China has conducted four rounds of multilateral virtual conferences with South Asian countries in the last 10 months amid speculation and unspecified information about the Covid-19 pandemic. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were among the members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) who took part. State Councillor and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi opened the series of conferences with various assistance and strategic programmes under its pandemic diplomacy initiative in July 2020; the last one was held in April 2021. The diplomatic offensive shows China’s desire to be well connected in South Asia.
The July meeting focused on engaging the South Asian region with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network. The third conference discussed assistance for treatment along with Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects for linking up with the Indian Ocean. Wang said, “We will actively promote the building of the CPEC and the Trans-Himalayan Connectivity Network, support the extension of the corridor to Afghanistan, and further unleash the dividends of regional connectivity.” Wang added, “We should give play to our geographical advantages, strengthen exchanges and connectivity between the four countries and Central Asian countries, and safeguard regional peace and stability.”
The four rounds of discussions led by China dealt with various themes including consolidating consensus on unity; joint prevention and control of the Covid-19 pandemic; avoiding politicisation and stigmatisation of the coronavirus with firm support to the World Health Organisation to maintain multilateralism; jointly building global health community; impact of the pandemic with the resumption of economic and trade cooperation; continuation of BRI infrastructure projects to maintain stability of industrial and supply chains; and creating new economic growth points in the digital field. A proposal to establish a China-South Asia Emergency Supply Mechanism and China-South Asia Poverty Alleviation and Development Partnership Centre has received consent, and initial consensus was established on dealing with non-traditional security challenges, enhanced information sharing and advancing sustainable development.
China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe called on Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to oppose powers from outside the region setting up military alliances in South Asia. General Wei comments occurred for a push back from the QUAD grouping which is viewed by China as a pseudo-military alliance or as the beginning of another military alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or the Indo-Pacific Region.
Wang Yi visited Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia in September; Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and Thailand in October; Japan and South Korea in November; and Nepal and Pakistan in December. The visits are said to boost relations, deepen cooperation and elevate military mutual trust as part of China’s neighbourhood diplomacy. The diplomatic engagement is also to safeguard China’s core interests particularly from the southwest and containment from the United States-led alliance and the multifaceted international environment. There is a rise in military assistance to South Asian countries.
Connectivity, shared consensus on common challenges, regional structures, economic advancement, strategic connectivity and relocating with ‘good neighbourliness’ will drive China and the nations in South Asia, with the hypothesis ‘will pandemic diplomacy lead to pandemic politics?’
The Himalayan region of the Indo-Pacific Region with the emerging QUAD coalition and the evolution of China’s pandemic diplomacy is a disconnectedness of India’s influence in South Asia. Even if Nepal reframes its foreign policy from the customary basis of non-alignment and strategic autonomy that has defined independent Nepal’s foreign policy, it has a big undertaking in convincing India, China and the US or the ‘strategic triangle’ on the merits, as foreign policy behaviour is questioned time and again in international relations. Beijing’s outreach to the South Asian region comes with closer cooperation in the fight against Covid-19. When India is battling a resurgence in coronavirus cases, China is shoring up ties with South Asia through strategic cooperation.
Nepal’s foreign minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali supported the need for an enhanced level of regional and international cooperation for Covid-19 response and economic recovery. China is providing an additional grant of medical equipment and materials worth 5 million RMB (Rs57,000,000). At the same time, mainly the US, European nations, India and the World Bank have been providing grants and assistance to counter Covid-19 challenges.
Nepal’s non-aligned policy
Nepal’s political parties, particularly the communist parties, are trying to win votes by effectively mobilising Nepali nationalism but without hurting Indian sentiments. The shifting and complications of great power relations has stressed Nepal’s non-alignment, which may be questioned in the years ahead. Nepal adopted the non-aligned policy when India was part of it, and China was strategically important for both the Soviets and the US during the Cold War. China and US rivalry has put India in diplomatic ambiguity as India needs the US as it needs China and Russia. A China and Russia convergence can turn the regional security-political environment in a different tone.
With China now at the centre, Nepal and other South Asian countries will have to choose which side they would like to represent once again with communism versus democracy with the question of non-alignment or multi-alignment. Nepal needs India as it needs China and the US, hence the need to successfully demonstrate the possibilities for engaging both her immediate neighbours and the only global power is the argument. Decisions in Beijing, New Delhi and Washington will have an influence on Kathmandu’s politics like the 12-point agreement, which was adopted in New Delhi and whose impact is still ongoing.
The KathMandu Post.