Author : Atul Kumar

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 20, 2024

The recent visits by Chinese military delegations to Nepal suggest a deepening of China's engagement in the region, which could have implications for India

China-Nepal military relations: Risks and opportunities for India

On 9 March 2024, a Chinese military delegation headed by Major General Zhang Baoqun visited Nepal. They toured Nepalese military institutions and held discussions with Nepalese Army Chief Prabhu Ram Sharma on various proposals. The military delegation's arrival closely trailed a political delegation led by Sun Haiyan, Deputy Head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, which made its way to Kathmandu in January 2024. The consecutive visits, coupled with the existing political and military relations between China and Nepal, present a complex scenario.

The military delegation's arrival closely trailed a political delegation led by Sun Haiyan, Deputy Head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, which made its way to Kathmandu in January 2024.

These visits and the public statements of Chinese leaders in Kathmandu seem to project a durable China-Nepal relationship. However, beneath the surface, India's improving relations with Nepal have increased China’s unease. It has spurred Chinese leaders to intensify their efforts to woo Nepal's political and military elite. This paper focuses on the military dimension and explores this delegation’s proposals while evaluating China’s predicament and India's prospects in Nepal.

Nepal-China military ties

China's military relations with Nepal have historically been among the weakest compared to its other South Asian neighbours, despite significant political, economic, and social engagements over recent decades. This underdevelopment persists due to structural factors, with the military aspect playing a pivotal role.

During the initial decades, military connections between China and Nepal were minimal. As the Commander-in-Chief of Nepal’s Armed Forces, the Nepalese Monarch addressed most military issues raised by the Chinese. However, Nepal's transition to a republic in 2008 and anti-China protests preceding the Beijing Olympics, prompted China to diversify and strengthen its political and military engagements with Nepal. Nonetheless, this collaboration primarily focused on enhancing Nepal’s military capabilities for UN peacekeeping, disaster management, and internal security, facilitated through grants, training, infrastructure development, and joint exercises.

China closed borders during 2020-23 and suspended all military engagements impeding material and personnel exchanges until mid-2023.

Despite these efforts, a lingering hesitation persists in their bilateral military interactions due to Nepal's enduring special military ties with India. These ties, characterised by frequent joint military exercises, material support, and the significant presence of Gurkha soldiers and veterans, are substantial. They have posed challenges for China in establishing an equally influential military partnership with Nepal.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic further strained China-Nepal military relations. China closed borders during 2020-23 and suspended all military engagements impeding material and personnel exchanges until mid-2023. Consequently, this unofficial blockade significantly impacted mutual trust, underscoring the fragility of military ties amidst broader geopolitical dynamics.

Post-COVID military cooperation

Following the relaxation of the COVID-19 restrictions in 2023, a Chinese military delegation led by Major General Yue Ande from the PLA’s Tibet Military Command visited Nepal on 16 August 2023. During this visit, agreements were reached to revive the Sagarmatha joint military exercise series, and multiple seats were offered for Nepal Army (NA) officers in Chinese military training academies. China also offered four seats in the annual Defense and Strategic Studies Course at China’s College of Defense Studies (CDS). This visit signalled a potential resurgence in bilateral military-to-military interactions.

The Zhang Baoqun delegation is the second one to visit Nepal within seven months. It aimed to bolster military cooperation by advancing an armoured personnel carrier (APC) procurement contract, proposing the installation of an ammunition plant, resuming Sagarmatha joint military exercises, inviting more NA officers for training in Chinese military institutions, and increasing overall military cooperation.

Structural factors: The camouflage

At first glance Zhang's proposals appear harmless, seemingly designed to rejuvenate the military camaraderie between China and Nepal. However, it involves enhancing Chinese military influence in Nepal, potentially at India's expense.

For instance, the process to purchase the 26 APCs has been ongoing since the last few Nepalese administrations. The NA finally decided to purchase them from a US-blacklisted Chinese manufacturer, NORINCO, rejecting cheaper Indian bids. In 2023, accusations of corruption and price inflation emerged, leading to the current Nepal PM freezing the contract. Nonetheless, the NA has remained adamant about the decision based on its historical ties with the manufacturer. The Chinese delegations are therefore lobbying hard to convince the Nepalese Administration to conclude it early and ward off any other competitor.

Accusations of corruption and price inflation emerged, leading to the current Nepal PM freezing the contract. Nonetheless, the NA has remained adamant about the decision based on its historical ties with the manufacturer.

Likewise, up to 2022, Chinese manufacturers were preferred ammunition suppliers to Nepal after it switched from its southern neighbour. However, the quality of Chinese ammunition remains subpar. Consequently, in 2022, Nepal decided to procure ammunition from an Indian company, SSS Defence. This Indian company outcompeted Chinese manufacturers in an open bidding contract. As anticipated, Zhang's delegation has proposed installing an ammunition plant for the NA, aimed at undermining the Indian re-entry into the NA's ammunition inventory.

Similarly, the Sagarmatha joint military exercise has been on hiatus since 2019, after being held twice in 2017 and 2018 with enthusiastic support from the KP Sharma Oli government. Oli's administration aimed to bolster its communist credentials with China and diminish India's influence within the NA. However, despite Oli's efforts, changing regional politics and military dynamics thwarted his objectives, leading to the suspension of the joint military exercise with China. Since August 2023, China has endeavoured to revive the joint exercise, without any success.

Military training at the College of Defense Studies

China's PLA operates around 67 military academies, with nearly half providing training to foreign military personnel.[1] The College of Defense Studies (CDS), part of the PLA’s National Defense University (NDU), is the primary institution for graduate-level international military education. Offering short and extended courses, the CDS aims to train officers and foster relationships with trainees from the global south. Its year-long Defense and Strategic Studies Course for Colonels and Brigadiers awards a master’s degree to foreign officers, shaping the military elites of participating nations.

However, foreign military graduates are instructed at a satellite campus in northern Beijing, separate from their counterparts in the PLA NDU. This arrangement restricts their opportunities for interaction and relationship-building with PLA officers. Instructors at the CDS curtail discussion opportunities and adhere strictly to the official party line. This segregation between Chinese and foreign officer trainees, including officers from Nepal, combined with the lingering language barrier, constitutes a significant weakness of this training program.

India holds a longstanding advantage over China in the military sphere, which China struggles to diminish.

In contrast, Nepalese officers receive training in Indian academies alongside Indian officer trainees. This shared experience encompasses military language, culture, medium of instruction, and various other aspects, enriching their training and fostering deep connections within the Indian system. Consequently, India holds a longstanding advantage over China in the military sphere, which China struggles to diminish.

Conclusion

The successive Chinese military delegations and their proposals signify a sustained effort to achieve three objectives. China aims to establish a connection between its military-industrial complex and the Nepalese Armed Forces. This entails fostering an extensive military material supply relationship, which would bind Nepal to China for an extended period, particularly for spare parts and service support functions.

Furthermore, China perceives that its focused efforts to strengthen the military capabilities of India’s neighbouring countries will facilitate closer ties with them. The improved capabilities, combined with a military elite trained by China, are expected to boost these states’ confidence in engaging in dialogue with India. Additionally, there is a possibility that they may be malleable to provoke disputes to divert Indian attention and undermine its capabilities.

The improved capabilities, combined with a military elite trained by China, are expected to boost these states’ confidence in engaging in dialogue with India.

Finally, the PLA is also delving into safeguarding China’s economic interests and expanding its diplomatic relations. Thus, an improved military relationship will also facilitate China’s other economic and political initiatives in Nepal. This includes addressing the sluggish progress in the Belt and Road Initiative.

India must elevate its efforts in Nepal, particularly concerning the Nepalese Armed Forces, to counteract these Chinese objectives. Leveraging its traditional strengths and resolving lingering issues can help India mitigate Chinese interference effectively.


Atul Kumar is an Associate Member at the University of Sydney's China Studies Centre in Sydney, Australia.

[1] David L. Shambaugh, China Goes Global: The Partial Power, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 256.

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Author

Atul Kumar

Atul Kumar

Atul Kumar is an Associate Member at the University of Sydney's China Studies Centre in Sydney, Australia. He holds a PhD on China’s Military from ...

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