of the Nepalese about Indian influence over their country.

Comments by Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee in January about how India "persuaded" the Maoists to give up violence and join mainstream politics reportedly did not go down well in Kathmandu.

"Such statements can be seen to belittle the Maoist struggle," says Indian analyst Abanti Bhattacharya.

The Indian government does not at the moment seem unduly concerned about China's wooing of Nepal.

On a brief visit to Kathmandu last month, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon declared that Nepal was a sovereign country and Delhi had no problem with its bilateral relationship with others.

But as Beijing uses the opportunity offered by the uncertain political situation in Nepal to develop its ties there, it is clear that its every move will be scrutinised very closely in Delhi.

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