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International relations

After snubbing India, Nepal set to hold military drill with China

New Delhi on edge as Nepalese army plays down Chengdu exercise

NEW DELHI -- After pulling out at the last minute from a seven-nation military drill that started in India this week, Nepal's army is set to join a 12-day exercise with China in Chengdu from Monday.

"The military exercise with China will focus on counter terrorism and disaster management," Nepal Army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Gokul Bhandari told the Nikkei Asian Review on Wednesday.

Nepal last week withdrew from the first-ever military drill organized by the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation -- a regional body representing Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

That drill started in the western Indian city of Pune on Sept. 10, organized after the group's fourth summit in Nepal's capital Kathmandu at the end of August which was attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The exercise was aimed at uniting member states in counterterrorism operations.

"The exercise schedule is focused upon learning of best practices, team building [and] special tactical level operations in a counterterrorist environment in a semi-urban setting," an Indian defense ministry statement said.

Nepal's refusal to participate fully in the exercise, sending just three observers instead of a 30-member squad from its defense forces, is seen as kick in the teeth for its old ally India. It also marks the country's tilt toward China as it sought to wean off dependence on India under the leadership of the Nepal Communist Party headed by Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli.

Thailand, too, has reportedly only sent an observer team to the Pune exercise but Nepal's rebuff is viewed as being much more serious given its location between India and China and their tussle for its favor.

According to the Kathmandu Post newspaper in Nepal, the army was instructed by Oli on Friday not to participate in the Pune drill, forcing the military leadership to roll back on its earlier decision to join the exercise.

The event was "dragged into controversy as no diplomatic or political level agreement was made before deciding to take part in the exercise," the report said, adding that the Nepal government's decision to withdraw followed strong criticism from different quarters, including from within the Nepal Communist Party.

Nepal shares close historical, cultural and religious links with India but those ties were damaged by New Delhi's blockade of trade into its tiny Himalayan neighbor for five months from late 2015. That blockade had serious consequences for Nepal, depriving the landlocked country of key food staples, fuel and medical supplies. Nepal is surrounded by India but for a long border it shares with China. As such, it had been wholly dependent on India for trade but it has also not forgotten India's transgression.

That control India holds over Nepal is slowly pried loose as Kathmandu and Beijing last week completed the documentation for their Transit Transport Agreement signed in March 2016, paving the way for its implementation. "The agreement enables the Himalayan country vital access to China's sea and land ports for trading with third countries," according to China's official Xinhua News Agency.

 "Nepal is trying to show it is not completely dependent on India for its needs."

Pankaj Jha, a professor of defense and strategic studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University

Nepal would now be able to use the seaports in Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang and three dry ports in Lanzhou, Lhasa and Xigatse.

The finalization of this agreement, coupled with Nepal's withdrawal from the Pune drill, is a second setback for India, analysts said.

"Nepal is trying to show it is not completely dependent on India for its needs," said Pankaj Jha, a professor of defense and strategic studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University.

Nepal has also pinned high hopes on China's Belt and Road Initiative that it will benefit from infrastructure investments that will stretch across Asia to Europe. India had hoped that its Bay of Bengal Initiative could counter China's efforts as it tries to assert authority in the region too.

China, on the other hand, wants to boost trade links with Nepal and access the huge Indian market through the Himalayan nation. It is also keen for the construction of a trans-Himalayan trilateral economic corridor, an ambitious plan that seeks to connect the three countries, but India remains uncommitted.

"As far as Nepal is concerned, it is one of the poorest countries in the world and it is important for it to look for alternative trade routes [other than India]," Jha said.

At the same time, he added, India needs to tread cautiously. "Many of the Nepalese army officers get training and technical expertise in India, and probably it is the right time to review whether to continue this practice [especially after Nepal pulled out of Pune]."

Nepal Army spokesperson Bhandari sought to talk down the significance of its joint exercise with China, which has been christened the "Sagarmatha Friendship." He pointed to the fact that this drill follows an inaugural one in April 2017. Sagarmatha is the Nepalese name for Mount Everest which straddles Nepal and Tibet.

"This is like [the annual] Surya Kiran [meaning rays of the Sun] military exercise that we do with the Indian army," he said, pointing out the drill with New Delhi is much larger in scale.

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