New Delhi: In a snub to India, Nepal has decided to pull out of the joint Bimstec military drill in Pune, but at the same time decided to participate in a 12-day long military exercise with China later this month. Nepal army spokesperson Brig Gen Gokul Bhandaree said that the second such joint exercise with China, ‘Sagarmatha Friendship-2’, was going to take place from September 17 to 28 in Chengdu. “The main focus of the exercise is going to be on counter-terror operations,’’ he said.
Nepal’s first such joint exercise with China took place in April last year leading to concerns in India over growing security cooperation between Nepal and its northern neighbour. The second Nepal-China joint exercise will come days after Nepal government directed its military to withdraw from the first joint military drill by Bimstec countries. Former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said participating in the Bimstec exercise would have balanced the exercise with China. “By taking such steps, they will alienate Indian opinion more and the cost will be felt when Nepal faces a crisis in the future. They have to nurture the India relationship, not create distrust,” he said.
The Nepal government, according to reports from Kathmandu, is not particularly pleased with attempts by India to provide an impetus to security and defence cooperation within Bimstec. To be sure, Nepal hasn’t scaled up its defence exercise with China from what it was last year. Like in 2017, and as Bhandaree said, not more than 20 soldiers will participate in the Chengdu exercise. India’s own joint exercise with Nepal ‘Surya Kiran’ involves over 300.
It hasn’t helped the Indian government’s cause though that Nepal PM K P Sharma Oli is widely seen in the media as pro-China. Nepal’s decision to pull out from the Pune exercise also came after PM Modi welcomed the “multi-national military field training exercise’’ at the Bimstec summit in Kathmandu last month. The Modi government has also been under pressure from Nepal to unblock the Saarc summit process. Oli had taken up the issue with PM Modi during his visit to India in April. India remains reluctant as the next summit is to be held in Pakistan. A source in Kathmandu said India must stop looking at Bimstec as an alternative to Saarc. “To focus on terrorism is one thing but to participate in a joint military exercise quite another. The government as well as the opposition was unsure if Bimstec was meant for an exercise like that,’’ said the official.
In Kathmandu, Kundan Aryal, press adviser to Oli, was quoted as confirming that “Nepal will not participate in the Bimstec joint military drill. This is the official decision of the government.” The Nepalese foreign minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali had earlier said there was no discussion held or agreement reached about the military exercise during the 4th Bimstec summit in Kathmandu on August 30-31. Bimstec is purely a developmental forum among the seven member countries, which does not prioritise military exercises, he said.
Though PM Modi, addressing the inaugural session of the summit, had proposed to host the joint military exercise in India in the second week of September, Gyawali later said, “India was free to float the agenda, but we did not endorse it.” Incidentally, India and Nepal have long-standing linkages in the military arena, with over 30,000 Nepalese Gorkhas currently serving in the Indian Army’s seven Gorkha Rifles and some paramilitary forces. The two armies also regularly hold their annual Surya Kiran bilateral exercise, with the 13th edition of it being held at Pithoragarh in June.