Is Nepal gearing up its ‘vaccine diplomacy’ with China?

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 5 min.

CPC meeting with Nepali political parties followed by Presidential calls between Bidya Bhandari and Xi Jinping: What does this mean for Nepal?

The government of K P Sharma Oli, also KP Sharma Oli as an individual politician, acquired the moniker of being a ‘pro-China’ leader.  There are some grounds for this. During the 2015 blockade, when Oli was the Prime Minister, Nepal made an appeal to China for fuel supplies and China delivered around 1000 tons of petrol to Nepal.  The shipment of fuel from China is said to have been the defining moment for India to consider lifting the blockade.

Then in March, 2016, when Oli visited China—his first China trip after becoming the PM—the historic Transport Transit Agreement was signed with Beijing—which among other things allowed Nepal access to the sea via China for trade with third countries. The Indian and the Western press defined this as Nepal’s ‘shift’ to China.

Then Nepal President Bidya Devi Bhandari went to China in April 2019 during which protocol on Transport Transit Agreement was signed enabling Nepal to use four Chinese sea ports—in Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang—and three land ports—in Lanzhou, Lhasa and Shigatse—for third-country trade.  President Xi reciprocated and came to Kathmandu in October that year during which several pacts including on feasibility study of China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway Project and Tunnels Construction Cooperation were signed, ruffling some feathers in New Delhi and Washington.

Back home cabinet ministers would defend nearly everything related to China, including its BRI project. Chinese Communist Party and Nepal Communist Party behaved like sister organizations: CPC would host programs where NCP leaders, including the incumbent ministers, would participate.

Break in bonhomie

The bonhomie appeared to break when the NCP was on the verge of collapse. China was visibly worried about it and was making all efforts to save the NCP unity. The Chinese are said to have been miffed with PM Oli’s preference for power to party unity.

Communication seemed to have stopped after the December 20, 2020 parliament dissolution and March 7 Supreme Court decision that formally broke NCP into Maoist Center and CPN-UML.

This week could prove to be the beginning of a new shift.

On May 26, leaders of major political parties—CPN-UML, Maoist Center, Nepali Congress, JSPN, Rastriya Prajatantra Party etc—and the leaders of Communist Party of China (CPC) had a virtual meeting in which Nepali leaders appealed China for cooperation to fight back the Covid-19.

What followed was an unexpected surprise.  ‘During today’s phone conversation with Nepali President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China will provide 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Nepal under grant assistance,” announced Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi that evening.

President Bhandari’s conversation with her Chinese counterpart—who took the initiative and who dialed first is also loaded with meaning in diplomacy but that is beside the point here—has also been seen as the office of the president making efforts for vaccine diplomacy with China.

Does this event mark the beginning of Nepal’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’? What does the sudden activism of the Nepal president signify? Observers and scholars differ.

Doubts and hopes

“I would not call it vaccine diplomacy at all. In fact, Nepal has appeared incapable of vaccine diplomacy,” Ramesh Nath Pandey, author of Kutniti ra Raajniti (“Politics and Diplomacy”) and former Foreign Minister of Nepal told Nepal Live Today. “The game here is all about sustaining the government or failing it. People have been completely forgotten.”

The government was perceived to be not doing enough to seek support from China. Oli government was criticized for disturbing the balance in Nepal’s relation with China and depending on India for vaccines.  So much so that a group of civil society leaders came out in the open urging China to help Nepal.

“The government was making requests to India, which itself was in big trouble. It looked as if it had completely forgotten China, it looked reluctant to seek support from China. That’s why we made that appeal,” said Jagannath Lamichhane, a member of that civil society group.

Commenting on the reports that President Bhandari took the initiative to reach out to her Chinese counterpart for vaccines, he said that such initiative should have been taken much earlier. “After all, China was ready to help, it was sending the signals that it was ready to help. Why didn’t the PM and President care to reach out?”

Does President Bhandari’s conversation with her Chinese counterpart mark the beginning of Nepal’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’? What does the sudden activism of Nepal’s President signify? 

Lamichhane argues that Prime Minister K P Oli is trying to salvage the president’s image by making her look as if she is working to galvanize support from India and China.  “I hope to be proven wrong but this appears like his preparation for emergency rule through the president,” he said.

Trailokya Raj Aryal, Kathmandu based commentator who writes on Nepal-China relations, considers the one million doses of vaccine as a humanitarian gesture from China while wondering why only one million, “China can give the vaccines enough for the population of the whole country?”

Aryal terms the presidential call as a public relation measure. “The President is unpopular. People have turned negative with the office of the president as well as the president herself,” he said. The much hyped telephone call has served as a measure to advertise that she is doing something good for the people, he added.  “It’s something of a lottery for her, but the question is why this lottery now when she is so unpopular, why this lottery by the Chinese side to her?” Aryal questioned.

According to Aryal, CPC’s virtual meeting with Nepali political parties is loaded with messages. “China wants to show that they are more reliable for Nepal than India. By reaching out to other parties including Nepali Congress, it has also sent the message that if the House is reinstated and Congress government formed under Deuba, they will also have to work closely with China.”

Post Bahadur Basnet, an international relations researcher, sees the episode from a geopolitical lens. “Why should she write to Indian president asking him to facilitate vaccine export? He is just a figurehead,” he said. “This was intended to give the message to India that the government of K P Oli is not cozying up to China and that the government actually needs India’s support for survival.” 

According to Basnet, China holding meetings with other parties before announcing vaccine support to Nepal marks a shift in China’s Nepal policy. “China’s hope that a strong communist party in Nepal would help develop a stable relation with China has been shattered along with the collapse of Nepal Communist Party,” he said. “Now China does not want to be seen to be supporting the Oli government.”

Basnet is of the view that what is seen as Nepal reaching out to China is a smokescreen. “The government was avoiding China. When India declined to send vaccines which Nepal had already paid for, the government came under intense pressure to turn to China.”

Basnet argues that the President wrote a letter to her Indian counterpart after receiving the intelligence that China would announce support. “It was the message that the government has not shifted its policy toward China and it is loyal to India,” he said.

 “It is not vaccine diplomacy as hyped by the media,” Basnet reiterated.