India’s strategic and foreign policy planners need to be alert as China steadily expands its influence in Nepal. Beijing’s focus is particularly on Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, which lies inside Nepal and barely 25 km across the border from India.
The focus has sharpened since October, when China enunciated its new strategy of ‘Peripheral Diplomacy’, or zhoubian, which outlines a definite role for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At least three Chinese front organisations, or so-called NGOs, affiliated to the CCP Central Committee’s (CC’s) United Front Work Department are active in Nepal.
The Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), a Chinese-sponsored NGO, was the first to unveil a $3-billion redevelopment plan for Lumbini in June 2011. Its executive vice-president, Xiao Wunan, is a provincial-level official of the CC’s United Front who claims access to Chinese President Xi Jinping. UCPN (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal is vice-president of the APECF’s Nepal chapter. Nepal’s Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai is also associated with the APECF.
The APECF’s plans for the redevelopment of Lumbini include an international airport, direct rail link between Tibet and Lumbini and a monastery-cum-seminary complex. The publicised justification for the international airport and rail link is to promote and facilitate Buddhist tourism. The APECF’s plans have failed to get off the ground so far due to various reasons.
Xiao Wunan, on May 10, gave an interview to the Nepalese newspaper Republica in Hong Kong, and announced that the APECF remains ready to launch the project and is awaiting approval of the new government in Nepal. He acknowledged that the “geopolitics of Nepal, which stands between India and China, is so sensitive that it has complicated Lumbini´s development.”
In late 2013, the China Buddhist Association, of which the Beijing-selected the 11th Panchen Lama Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu is vice-president, announced it had plans for the development of Lumbini. The association’s presence represents more direct involvement by the CCP in matters regarding Lumbini and would be an attempt to provide a degree of legitimacy to the monastery and seminary.
The latest outfit being used by China is the little-known, Beijing-based International Ecological Safety Collaborative Organisation (IESCO). Significantly, the IESCO lists Madhav Kumar Nepal, chairman of the CPN (UML), as an executive chairman. The IESCO also succeeded in co-opting Nepal Congress leader Sujata Koirala by inviting her to a conference in Chengdu in July 2013, when it signed a memorandum for ‘strategic partnership’ with her Girija Prasad Koirala Foundation (GPKF). They discussed establishing an ‘international ecological safety demonstration zone’ in Lumbini and the IESCO and GPKF have jointly invited Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Lumbini this month.
Pertinent in the context of China’s objective of undermining the Dalai Lama’s influence and sowing division within the ecclesiastical hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhists is the loose association of Amritsar-born and US-based 48-year-old Shyalpa Tenzin Rimpoche with the IESCO. He is a close associate of Gangchen Rimpoche, who has been critical of the Dalai Lama and is among the first two Tibetan Buddhist clergymen to have been allotted a plot of land in Lumbini.
Constructing the airport and railway line at Lumbini poses potential military threats to India, especially as they will be constructed by Chinese military personnel and operational control would remain with the PLA. More insidious is the challenge projected by the plans for ‘educating’ Tibetan Buddhist monks, who traditionally wield considerable influence in the Indo-Himalayan border belt.
Jayadeva Ranade is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is also president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.
The views expressed by the author are personal.