NEW DELHI - In a signal of strengthening ties with Beijing, Nepal will hold its first-ever military exercise with China next month.
The development is being closely watched in India, which is wary of Beijing’s growing influence in the tiny Himalayan country that is sandwiched between the two Asian giants.
Nepal’s army says the focus of the military exercise will be on training Nepali forces in dealing with hostage scenarios involving international terror groups and on disaster management.
“Nepal and China have been exchanging military delegations, visits and courses but such kind of drill is taking place for the first time,” according to Brigadier General Tara Bahadur Karki, a spokesperson for the Nepal Army.
India will watch closely
A China expert in New Delhi, Jayadeva Ranade, says that India would be evaluating carefully to see what the exercise signifies. “Is it a trend for introducing military to military relations on an expanding scale or is it a one-off?”
Nepal is brushing aside such concerns calling it a small scale exercise with no strategic implications. Kathmandu’s envoy to India, Deep Upadhyay, told the Times of India newspaper that "there's really not much in it. Whichever way you look at it, Nepal has a special relationship with India and that's not going to change because of any such exercise.''
The joint military drill will be held as New Delhi tries to regain ground it lost to China last year when former Nepalese Prime Minister, K.P. Oli, pursued closer relations with Beijing in a bid to ease Nepal’s critical dependence on India following a border blockade by ethnic protestors that created massive hardship in the country.
Since Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal took power five months ago, India and Nepal have reset ties, raising hopes of restoring the traditional bonhomie in relations.
China expands influence
But political analysts point out that China’s influence is in Nepal to stay as Beijing expands its presence in a bid to gain a foothold in South Asia.
In recent years, Beijing has wooed Nepal with millions of dollars to help build roads, hospitals and other infrastructure, and signed agreements to supply energy over difficult mountain routes.
“Moreover China is also aggressively coming. I must admit that, aggressively coming to invest, have more interactions, to open new dialogue with different sectors of society,” says Lok Raj Baral, the head of Nepal’s Center for Contemporary Studies in Kathmandu.
But Baral feels that the upcoming military exercise does not signal growing defense cooperation between Nepal and Beijing. “I don’t think we are going to have much more closer relations with Chinese military in the future in other respects,” he says.
However Indian analysts say the drill will cause unease in New Delhi because India has open borders with landlocked Nepal, which conducts its trade and transit through these routes.
“We look at Nepal as part of our strategic space, so there is a bit of contest taking place there,” says Ranade. He points out that an increased Chinese presence in Nepal “brings China right up to our border, which is very porous.”