Today, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was to have been in Nepal.
Last week, however, it was announced that his trip was cancelled, leaving a lot of puzzlement and, in some cases, a little embarrassment.
Wen would have been the highest ranking Chinese official to visit Nepal in a decade. Many eyes were watching the visit. Tibetans were nervously looking to see if it would further shrink the space for Tibetans living and working in Nepal, following insistent Chinese demands that the Nepalese government clamp down on “anti-China activities” and forcibly return Tibetan refugees across the PRC border.
The Indians, Americans, and others would be watching to see the extent to which Wen’s visit cemented China’s effort to expand its sphere of influence in Nepal.
And of course, the Nepalese were watching more closely than anyone. Nepal has been described as a “yam between two rocks.” As China and India contend for influence in their mutual neighbor, Nepalese political leaders play one off against the other. At the same time that they seek to leverage benefits from this competition, the Nepalese are also wary of the costs and risks, and how much of Nepal’s culture, national identity and sovereignty may get lost in the process.
Speculation has abounded as to both the reasons and the ramifications of the postponement of Wen’s trip:
Domestic problems: In the closest thing to an official announcement, the Chinese Ambassador in Kathamandu, Yang Houlan suggested it was for domestic reasons. Nepal’s Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha quoted Yang as saying “We are sorry to inform you about our premier’s inability to visit Nepal now, as his presence in Beijing became necessary to be engaged in economic and budgetary issues.”
Mission to Burma: Wen was also supposed to visit Burma (the Chinese use its regime’s preferred name of Myanmar) on the same trip. This was cancelled, also for unknown reasons. Some speculated it was in relation to Burma’s cancellation of construction of the Mysitone dam by a Chinese state-owned firm. It also came close to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to Burma. Perhaps there were political complications with proceeding to Nepal and not Burma at this time.
Diplomatic faux pas: An article in the South China Morning Post suggested that “Beijing was displeased that Kathmandu had disclosed the date of Wen’s trip to the media in advance without consulting the Chinese government,” citing a senior Nepalese foreign ministry official. One Indian commentator noted “the high public bidding by Nepal government spokespersons on the outcome of the visit.”
Security issues: Some Nepal media outlets cited concerns about security and political instability in Nepal. An article in the Himalayan said “China’s team of security experts, after assessing the situation in Nepal regarding possible self-immolations and protests by Free Tibet activists, conveyed to Beijing that it was not the right time to visit Nepal, added the sources.”
This has the whiff of a line being planted by China-friendly people in the government, to deflect blame from the guests and hosts and onto a third party.
But taken seriously, it requires suspension of disbelief. Does anyone really think that the Chinese, or anyone for that matter, could rationally conclude that Tibetan activists would represent a physical security threat to the visiting Chinese Prime Minister and his entourage? For one, there have been very few public protests by the Tibetan community in Kathmandu in recent years (not for lack of cause, but largely due to self-discipline in the community combined with intensified efforts to stifle such protests). Second, such protests have been peaceful, without resort to violence. There was an attempted self-immolation by a monk in Kathmandu in early November. Again, it is hard to see how these factors could result in an adverse security assessment for a delegation that would be traveling with a robust security presence.
Of course, any pro-Tibetan protests would represent an embarrassment not only for Wen but for the Nepalese government, which has responded to China’s top request by vowing to stop any “anti-China” protests. But would the trip really be postponed because of the prospect of embarrassing protests? It’s not as if the prospect for demonstration disappears by the time the visit is rescheduled.
If we are to believe that the possibility of protests by Tibetans (whether or not they represented security risks) led to the postponement, then we must say: pat yourselves on the back, Tibet activists. Less than one-thousandth of the population of Nepal is refugees from Tibet. Of that, only a very small percentage would ever engage in protests. If this handful of Tibetans in Nepal really can affect the diplomatic agenda of a top Chinese leader, then it says as much about the asymmetric power of the Tibet movement as it does to question Beijing’s self-asserted confidence on the world stage at this moment.