Nepalese Students and China’s Foreign Policy: Perceptions and Engagement

Introduction

Broadly, the function of public perception of foreign policy issues is intertwined with how ruling elites protect and promote their countries' national interests. Foreign publics’ tacit support to a country’s foreign policy is considered a soft power source (Nye, 2004). This genre of soft power, for example, may be assessed through foreign audiences' perceptions and images about immediate and distant neighbors. In this context, the Pew Research Center and Gallup Poll conduct public opinion surveys on global, regional, and domestic issues, based on which they purvey ratings (favorable/unfavorable) of individual countries. Another example is Afrobarometer (2016), a pan-African research network, which in its survey (2014-2015) of 36 African countries on public perceptions of China revealed that 63% of respondents considered China’s economic and political influence in their country as positive. While surveys facilitate opinion measurement, in-depth interviews help generate foreigners’ narratives about a country, usefiil in plumbing the publics’ attitudinal undercurrents. Accordingly, using the results of surveys and interviews, conducted between 2017 and 2019, this chapter employs a mixed-methods approach (descriptive statistics and qualitative data) to examining China’s soft power among Nepalese students/alumni.

From the soft power perspective, this chapter gauges China's concrete achievements on the front of Nepalese students’/alumni’s concurrence with its foreign policy. Notably, China’s motivation is to build and mobilize a strong pro-China constituency in Nepal to advance its myriad national interests, whether in terms of curtailing India’s influence, promoting China’s trade and commercial interests, and controlling Tibetan separatists proactive in carrying out anti-China activities in Nepal. This study focuses on Nepalese students’ perceptions of Chinese foreign policy because of their future role in Nepalese politics, business, or any other profession, or as prospective actors in garnering their support to strengthen and deepen the Sino-Nepalese ties. David Shambaugh’s observations on China’s education diplomacy in East Asia fit in Nepal’s context:

Calculating the influence of this academic training on future generations

of Asian elites will be difficult to measure with any precision, but their experiences while in China will certainly sensitize them to Chinese viewpoints and interests. In addition, they will possess knowledge of the Chinese language, as well as Chinese society, culture, history, and politics. Those who enter officialdom may be more accommodating of Chinese interests and demands. They will also share personal connections with former classmates and will move up through professional hierarchies simultaneously.

(Shambaugh, 2004/2005, p. 78)

The first part of the chapter quantifies survey results: at the time of survey, out of 92 respondents, 73 were studying in China and 19 were alumni. While 61 were from medical sciences, 31 were social sciences students. The second part analyzes 20 Nepalese students’ interviews on China-Nepal relations, on China's foreign policy initiatives, and on its presence in the South Asian region. The later section illuminates the role of the Amiko Society, a Nepalese alumni association, in supporting China’s foreign policy outcomes.

Survey Results: Responses of Social Sciences and Medical Students/Alumni

An overwhelming majority of respondents pointed to Nepal’s relations with China rather than India (Figure 5.1) in their perception of friendly ties with Nepal.

In terms of interviewees’ characterization of China’s foreign policy, multiple choices were allowed as part of open-ended texts. Figure 5.2 shows categories based on their responses, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), development aid to Nepal, and friendly relations with Nepal (or the use of such words as “good relations” and “friendly ties”). Compared to medical students, social

Perceptions about Nepal’s Foreign Relations with India and China. Source

Figure 5.1 Perceptions about Nepal’s Foreign Relations with India and China. Source: Prepared by the author.

sciences students prominently listed the BRI in their understanding of Chinese foreign policy.

More medical students than social sciences students think that Nepal's relationship with China is favorable for Nepal's economic development (Figure 5.3). The difference in their responses could be attributable to social sciences students’ exposure, by virtue of their subject matter, to the multiple sources of literature on implications of China’s growing involvement in Nepal or narratives about “debt trap” caused by the BRI. For example, a couple of alumni provided the following

Nepalese Students’ Perceptions about China’s Foreign Policy. Source

Figure 5.2 Nepalese Students’ Perceptions about China’s Foreign Policy. Source: Prepared by the author.

Nepalese Students’ Perceptions about China’s Influence in Nepal. Source

Figure 5.3 Nepalese Students’ Perceptions about China’s Influence in Nepal. Source: Prepared by the author.

explanation in response to the question as to whether China's growing influence in Nepal is in their country’s interest.

“Not sure. As we see in Sri Lanka, dependence on China could hurt Nepal's interests [even] though China’s infrastructural support is crucial. But I don’t know if China is good for us or not.”

“China is an avenue to reduce our dependence on India for [the] transit of goods. But it is too early to draw a definite conclusion. We should not trust China blindly. It has started to intervene in our politics.”

Notably, China’s upper hand in Nepalese politics is manifest in speculation that the Chinese ambassador to Nepal Hou Yangqi prevented the ruling Nepal Communist Party’s split, offsetting parliament's dissolution (Budhakoti, 2020).

Overall, favorable responses predominate in the survey, reflecting the strength of China’s soft power in terms of its foreign policy image among Nepalese students/alumni.

 
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