Nepal: The Latest Battlefield of the New Silk Roads.

Current events of the US/China rivalry for emerging markets coincide with the anniversary of the last major Battle of the Anglo Nepalese War.

A curious historical poetry attends the looming conclusion to the current political crisis in Nepal.

Although largley unreported outside of Asia a political divide in the Himalayan nation looks to highlight the struggle for economic influence in this part of the world between China and the United States, and the role of developing country’s in the competition between the two superpowers.

In the last 10 months, the process of ratifying of the Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC) agreement, a $5M grant for Nepal’s energy infrastructure, agreed to between the USA and Nepal in 2017, has gone from a blink and you’ll miss it business investment deal to a political football that has split the 5 party coalition government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba

Sources inside Nepal say that although work paid for by the grant had already begun, an ideological tussle about wether to accept the money and what that might mean has hijacked a the stability of the government, but also said that these melodramatic schisms are par for the course in Nepalese politics.

The far left parties, have asked what America wants in return for the money; voicing objections on the grounds that ratifying the compact will threaten the sovereignty of Nepal. Protesters, stirred up, we are told, by the various parties have been taking to the streets of Katmandu, where violent clashes with the police have been seen, deepening the issue.

With delays and deadlock in Katmandu the United States issued a carefully worded but undoubtedly pointed ultimatum to the effect that if the agreement wasn’t ratified by the 28th of February, the grant could be withdrawn and ties with Nepal re-evaluated, a move readily condemned by Beijing. 

Katmandu 2020, photograph by Shadow Ayush

By some accident, this date has an echo in Nepalese history. Over 200 years ago, in early 1816, the country, which was ruled by the Gorkha monarchs of the Shah dynasty and their powerful ministers, faced another crisis. During the Anglo Nepalese war, having survived two years of conflict already, the Gurkhas opposed the might of the East India Company alone. At this time neither the independent states of India, such as the Marathas and the Sikh Khalsa, nor the exterior nations on the periphery of British influence, Burma (Myanmar), Bhutan, or even the mighty Empire of the Qin (China) could be convinced to join the Nepal to resist the British. 

Without allies, and facing the march of over 35,000 men and over 80 guns from all fronts, their only hope lay in a miraculous military victory or ratifying a treaty that at first glance seemed quite generous, but all in the Gurkha ruling class, feared the loss of Nepali sovereignty if they tamely accepted. 

Amar Singh Tapa. Wikipedia.

Negotiations had been droning on for much of 1815 regarding a treaty which would remove much of Nepal’s recently acquired territory, and settle land grants and pensions on those who accepted. The Nepalese government was especially split over the question of wether land in the fertile Terai region should be retained in lieu of promised British pensions.

The so called Living Lion of Nepal, Amar Singh Tapa, her greatest hero, was staunch on the matter of rejecting the treaty if the British would not assent. The delay in signing the Nepalese copy as the factions argued meant that Governer General Hastings was obliged to render their arguments moot, and ordered that the matter be resolved with force.

His field commander, Major General David Ochterlony marched in hopes of peace however, and rather than drag out an already protracted war, he was ready to entertain lenient terms which were at odds with Hasting’s wish for an unconditional surrender from the Nepal Durbar. 

In late February 1816, after entering Nepalese territory, Ochterlony was assured that the treaty had been ratified and would be handed over at Makwanpur (Makwanpurgadhi). Unsure as to the veracity of the information, the British general continued his advance and halted at that place on the 27th, in view of the fort and the valley, where the Karara river bisected the pastures and forest below the undulating ridges. 

Elephants in the rear of the British force attacking the ridge and fort of Jytock. J.B. Fraser. British Library

As it happened no further diplomatic overtures followed the arrival of the British and on the next day, the 28th of February, a bitter battle took place as the Gurkha forces attempted to drive the British back in the difficult terrain. Despite the bravery and skill of the outnumbered Nepalese, led by courageous Subas like Krishna Bahadur Rana, the British were able to force them to retreat. Militarily speaking nothing now could stop the invaders reaching Katmandu, and with news of other reverses coming in, the Nepal Durbar conceded defeat on 5 March 1816.

America’s choice of the date by which Nepal must ratify the MCC therefore is eerily evocative, being the anniversary of the Battle of Makwanpur. It superficially chimes in rhyme with past events (which we must doubt Washington is at all aware of) and cannot fail to have great significance for those who oppose the compact. Speaking to the India based news agency WION, one of the anti MCC protestors marching in the streets of Katmandu some weeks ago, declared that the MCC was nothing more than the beginnings of a new East India Company coming to loot the country.

Nepal is proud of having avoided direct annexation and retaining almost complete sovereignty during the British period, where the country was treated as a valued, albeit dependent, ally. Unlike places such as Delhi, or Seringapatam there was to be no looting of Katmandu. Of course the issue today it is not so simple as an enemy army at the gates, indeed a wider game is being played here quite apart from the squabbling in the capital.

As a developing nation in a critical part of the world, Nepal is not short of interest parties and America is not alone in applying pressure. China has made little secret of the fact that it feels the MCC is a poorly disguised arm of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, and thus a direct strategic challenge to the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), of which Nepal is a member.

The United States has been similarly blunt in condemning the so called Chinese misinformation campaign which is cited as being at the heart of the anti MCC movement. Equally the Chinese Foreign Ministry recently branded the American ultimatum an insult and a threat to Nepalese sovereignty, and neither side can be condemned for thinking the other is not stirring the pot. Indeed it seems painfully obvious that a great deal of stirring is going on.

Nepal’s majority congress party is the main proponent of the pact, and the communists and socialists oppose them. But despite them being the larger in the coalition, Nepal, historically has remained sceptical of the United States and pliant to China. If China is spreading misinformation it has a ready ear in the communist party which is naturally ready to believe the intentions of the Americans are by inclination negative. 

The International Convention Centre. Meeting place of the Nepalese Parliament.

It certainly cannot be denied that the grant would see unavoidable foreign interest grow in Nepal, likely through the hydroelectric industry, but the US assures Nepal, the grant has nothing to do with the Indo-Pacific strategy and is a decision for the Nepalese alone, this despite having representatives previously blurt out that it is essentially an arm of the IPS.

For those who oppose the pact, this tallies with what China has been warning about. But is China the only side that is spreading misinformation here?

Accusations from northern Nepal of encroachment by the Chinese across the passable border points seem to hint at something unsettling and at the same time absurd. These accusations, spread through an apparently leaked Nepalese Government report are denied by Beijing, and indeed the Nepalese government itself has not confirmed lodging a complaint. Pro China voices in Katmandu are pointing the finger at the BBC for printing the story to spreading false rumours to stir up anti Chinese sentiment. 

Essentially, two can play the misinformation game, as the reported protests against encroachment show, people on the ground are always eager to listen to authoritative voices. And the fate of the MCC will perhaps be a telling indicator as to who is winning the economic race in Asia.

As of the 21st the compact has been tabled in the Nepalese Parliament, and headway has apparently been made by the pro MCC Prime Minister, in the political deadlock but much still seems uncertain, if not painfully fragile.

Sir David Ochterloy. (c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

For Nepal in 1816, the Gurkhas were fortunate that David Ochterlony was the man they were dealing with directly, he being a rare breed of British officer and EIC administrator who had no wish to prolong a war for profit and thus was not inclined to be heavy handed in treaty demands. His men were sick, and his pay-chest light, and he wanted the war to end. 

Nepal was never annexed, Katmandu never looted, and British interference thereafter was much more limited than say it was in Punjab. Nepal’s sovereignty remained intact throughout the British period and despite the obvious blow in the cession of territory in the short term, the Himalayan kingdom’s close relationship with the British during the height of their power in South Asia could be said to have remained mostly beneficial until the 20th century.

It cannot be said that this was any more obvious to the Gurkha elite in 1816, arguing over wether to fight to the last or sign the treaty, than the outcome of the MCC crisis of the 21st century is to the current government. What is highlighted here is not just the weakness and factionalism within the Nepalese parliament, but an example of the greater competitive economic struggle between China and the United States for control of what is essentially supply of the building blocks of day to day life. Access to housing, energy, commerce and communication. This high stakes contest is being played out in developing countries across the east, unseen for the most part, and the nations themselves are the playing pieces.

We might hope that if the MCC passes by the anniversary of Makwanpur it will benefit the people of Nepal. But the question is can Nepal indeed keep its head afloat and benefit from being amongst the many developing nations currently being tugged too and fro in the scramble for what Peter Frankopan has called the new silk roads.

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