Familiarity breeds contretemps.
A peculiar opportunity arose in March 2006 when Beijing pulled the rug from under the royal regime by sending state councilor Tang Jiaxuan to open a dialogue with anti-palace parties. This must have buoyed Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda', whose organization Beijing had denounced for having tarnished the Great Helmsman teachings.
The development also had a sobering lesson that would have come in handy during Dahal's ill-fated premiership in 2008-2009. Having made grandiose statements about all-round newness, Dahal soon felt the gravitational pull from the north too discomforting.
After all, Dahal was too human not to have a spine. His eventual resignation speech was a tirade against the 'gods' of the south. That he also intended the message for northern audiences became apparent by the deftness with which he shifted his (geo)politics. Dahal didn't need to detail his unidirectional disenchantment. Someone once so keen on establishing discontinuities, Dahal was merely the latest in a string of Nepali leaders befuddled by the nature of state-tostate reciprocity when it came to relations with China. Bahadur Shah could be forgiven for misunderstanding the content and quality of China's friendship and support because Nepal had not yet become a tributary to the Middle Kingdom.
The Chinese were under no obligation to interfere in his power struggles with his nephew, King Rana Bahadur Shah. However, Bhimsen Thapa and Chandra Shamsher Rana were justified in wondering whether the trek up north every five years with goodies laden beasts was worth the trouble if Nepalis were expected to contend with the British juggernaut alone. Prime Minister Tanka Prasad Acharya's desire to establish a road link between Nepal and China was rebuffed, even though Zhou Enlai had so eloquently described our two peoples as 'blood brothers'.
Acharya must have wondered whether worsening Sino-Indian relations alone were responsible for Beijing's sudden enthusiasm for the project a few years later during B.P. Koirala's premiership. King Mahendra is accused of agreeing to the road project only to spite India. His 'communism doesn't-come-in-a-taxicab' quip entrenched his pro-Chinese image among those already so persuaded. Even if the king had let Tulsi Giri sign the relevant agreement in order to endure the expected blowback from New Delhi, can that explain subsequent events? Chinese propaganda against Nepal during the early years of the Cultural Revolution may be partly explained by the madness of that decade. Still, don't we need to explore why King Mahendra never visited China again or why no senior Chinese leader landed in Kathmandu as part of their regional sojourns? Sure, the Chinese played host to Crown Prince Birendra, who subsequently as monarch was a regular visitor up north. That ties into another question. Was China's seeming indifference in Crown Prince Dipendra rooted only in the fact that his father was actively engaged in steering Nepal-China relations regardless of the nature of the political regime in place? During his brief incumbency, Crown Prince Paras seemed to have a better standing up north than did Dipendra.
On paper, at least, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli has inaugurated a new era in bilateral relations.
The Indians continue to make noises here and there. But they seem to have grown used to a more assertive Chinese presence in Nepal. Nepalis, for our part, have long marveled at the miracle the Chinese have produced in the past four decades. Technology has overcome geographical barriers to connectivity. Yet tough questions persist.
Are high-speed trains arriving here anytime soon? And what might they carry to and fro? Can petroleum products come through Chinese ports at prices Nepalis can afford? Chinese pledges to uphold and safeguard Nepal's sovereignty and territorial integrity have always sounded good. Does the record inspire enough confidence? The recent arrests of Chinese human traffickers, bank hackers and on flight robbers can be construed as confirmation that our northern neighbors are as human as those of the south we know so well - and, for that matter, as ourselves.
The contretemps that familiarity with the Chinese have bred should encourage Nepalis to know ourselves better in order to navigate the neighborhood more easily.