China to provide military aid to Nepal

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - It appears that the defence cooperation will be prioritised in this ‘strategic cooperative partnership’ between the two nations, security analysts say.  

Just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping returned to Beijing after completing a two-day state visit, Nepal and China are already set to sign a fresh agreement regarding 150 million RMB (approximately Rs 2.5 billion) military aid to the Nepal Army.

This is the first time that China has pledged back-to-back annual military support to the Nepal Army. Beijing extended a similar kind of military assistance to the national defence force in October last year.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Ishwar Pokhrel flew to China on Thursday afternoon to sign the deal after a decision to this effect was taken earlier that morning by a Cabinet meeting, according to officials familiar with the negotiations. Pokhrel has been authorised to sign the deal with China, according to a Cabinet decision released on Thursday.

This military assistance was not discussed in the delegation-level talks held during the Chinese president’s visit, said officials. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence “quietly” worked out the deal and gave it final touches after Xi returned to Beijing, they said.

Santa Bahadur Sunar, spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence, confirmed that Nepal and China will sign the 150 million RMB military deal during Pokhrel’s visit to China.

“We, however, do not have the details of the agreement,” Sunar told the Post. “The Nepal Army will later correspond with their Chinese counterparts about their military and equipment requirements.”

The deal on military assistance follows Nepal and China’s agreement to elevate ties from a “comprehensive partnership of cooperation” to a “strategic partnership of cooperation”, a change in terminology that has been widely speculated on in the media.

Apart from extending and expanding on economic cooperation, a joint communique issued after Xi’s visit said that China had offered cooperation in the security sector.

“The two sides will continue to strengthen cooperation in the exchange of visits of the security personnel, joint exercises and training, disaster prevention and reduction and personnel training,” read the joint communique. Nepal and China also signed a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty during Xi’s time in Kathmandu.

Experts say that this new military pact between Nepal and China shows that defence cooperation will be prioritised in this ‘strategic cooperative partnership’ between the two nations as agreed upon during Xi’s visit.

The military aid shows China’s growing interest in Nepal’s defence sector, said Binoj Basnyat, a retired Army General.

“Defence pact and cooperation in security sectors is a key pillar in any strategic partnership,” Basnyat told the Post. “This shows that China values its defence cooperation with Nepal and is keen on upgrading Nepal’s defence capability.”

The agreement to elevate Nepal-China bilateral ties to a “strategic partnership” has already caused some concern. While experts cautioned against a hasty interpretation, they told the Post earlier this week that a strategic partnership entails some security and military components.

Experts have also cautioned that Nepal’s cosying up to China--with deals on connectivity and projects under the Belt and Road Initiative--may cause some unease among older partners like India and the United States.

Kathmandu’s desire to cultivate its relationship with China mainly stems from its bid to countervail its dependence on India. But some believe that a partnership with China when it comes to security and military components could raise alarm bells in New Delhi and Washington.

The last time Kathmandu irked New Delhi was in 1989 when then king Birendra considered an arms purchase from Beijing. India had then imposed a crippling blockade.

There are now newfound concerns whether an ambitious leadership in Kathmandu could lead Nepal into a geopolitical quagmire.

The United States has included Nepal in its broad Indo-Pacific Strategy and although American officials have attempted to qualify that the strategy is not targeted at any particular country, many, including the Chinese, see it as an attempt to counter China. India, on the other hand, has stopped short of joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but it is an active partner in the Wahington-led strategy, which aims at a grouping of four “like-minded” democracies--the US, India, Japan and Australia--known as Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or QUAD.

Experts caution that while Nepal should seek support from all friendly nations, it should tread carefully when it comes to the tussle between the great powers.

According to Basnyat, Kathmandu should first understand why China values Nepal so highly in defence and security cooperation.

“In any strategic partnership, defence and security issues matter a lot,” said Basnyat. “We have to see what other agreements and pacts will be signed during the defence minister’s visit.”

The Nepal Army, however, expressed ignorance about a new military assistance deal with China.

“I do not have any idea about the new agreement to be signed with China,” Brigadier General Bigyan Dev Pandey, spokesperson for the Army, told the Post. “As of now, we have received various kinds of non-lethal military equipment and logistics for our Army personnel serving in various conflict flashpoints and for disaster preparedness. These were agreed upon during the visits of Defence Minister Pokhrel [last year] and our Chief of Army Staff [in July] to China.”

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