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China and Nepal seal agreement on transit rights

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One major objective of contemporary Nepal has been to reduce the land-locked Himalayan country’s total dependence on India and establish solid economic and military ties with China.

The present government also pursues that strategy but without spoiling the relationship with its western neighbor India. Nepal has sealed an agreement on transit rights through China that would considerably reduce it’s over dependence on India.

Nepal’s new Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli embarked upon his first visit to China on March 20 to strike transit rights and economic deals with Beijing. Oli arrived in China on March 20 and the two sides signed 10 agreements including for a transit treaty and rail links during his talks with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang. The transit treaty reduces landlocked Nepal’s dependence on India as it sources most of imports and exports through Kolkata port.

Nepal looks to source its supplies through the arduous Himalayan route through Tibet, which many analysts say will be an expensive proposition for Nepal considering easy proximity through the Indian border. During the recent Madhesi agitation, Prime Minister Oli and other leaders had alleged that India had imposed an undeclared blockade on Nepal to back the Indian-origin Madhesis. India had firmly denied imposing the blockade.

Nepal, like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan that, though have good neighborly relations with economically militarily sound South Asian super power India, understand India’s desire to dictate terms to these nations and, therefore, do not try to annoy their big brother living with big ambitions. For instance, Sri Lanka is facing a serious war crime probe by international court and without Indian support Rajapaksha and team would be in jail, at least for their crimes against humanity, killing numberless Tamils on the island nation.

International community treats the Rajapaksha military genocides in Tamil localities, in fact trying for genocide. Although incumbent president Sirisena is duty-bound to punish the anti-Tamil criminals he is seen to be trying to save Rajapaksha from punishment for his own crimes. Sirisena-Rajapaksha duo continues to block any international investigation into Lankan war crimes and push for local investigation so that the “issue” is killed by their Singhalese judges who would save themselves from intentional insult by shielding the military crimes.

Bangladesh similarly has past experience with Indian “actions” tries best not to offend the big brother even from a distant. Though the government is inclined to be pro-Indian regime, media have enough freedom to express themselves even against the Bangla government, unlike Nepal and Sri Lanka where state control over media is absolute, even unlike in India.

Nepal knows well that by direct confrontation with India in any manner, it would have to suffer in some ways, notwithstanding support from Beijing. Hence it is very cautiously pursue a balanced foreign diplomacy. Like in Sri Lanka, neither the officals nor the core media criticize India or its policies even against others and domestic failures. They only say or write something about India only to praise it “gracefully”

Oli’s visit to China has been a subject of speculation since he came to power in October 2015. News reports had suggested that the visit to China may include landmark agreements on border trade and extradition of wanted criminals. Reports said Oli would also conclude agreements on building of multiple train routes connecting Nepal with China’s key production centres.

Strongly defending ties with China, Sharma Oli on March 20 Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli said Nepal wants good relations with both China and India to draw “developmental benefits” for the Nepali economy. “Nepal is smaller in size and has limited resources. We have to benefit also from the developmental activities in the neighbouring countries. We don’t want to fight with any country nor do we want to distance ourselves from any of our neighbours. We are a small country seeking development of our people,” Oli said in a TV interview which was telecast a on an Indian channel, a day before he is scheduled to. Oli defended his policy with India indicating that New Delhi’s lack of support to the Nepali Constitution was due to “lack of mutual understanding” which was addressed during his February visit to India.

Underlining the growing role of China in South Asia, Nepal on 21 March secured transit rights through China following an agreement in Beijing between PM Sharma Oli and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang. China extended a ceremonial welcome to Oli who held official talks with the Chinese leadership.

However, playing down the impact of the agreements between Nepal and China, official sources said that the future of the agreements depended on the issue of “economic viability” of the transit facilities and train connectivity projects.

India at present has two rail lines under construction and three more are being planned to increase Nepal’s trade ties. The Indian ministry of External Affairs, however, refused to issue an official statement immediately, considering that the agreements were between two sovereign countries. Officials pointed out that in comparison to the Nepal-China agreement, India and Nepal had 25 crossing points, two integrated checkpoints and 2 more checkpoints were under construction. During the February visit of Prime Minister Oli to New Delhi, India agreed on giving dedicated access to Nepal to the port of Vizag.

However, officials pointed out that ‘India-Nepal ties’ could not be compared or curtailed by Nepal’s agreements with China. “After all, 98 per cent of Nepal’s third country trade goes through India and to the port of Kolkata,” an official pointed out.

Even as official sources played down the impact of the transit rights through China, Nepal PM Oli clinched the proposed agreements for rail connectivity with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang in Beijing – the development, for India, represents a challenge not just for India but for entire South Asia. China would have to ponder about how it could implement a rail and transit agreement for Nepal without opening up the Tibet region to the world. Rail connectivity from Nepal to China would be used by the non-Chinese to travel to China through Tibet.

The agreements, however, will take some time before being implemented on the ground and political developments may impact the deals concluded. However, the implementation of the deals would depend on how far China was willing to invest in Nepal considering the economic and political risks associated with the deals.

The five month-blockade on the Nepal-India border which ended in February, “pushed Nepal to open its northern borders with China for transit trade. Historically, the Himalayas were seen as barrier but now the Himalayas can be a connector between Nepal and China, underlining that transit and train agreements to create new dynamics in South Asia.

Nepali Minister for Supplies, Ganesh Man Pun declared that Oli’s visit would lead to the conclusion of a bilateral agreement on fuel supply from China. Pun also announced that the Chinese government would build fuel storage depots in three locations in Nepal for which plans have begun.

Nepal’s expanding relations with China should not “irritate” India, a senior leader of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) said on Friday, asserting that Nepal would not accept anyone’s “hegemony”. “We want to establish relations with both the neighbouring countries (China and India) on the basis of equality, which should not cause irritation to any of the countries,” said Pradip Gyawali, a Central Committee member of the party. “As an independent and sovereign country, it is upto Nepal to decide what type of relations we want to maintain with which country, and we will not accept anyone’s hegemony,” he said talking to journalists in Banke district of western Nepal.

The ruling CPN-UML hailed the agreements inked by Nepal with China during the ongoing visit of PM Sharma Oli. “These bilateral cooperation deals are highly significant which help achieving long-term socio-economic development goals to Nepal on its own,” the CPN-ML said in a statement. The deals have opened new gateway for diversifying Nepal’s trade, the party said underlining the need for a swift implementation of these accords. “The bilateral deals reached between the two countries on trade diversification, cross border connectivity, infrastructure development, investment, reconstruction, energy, tourism and business have a long-term significance for Nepal’s socio-economic development,” the party said.

However, Nepal could not seal a vital fuel supply agreement with China which Nepali sources said would also come up for detailed discussion during the seven-day visit of Oli to China.

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East Asia

China’s soft power and its Lunar New Year’s Culture

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Authors: Liu Hui & Humprey A. Russell*

As a common practice, China has celebrated its annual Lunar new year since 1984 when the leaders of the day decided to open mysterious country in a more confident and transparent way. So far, the lunar new year gala has become a part of Chinese cultural life and beyond. The question then arises why China or its people have been so thrilled to exhibit themselves to the world, as its economy has already impressed the world by its rapid pace and tremendous capacity.

As it is well-known, in international relations, peoples from different cultural and ethnical backgrounds need to enhance their understanding which eventually leads to mutual respect and tolerance as the key to the world peace and stability. China is well-aware of this norm. As a rising power with 1.3 billion people, it is necessary for China to introduce its culture and notion of the peaceful rise to the audiences globally. Joseph Nye, Jr., the founder of the concept of the soft power, has argued: “The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies. During the information age, credibility is the scarcest resource.”In light of this, China has been steadily involved in cultural promotions abroad.

China is an ancient civilization but diplomatically it is a new global player in terms of its modern involvement into the world affairs, particularly in terms of reform and openness. Yet, since China has aspired to rejuvenate itself as one of the leading powers globally, it is natural for the world en bloc to assume Beijing’s intention and approach to the power transition between the rising power like itself and the ruling powers such as the United States and the G-7 club. Consider this, China has exerted all efforts to project but not propagate its image to the world. Here culture is bound to play the vital role in convincing the countries concerned that “culturally China has no the gene of being a threat to other peoples,” as Chinese President Xi has assured. The annual lunar gala is evidently a useful instrument to demonstrate Chinese people, culture and policies as well.

Culturally speaking, the Chinese New Year celebrations can be seen as follows. In a general sense, similar themes run through all the galas with the local cultural and ethnical ingredients, for instance, Chinese opera, crosstalk and acrobatics, as well as the lion-dancing or the dragon-dancing from time to time. Yes, the galas play the role of promoting the Chinese communities over the world to identify themselves with the Chinese culture which surely strengthen the cultural bonds among the Chinese, in particular the younger generations. Moreover, the dimension of the Chinese culture can be found beyond the country since its neighbors like Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Malaysia, as well as Chinese communities in many other areas also perform those arts at the holiday seasons. The message here is clear that China, although it is a rising great power, has never abandoned its cultural tradition which has emphasized the harmony among the different races and ethnics.

Recently, the lunar new year celebrations across China have invited professional and amateur artists from all over the world. Those foreign guest artists and many overseas students studying in China have been able to offer their talents in either Chinese or their mother tongues. No doubt, this is a two-way to learn from each other because Chinese performers are benefited from the contacts with their counterparts globally. In terms of public diplomacy, Beijing aims to send a powerful and sincere message to the world: China can’t be in isolation from the world because it has aspired to be a great and inclusive country as well. To that end, the rise of China is not going to challenge the status quo, but will act as one of the stakeholders.

As usual, realists have difficulties and even cultural bias to accept the rhetoric from a country like China since it has been regarded by the ruling powers of the world as an ambitious, assertive and communist-ruled country with its unique culture. To that challenge, the Chinese government and the people have done a great deal of works to successfully illustrate Chinese practice of harmony at the societal level idealized by Confucius’ doctrines. This social harmony is made possible only by the realization of the Taoist ideal of harmony with nature – in this case, harmony between humans and nature. This explains why panda and many other rare animals are now viewed as new national symbol of China. Although they are unnecessarily an indispensable part of the lunar new year gala, the viewpoint is that the rise of China would not be completed at the cost of the ecological environment like many other countries did in history.

Practically speaking, the lunar new year celebrations are being conducted in a rich variety of ways such as concerts, cuisines, folk entertainments and even forums and receptions around the world. Major global commercial centers have also served to create a Chinese holiday atmosphere, adapt to the needs of Chinese tourists, attract active participation from local residents, and provide such diversities of cultural and social events. What is worth mentioning is that some Chinese-North American non-profit, non-partisan organizations are beginning to celebrate Chinese lunar gala in partnership with other local counterparts. For instance, the Chinese Inter-cultural Association based in California, recently hosted a Chinese New Year party in a Persian restaurant in partnership with a local non-profit, non-partisan organization called the Orange County Toastmaster Club, part of Toastmaster International. Also, in another Chinese New Year celebration that was open to people of all races in Pasadena, two Americans played the guitar and sang songs in fluent Chinese! Both galas were attended by people of all racial backgrounds around the world. Given this, it is fair to say that China’s soft power supported by its annual lunar new year festival is on the rise globally with a view to promoting mutual respect and friendship among the peoples of various cultural, ethnical and racial origins.

Yet, though the impressive feats are achieved, it has noted that China still has a long way to go in terms of its twin-centennial dreams. First, as a developing country with its unique culture, it is necessary for China to promote its great ancient culture abroad, but it is also imperative to avoid “introducing” China rashly into the globe. Essentially, soft power is more the ability to attract and co-opt than to use force or give money as a means of persuasion. Thereby, it is the very ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. As cross-cultural communication is a long process, Nye admitted a few years ago, in public affairs, “the best propaganda is not propaganda.”

This is the key to all the countries. In 2014,President Xi formally stated, “China should increase its soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate its messages to the world.” In light of this, Chinese lunar new year gala surely acts as soft power to project the image of China internationally.

* Humprey A. Russell (Indonesia), PhD candidate in international affairs, SIPA, Jilin University.

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East Asia

China’s step into the maelstrom of the Middle East

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The Middle East has a knack for sucking external powers into its conflicts. China’s ventures into the region have shown how difficult it is to maintain its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.

China’s abandonment of non-interference is manifested by its (largely ineffective) efforts to mediate conflicts in South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan as well as between Israel and Palestine and even between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is even more evident in China’s trashing of its vow not to establish foreign military bases, which became apparent when it established a naval base in Djibouti and when reports surfaced that it intends to use Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar as a military facility.

This contradiction between China’s policy on the ground and its long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy principles means that Beijing often struggles to meet the expectations of Middle Eastern states. It also means that China risks tying itself up in political knots in countries such as Pakistan, which is home to the crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative — the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Middle Eastern autocrats have tried to embrace the Chinese model of economic liberalism coupled with tight political control. They see China’s declared principle of non-interference in the affairs of others for what it is: support for authoritarian rule. The principle of this policy is in effect the same as the decades-old US policy of opting for stability over democracy in the Middle East.

It is now a risky policy for the United States and China to engage in given the region’s post-Arab Spring history with brutal and often violent transitions. If anything, instead of having been ‘stabilised’ by US and Chinese policies, the region is still at the beginning of a transition process that could take up to a quarter of a century to resolve. There is no guarantee that autocrats will emerge as the winners.

China currently appears to have the upper hand against the United States for influence across the greater Middle East, but Chinese policies threaten to make that advantage short-term at best.

Belt and Road Initiative-related projects funded by China have proven to be a double-edged sword. Concerns are mounting in countries like Pakistan that massive Chinese investment could prove to be a debt trap similar to Sri Lanka’s experience.

Chinese back-peddling on several Pakistani infrastructure projects suggests that China is tweaking its approach to the US$50 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese rethink was sparked by political volatility caused by Pakistan’s self-serving politics and continued political violence — particularly in the Balochistan province, which is at the heart of CPEC.

China decided to redevelop its criteria for the funding of CPEC’s infrastructure projects in November 2017. This move seemingly amounted to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time when they were flexing their muscles in response to political volatility. The decision suggests that China is not averse to shaping the political environment of key countries in its own authoritarian mould.

Similarly, China has been willing to manipulate Pakistan against its adversaries for its own gain. China continues to shield Masoud Azhar (who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence agencies and military forces) from UN designation as a global terrorist. China does so while Pakistan cracks down on militants in response to a US suspension of aid and a UN Security Council monitoring visit.

Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves China’s interest in keeping India off balance — a goal which Beijing sees as worthy despite the fact that Chinese personnel and assets have been the targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan. Saudi Arabia is also considering the use of Balochistan as a launching pad to destabilise Iran. By stirring ethnic unrest in Iran, Saudi Arabia will inevitably suck China into the Saudi–Iranian rivalry and sharpen its competition with the United States. Washington backs the Indian-supported port of Chabahar in Iran — a mere 70 kilometres from Gwadar.

China is discovering that it will prove impossible to avoid the pitfalls of the greater Middle East. This is despite the fact that US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seem singularly focussed on countering Iran and Islamic militants.

As it navigates the region’s numerous landmines, China is likely to find itself at odds with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. It will at least have a common interest in pursuing political stability at the expense of political change — however much this may violate its stated commitment to non-interference.

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East Asia

Chinese extradition request puts crackdown on Uyghurs in the spotlight

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Chinese demand for the extradition of 11 Uyghurs from Malaysia puts the spotlight on China’s roll-out of one of the world’s most intrusive surveillance systems, military moves to prevent Uyghur foreign fighters from returning to Xinjiang, and initial steps to export its security approach to countries like Pakistan.

The 11 were among 25 Uyghurs who escaped from a Thai detention centre in November through a hole in the wall, using blankets to climb to the ground.

The extradition request follows similar deportations of Uyghurs from Thailand and Egypt often with no due process and no immediate evidence that they were militants.

The escapees were among more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014. The Uyghurs claimed they were Turkish nationals and demanded that they be returned to Turkey. Thailand, despite international condemnation, forcibly extradited to China some 100 of the group in July 2015.

Tens of Uyghurs, who were unable to flee to Turkey in time, were detained in Egypt in July and are believed to have also been returned to China. Many of the Uyghurs were students at Al Azhar, one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning.

China, increasingly concerned that Uyghurs fighters in Syria and Iraq will seek to return to Xinjiang or establish bases across the border in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the wake of the territorial demise of the Islamic State, has brutally cracked down on the ethnic minority in its strategic north-western province, extended its long arm to the Uyghur Diaspora, and is mulling the establishment of its first land rather than naval foreign military base.

The crackdown appears, at least for now, to put a lid on intermittent attacks in Xinjiang itself. Chinese nationals have instead been targeted in Pakistan, the $50 billion plus crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through infrastructure.

The attacks are believed to have been carried out by either Baloch nationalists or militants of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State.

Various other groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have threatened to attack Chinese nationals in response to the alleged repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

ETIM militants were believed to have been responsible for the bombing in August 2015 of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine that killed 20 people as retaliation for the forced repatriation of Uighurs a month earlier.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan

China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged ETIM assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets

China has refused to recognize ethnic aspirations of Uyghurs, a Turkic group, and approached it as a problem of Islamic militancy. Thousands of Uyghurs are believed to have joined militants in Syria, while hundreds or thousands more have sought to make their way through Southeast Asia to Turkey.

To counter ethnic and religious aspirations, China has introduced what must be the world’s most intrusive surveillance system using algorithms. Streets in Xinjiang’s cities and villages are pockmarked by cameras; police stations every 500 metres dot roads in major cities; public buildings resemble fortresses; and authorities use facial recognition and body scanners at highway checkpoints.

The government, in what has the makings of a re-education program, has opened boarding schools “for local children to spend their entire week in a Chinese-speaking environment, and then only going home to parents on the weekends,” according to China scholar David Brophy. Adult Uyghurs, who have stuck to their Turkic language, have been ordered to study Chinese at night schools.

Nightly television programs feature oath-swearing ceremonies,” in which participants pledge to root out “two-faced people,” the term used for Uyghur Communist Party members who are believed to be not fully devoted to Chinese policy.

The measures in Xinjiang go beyond an Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced that scores a person’s political trustworthiness. The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.

Elements of the system are poised for export. A long-term Chinese plan for China’s investment in Pakistan, dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisioned creating a system of monitoring and surveillance in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order.

The system envisions deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”

A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media. Pakistani media would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.”

The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”

The measures were designed to address the risks to CPEC that the plan identified as “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.

At the same time, China, despite official denials, is building, according to Afghan security officials, a military base for the Afghan military that would give the People’s Republic a presence in Badakhshan, the remote panhandle of Afghanistan that borders China and Tajikistan.

Chinese military personnel have reportedly been in the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in north-eastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan since March last year.

The importance China attributes to protecting itself against Uyghur militancy and extending its protective shield beyond its borders was reflected in the recent appointment as its ambassador to Afghanistan, Liu Jinsong, who was raised in Xinjiang and served as a director of the Belt and Road initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund.

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