The recent appointment of two ambassadors--to Nepal and Bhutan--has signalled New Delhi’s firm resolve in countering Chinese influence in the neighbourhood.
Both Naveen Srivastava (the new envoy to Kathmandu) and Sudhakar Dalela (tipped to be the new ambassador to Thimphu) are old China hands and are experts in dealing with the Chinese.
Srivastava’s appointment to Nepal has been necessitated by the elevation of Vinay Mohar Kwatra, who was the Indian envoy to Kathmandu, to the post of Foreign Secretary on 1 May.
Dalela, now the Deputy Chief of the Indian mission in Washington, will replace incumbent Ruchira Khamboj in Thimphu. Khamboj will succeed TS Tirumurti, India’s permanent representative to the United Nations, who retires from service next month.
Both Srivastava and Dalela are old China hands and well-versed in Chinese duplicity and subterfuge. Srivastava heads the MEA’s East Asia Division that handles India’s ties with China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Mongolia.
Srivastava has been a key participant in the meetings between Indian and Chinese military commanders, who have held 15 rounds of talks so far to resolve the two-year-long standoff along the LAC.
Srivastava has also served as the consul-general in Shanghai, has also been part of India’s diplomatic engagements with the Chinese to deal with the LAC standoff. He has been a key figure in India’s outreach to many friendly countries to explain China’s belligerence and perfidy along the LAC.
Dalela, a 1993 batch IFS officer like Srivastava, was the desk-in-charge of Bhutan in the MEA before being posted to Washington. Dalela was in the forefront of the diplomatic offensive launched by New Delhi during the Doklam crisis in 2017.
Dalela, and some other Indian diplomats, were tasked by the MEA mandarins to explain India’s stand on Chinese incursions in Doklam and debunk China’s claims over the plateau.
Both Srivastava and Dalela have their tasks cut out for them. “Countering Chinese influence in our neighbourhood will be their primary task. They will have to intensify India’s outreach to various influential segments of the polities of the two countries, especially the younger lot,” said a senior MEA officer.
Srivastava will have his hands full as soon as he presents his credentials to Nepal’s President with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal on 16 May. Modi will visit Lumbini to participate in the Buddha Jayanti celebrations there.
After the visit, Srivastava will have to devote himself to strengthening ties between the two countries. He will have to wean away communist leaders, primarily former prime ministers Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, from China’s overwhelming influence.
Srivastava has also been tasked with deepening Indo-Nepal trade ties and facilitating greater Indian investments in Nepal. The quick completion of many infrastructure and other projects being funded by India in Nepal will be a focus area.
China has entrenched itself in Nepal and has staunch supporters amongst Nepal’s political class as well as in the administration, army, business, academia, civil society and the student community.
Though there have been rumblings of dissent against Beijing and pushback from some quarters against China’s overt and covert interference in Nepal’s internal affairs, Beijing’s influence and hold over Nepal is very strong.
Also, China’s ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, has been pushing her country’s agenda in Nepal very aggressively. Yanqi has very close ties with Nepal’s top politicians, civil society leaders and large sections of academia and the student community.
She (Yanqi) has been using Chinese power and pelf quite unabashedly to ‘buy over’ many influential personas and institutions in Nepal. But that has triggered a fair bit of resentment in some quarters.
Srivastava will have to work on and fan such resentment and make Nepalis, including politicians in the Himalayan nation who are under China’s spell, aware of China’s real and insidious designs.
He will also have to work closely with his non-Chinese counterparts, especially the US envoy, in Kathmandu to promote and strengthen democratic institutions there in order to counter China’s influence.
Being a China hand and well-versed in China’s strategic thinking, Srivastava will be in an advantageous position to counter Beijing’s moves in Nepal.
Though India’s ties with Bhutan’s royal family, its senior politicians, bureaucracy, army and others are deep and have withstood the test of time, China has been making steady inroads into the tiny Himalayan kingdom.
Beijing has, very strategically, targeted the younger generation and has, over the last one-and-half decades, initiated many student exchange, cultural and other programmes to woo Bhutan’s younger generations.
China has extensive and robust academic and professional exchange programmes with Bhutan and has been using a carrot-and-stick approach to wean the country’s ruling class away from India.
Beijing has been employing its malicious salami-slicing tactics to nibble away Bhutan’s territory and has been making atrocious and completely baseless claims on land that belongs to Bhutan. This is seen as a strong-arm means of forcing Bhutan to acquiesce to Chinese suzerainty and pry Thimphu away from India.
China has, over the past few years, succeeded in creating a pretty strong constituency among Bhutan’s youth--its students and young professionals--who have become enamoured of strides made by China in technology and infrastructure. A good section of Bhutan’s youth are pro-China and want their country to have very close ties with Beijing at the cost of ties with India.
Dalela will have a formidable task in Bhutan. He will have to not only stymie Beijing’s growing influence in Bhutan, but very imaginatively wean away that country’s younger generation. He will have to intensify India’s engagement with all sections of Bhutanese society.
Fortunately, the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus that originated in China has severely dented China’s image--and following--in Bhutan and cast Beijing in a poor light. Dalela will have to build on that and ensure that New Delhi loosens its purse strings for Bhutan’s benefit.
Dalela also has first-hand experience in dealing with the Chinese and has a good knowledge of Chinese strategic thinking and tactics.
The appointments of Srivastava and Dalela--two diplomats with a good grasp of how Beijing thinks and acts--has signalled New Delhi’s firm determination to counter China in India’s backyard.
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