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Communist Takeover in Nepal

The Communists are taking over in Nepal, and nobody cares. Thirty years ago it would have caused a grave international crisis; fifty years ago there would even have been talk of foreign military intervention. Today – nothing. Outside Nepal, it has barely made the news at all.

In the grand old Marxist tradition, Nepal’s Communists have split and split again over fine points of doctrine and strategy. Recently, however, the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) managed to form an electoral alliance that swept the recent national elections, the first since 1999.

Various Communist leaders have held office in the revolving-door coalitions, none lasting much more than a year, that have governed Nepal since it began its democratic transition a dozen years ago, but you couldn’t truthfully have said that ‘the Communists are in power.’

Now you really can say it. The CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) ran a single joint candidate in every constituency in Nepal, and won two-thirds of the seats (174 out of 275). The two parties are pledged to unite within six months, and they will form a government without non-Communist members that will rule Nepal, if all goes well, for the next five years.

They are real Communists, too, unlike the namby-pamby ‘Eurocommunists’ who sought popular support in Western Europe by disavowing violent revolution in the final decade before the collapse of Communist power in Eastern Europe in 1989-91. Nepal’s Communists fought a ten-year ‘revolutionary’ guerilla war that killed 17,000 people before a ceasefire was signed in 2006 and the democratic transition began.

Nepal is not some tiny, irrelevant backwater. It is a country with more people than Australia (although much less land or money), and it takes up half of the Himalayan border between China and India. In the self-serving definition of the world’s think-tanks and ‘strategic studies institutes’, it is important strategic territory. Yet Washington doesn’t really care that the Communists are taking over, and neither does Moscow.

New Delhi and Beijing care a little bit, because of their inevitable rivalry as Asia’s and the world’s two biggest countries (1.3 billion people each). Both see their relations with Nepal as a zero-sum game, and India’s traditionally dominant influence there (all Nepalis live on the Indian side of the Himalayas) is threatened by the presumed preference of Nepalese Communists for fellow Communists in China.

But the lights are not burning late either in South Block or in Chaoyang. The fact of the matter is that Communists coming to power in Nepal in 2018 makes no more difference to the rest of the world than Communists coming to power in South Vietnam did in 1975.

Well, you knew where I was going with this, didn’t you? South Vietnam had about the same number of people in 1975 as Nepal does now, and it was just as ‘strategic’ – which is to say, not very strategic at all.

When the Communists won in the South and reunified Vietnam, it may even have changed the lives of most South Vietnamese for the better, although that depends on what you mean by ‘better’. It certainly didn’t change anybody’s domestic policies elsewhere in Southeast Asia, or change the calculations of the major powers in any way.

You can’t even blame the Cambodian genocide on the Communist victory in South Vietnam. Cambodia, like Vietnam, was likely to end up under Communist rule anyway, because it had also been part of French Indo-China and it was the Communists who led the anti-colonial resistance.

But it was Henry Kissinger’s savage and illegal bombing campaign in Cambodia, not the war in Vietnam, that turned the Khmer Rouge into genocidal monsters. And it was the Vietnamese Communists who finally invaded Cambodia in 1978 and put an end to the genocide.

The whole Vietnam War, which killed 55,000 American soldiers and about three million Vietnamese, was founded on the delusion that there was a monolithic Communist bloc that threatened ‘freedom’ all over the world. (‘If we lose in Vietnam, California will be next’.)

Certainly there were Communist fanatics who dreamed of spreading their ideology (which prioritised equality over freedom) all over the world, but the reality was geopolitics as usual. The Soviet Union and Communist China fought a border war in 1969 to demonstrate that fact, and for slow learners Communist China and Communist Vietnam fought their own border war in 1979 to drive the lesson home.

Now, mercifully, the ‘domino theory’ is dead (or at least dormant), and the arrival of Communists in power in Nepal through entirely legal and democratic means is causing no panic whatever. Whether their new government will serve the Nepalese well remains to be seen, but Nepal’s Communists are publicly committed to respecting the rules of parliamentary democracy, and a majority of Nepalese clearly believe them.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“You…genocide”)

Trouble in the South China Sea

If you were running China, and you wanted to distract your own population from economic woes at home by pushing one of your many territorial disputes with your neighbours into open conflict, which one would you choose?

Not Japan, even though most Chinese people really dislike and distrust Japan: it’s allied to the United States, and China is not yet ready for a military confrontation with the US Navy. Not the Philippines, either, for the same reason. But Vietnam, a Communist state, is all alone with no allies. It’s perfect for the role, and it will play its part well.

Early this month, China moved its Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil-drilling rig into a part of the South China Sea where Vietnam also claims the seabed rights. Vietnam sent ships to protest the move, China sent more ships to protect the rig – Hanoi accuses accused China of massing 80 vessels in the area, including warships – and the fun and games began: rammings, battles with water cannon, and a great deal of self-righteous indignation on both sides.

The Vietnamese regime has never been afraid to defy China: it even fought a border war with its giant neighbour to the north in 1979. This year, for the first time, Hanoi publicly commemorated a 1974 clash in which Chinese forces seized the Paracel Islands and killed forty sailors of the old South Vietnamese navy. By last week, there were anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

Those were undoubtedly authorised by the Vietnamese regime, which keeps a tight hold on its population. What happened in Binh Duong province in southern Vietnam on Tuesday was probably not. Official reports speak of three factories housing Chinese-owned businesses being set on fire on an industrial estate, but local reports talk of 19,000 workers rampaging through the estate and burning fifteen factories.

Hanoi doesn’t want this sort of thing to happen, of course – it scares off much-needed foreign investment – but when you press on the nationalist button, you can never be sure what will come out. Beijing should also be wary of this, if indeed it is really using its border disputes to stoke nationalist fervour in China. Nationalism is not a precision tool.

We can’t be sure that this is Beijing’s main motive, of course. Maybe it’s just a premature outburst of great-power arrogance that is driving China to push so hard on all its territorial disputes this year. But it’s certainly doing it.

Since January China has declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands which are also claimed by Japan. It has outraged the Philippines by starting to build an airstrip and/or naval base on Johnson Reef (ownership also in dispute) in the Spratly Islands. It has even provoked Indonesia into openly challenging Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea for the first time.

It is talking about establishing a similar Air Defence Identification Zone over almost all of the South China Sea, a maritime thoroughfare for more than half of the world’s merchant trade. Since the beginning of this year it has been requiring that foreign fishing vessels ask permission to enter the area it claims as its exclusive economic zone – again, almost all of the South China Sea – although it has not yet tried to enforce this rule very vigorously.

The area China claims, on the basis of its alleged sovereignty over the many uninhabited islands, islets, shoals and reefs scattered across the South China Sea, extends more than 750 km from its south coast. According to the “nine-dash line” drawn on Chinese maps which is the only graphic (but very imprecise) guide to Beijing’s claim, its control extends to around 50-75 km of the coasts of all the other littoral states.

This huge U-shaped claim, taking in more than 90 percent of the whole South China Sea, is as unsustainable in fact as it is hard to defend in international law. Nor does China seek to prove it by legal means. Last month, when the Philippines submitted a 4,000-page “memorial” to the judicial  body that arbitrates maritime disputes under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China refused to file a counter-claim or respond in any way.

China’s position would appear to be that you don’t need to prove your claim in the courts if you can enforce it on the ground (or rather, on the water). And indeed, the sheer number and range of unilateral Chinese initiatives in recent months suggest  that the policy of the new ruling team in Beijing (which will be in power for the next ten years) is driven by full-spectrum bloody-mindedness.

However, the desirability of a foreign confrontation to distract the Chinese population from the recession that will probably soon hit the country’s economy cannot be far from the minds of the regime either. In either case, if there is shooting, it will probably start off the Vietnamese coast, simply because Vietnam has no defence treaty with the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“It…vigorously”; and “This huge…way”)