China’s President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Tibet Autonomous Region last Friday, the first official visit by a Chinese leader to the troubled region in 30 years, sent out strong signals to its southern neighbors.
Coming at a time when a military standoff between India and China along their disputed border – India borders the TAR – shows no sign of ending, Xi’s visit to Nyingchi near the McMahon Line, the disputed border in the eastern sector, raised eyebrows in New Delhi.
But also, Xi’s visit to the TAR would have been taken note of in Nepal. Like India, Nepal borders Tibet, and it is home to thousands of Tibetan refugees. Accordingly, the Tibetan question is a key issue in China-Nepal relations.
Around 20,000 Tibetan refugees live in Nepal. Following China’s crushing of the Tibetan uprising in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled Tibet. While the majority went to India, a sizeable number came to Nepal and Bhutan.
Diplomatic relations between Nepal and China were established in 1955 and the two countries signed a treaty the following year under which Nepal recognized Tibet as a part of China. The “One China policy” is a key cornerstone of China-Nepal relations. Kathmandu doesn’t recognize Taiwan as an independent country and has supported the new Hong Kong national security law.
With regard to Tibet, Nepal acknowledges that Tibet is China’s internal issue. It has countered any anti-Chinese activities by Tibetan refugees on its soil.
Nepal takes care to reiterate its commitment to the One China policy during official visits of its leaders to China and vice versa. For instance, during the visit of China’s Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe to Nepal last year, the then-prime minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, stressed Nepal’s commitment to the policy and said that Kathmandu would not allow Nepali soil to be used against Chinese interests. In turn, Wei had praised Nepal for its pursuit of this policy and pledged Beijing’s support in safeguarding Nepal’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.
As a small neighbor of gigantic China and sandwiched between the two Asian giants, India and China, Nepal has to tread carefully. It cannot afford to get caught in their geopolitical battles.
Nepal has faced problems from its southern neighbor, India, which has cooperated with the CIA on the Tibet question. For instance, the two jointly launched the 1979 Khampa rebellion in Nepal’s Mustang region, putting Nepal’s sovereignty at risk.
This incident changed the Nepali government’s policies toward Tibetans. It began perceiving them through the security threat lens.
At present, Nepal monitors Tibetan refugees living in Nepal and lists them as potential targets for surveillance and espionage.
This is because some of their activities – their involvement in the Khampa rebellion, for instance – are problematic for Nepal. The large funding they receive from the U.S., India, and other countries to pursue such activities is a matter of concern for Nepal.
There is pressure on Nepal, especially from Western liberal democracies and global bodies, to grant legal status and fundamental rights to the Tibetan exiles. Nepal has failed to register and verify Tibetan refugees, leaving them undocumented and vulnerable to violation of rights. But Nepal is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, which is one of the reasons why the Himalayan country doesn’t feel obligated to heed Western demands.
In the last two decades, Nepal’s laws have been updated to reflect various security agreements, including the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty and the Mutual Legal Assistance Act-2014, done with China. Under these agreements and the recent border management system, Tibetans crossing the China-Nepal border and entering Nepal illegally are not allowed entry and must be returned to Tibet without being provided refuge in Nepal.
The importance of the Tibetan refugee issues in Sino-Nepali relations was underscored during Xi’s visit to Nepal in October 2019. The Chinese side was pressuring Nepal at that time to sign an extradition treaty so that “trouble-making” Tibetan refugees would be deported to China to face prosecution there. It was learned later that Nepal did not fulfill the Chinese demand due to the pressure from Western powers. That angered Xi, who according to China’s state broadcaster reportedly told Oli in a meeting that those who tried to split China would face “crushed bodies and shattered bones.”
The Consolidation Appropriations Act passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2020 has allocated funds for the welfare of Tibetan refugees residing in Nepal and other countries. This and other U.S. laws on Tibet indicate Washington’s reinvigorated interest in the region, provoking China’s strong reactions.
Nepal has genuine fears that it is becoming a playground of geopolitical competition not only between India and China but also between the two superpowers, the U.S. and China, over the the issue of Tibet.
China views the Dalai Lama as a potential separatist leader who could weaken its grip over Tibet. It has claimed the sole right to control the process of selection of the next Dalai Lama, and analysts say it is already putting pressure on neighbors like Nepal and Mongolia to not recognize any successor who is not endorsed by Beijing.
To enhance its leverage over Nepal, China is investing in Nepal’s hydropower projects, airports, highways, and telecommunication projects.
The United States and India support the Tibetan cause openly, while China cautions Nepal at every meeting of top officials. This has put Nepal in a difficult spot. Assuming the geopolitical competition doesn’t subside, Nepal cannot change its policies on Tibetan refugees living in Nepal.
Nepal’s new prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, faces complex geopolitical challenges as rivalries between regional and global powers plays out on Nepali soil. He will need to tread cautiously, especially on issues that are of core importance to these countries.