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Nepal is walking a tightrope between India and China | China



This year, amid a raging pandemic, a looming global economic crisis and devastating floods and landslides, the Himalayan nation of Nepal has been in political and diplomatic turmoil over its disputed border with its much larger neighbour, India. The dispute has deepened strains within the current government and reignited debate over the future of Nepal’s relations with India and China.

On May 8, India inaugurated a link road built in a disputed territory which falls near a strategic three-way junction with Nepal and China. Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who was already facing multiple domestic political challenges, adopted a defiant stance against New Delhi and deemed the new road an attack on Nepal’s sovereignty.

He issued a new map which places the disputed region within Nepal’s borders and swiftly passed it through both houses of the parliament. His ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) also pushed an amendment to the country’s citizenship law that requires foreign women marrying Nepali men (most of whom are Indian) to wait for seven years for naturalisation.

Oli’s nationalist stance earned him some much-needed support among the Nepalese public, but proved insufficient to silence his many critics who have long been demanding his resignation citing his failure to provide effective leadership at a time of crisis. Commentators and officials both in India and Nepal accused him of cynically using the border dispute to stir nationalist sentiment and outmanoeuvre his rivals in the NCP, or acting at China’s behest.

In response, Oli has claimed that his political rivals within the ruling party are “colluding with India to oust him from power”. His chief opponent in the NCP, former Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal – commonly known as “Prachanda” – described the accusation as “neither politically correct nor diplomatically appropriate,” asserting that it was he, not India, who sought Oli’s resignation.

Rivalries within the NCP undoubtedly played a role in aggravating Nepal’s political crisis. Nevertheless, it is also impossible to deny the significant role Nepal’s two giant neighbours, India and China, have played in bringing about the turmoil.

All politics is local

In May, the Indian Army chief General MM Naravane went out of his way to suggest that Oli’s objection to India’s road construction was instigated by Beijing. Indian news outlets, particularly those close to the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), relentlessly attacked Oli for his alleged pro-China and anti-India stance. One Indian channel directly warned Oli not to challenge India, a country on which “you depend so heavily”.

The Indian media has obsessively reported on the activities of the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, even levelling tasteless allegations that the “model-like” envoy has “honey-trapped” Oli. She has indeed been active throughout the crisis, holding numerous meetings with senior Nepali political leaders. And China does appear to be standing by Oli in this dispute, but there is no evidence that Beijing is goading him into taking on New Delhi.

India too is by no means a mere bystander. Top Indian intelligence officials, according to a report in the Daily Pioneer, have been actively courting senior Nepali politicians. The Indian media’s relentless onslaught on Oli also gives weight to the 68-year-old leader’s accusations that India is actively working to topple his government. And so too does the recent past. India has brought down several governments in Kathmandu over the years.

Observers generally see Oli as supported by Beijing and Prachanda by New Delhi. There is, however, little publicly available evidence to support the claim that New Delhi is propping up Prachanda to replace Oli.

Prachanda has his own reasons for sparring with Oli. In 2018, the leftist parties of Oli and Prachanda merged. The two men have shared the post of chairman of the newly-formed NCP and reportedly agreed to alternate as prime minister over the course of the NCP’s five-year term in power, which is now at its halfway point. Last November, Prachanda reportedly accepted a revised deal that would give him control over the party while allowing Oli to continue as prime minister. Oli appears not to have held up his end of the bargain, hence Prachanda’s anger.

Even if Prachanda is indeed backed by New Delhi, the partnership is likely tactical and temporary. Prachanda has had a complicated relationship with India. India facilitated the integration of Nepal’s Maoist rebels – led by Prachanda – into the political fold in the mid-2000s, but also helped force Prachanda’s resignation as prime minister in 2009 after he took on the Nepal Army, a key lever of Indian influence.

Notably, Prachanda has not played the anti-Beijing card to gain the upper hand against Oli. In fact, he has also taken positions as of late that can be seen as pro-Beijing. While Oli supported the United States Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) Nepal compact – which Washington says aims to increase the availability of electricity and lower the cost of transportation in the country – Prachanda opposed it, citing US statements linking the project to the Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is largely seen as a China containment policy.

Prachanda made a veiled reference to the MCC project in an address to the Chinese Communist Party last month, stating that any developmental assistance inconsistent with the country’s policy of non-alignment “can’t be accepted by any means.”

Indian heavy-handedness created opening for China

If Oli is forced to resign, it would not necessarily be an enduring setback for Beijing. As Nepali news editor Biswas Baral argues, the cohesion of the NCP is more important for Beijing than Oli’s survival. Furthermore, the NCP leadership is likely to sustain its desire for China to play a balancing role even after Oli’s departure, due to its deep-rooted fear of Indian dominance.

Over the decades, India has played a paternalistic role in Nepal, which has been helpful in many ways. However, New Delhi has also been heavy-handed and abusive in its dealings with its Himalayan neighbour, leveraging the landlocked country’s dependence on it for access to the sea. India is Nepal’s largest trade partner, accounting for 65 percent of its imports and 57 percent of its exports in 2017.

India has used connectivity as a coercive tool, blockading Nepal three times in the past 30 years – most recently in 2015 after a devastating earthquake. The blockade imposed by India on Nepal in 1989 was partly out of concerns over Nepal’s growing proximity to China. While China’s military sales to Nepal grew, India remained the predominant external power in the country.

India’s most recent blockade of Nepal has proved to be a strategic folly, stirring Nepali nationalism, which has had an anti-India strain. The blockade roughly coincided with China’s launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), giving Beijing an opportunity to step in and pledge large sums of aid and investment.

China’s massive investments in extending its domestic rail network toward its western and southwestern frontier amplify its efforts to reshape the region’s economic geography. Its drive to expand connectivity in the region, for example, provided Nepal with an alternative route to the sea.

In 2016, China and Nepal concluded a transport agreement that gives Kathmandu access to four Chinese eastern seaports. While India’s Calcutta port is closest to Nepal by distance, Chinese rail service to Tibet, which borders Nepal, provides it with maritime access that may be shorter in time and more competitive in cost than Calcutta.

In 2017, Nepal officially joined the Belt and Road Initiative, making clear to India, a lead opponent of the BRI, that it is now a country with options.

More money, more problems

There is, of course, a price to siding with China. Beijing is notorious for its unfair trade practices. And its economic partnerships with developing countries are often based on loans rather than grants. Many high-risk recipients of Chinese lending struggle to repay their debt to Beijing – a trend that has triggered accusations of “debt-trap diplomacy”.

Following their transport agreement, Beijing and Kathmandu are also in talks for building a trans-Himalayan railway linking Nepal to China’s domestic transport network, but the estimated $2.5bn cost of the project may eventually prove too expensive for Nepal. Should the project move forward on a loan basis, Kathmandu may struggle to generate the revenue-generating capacity to repay it, and the country could end up trading Indian dominance for Chinese.

Allying with Beijing also requires ritualistic professions of agreement on its “core interests” and policing of Chinese national migrants and refugees, such as Uighurs and Tibetans. Notably, Nepal recently backed China’s new national security law for Hong Kong.
Neither China nor India are benign, altruistic powers. Nepali leaders appear to be aware of that. Even if Prachanda comes to power with some help and support from New Delhi, he is unlikely to push away Beijing’s hand.

Whoever leads Nepal in the years to come will have to manage a geopolitical environment that is only growing in complexity. Today, Nepal is area of contestation not just between China and India, but also in the broader U.S.-China Cold War.

At first glance, Prachanda’s opposition to the USS MCC’s Nepal compact appears to make little sense. Washington is offering a $500m grant, not a loan, to Kathmandu to support the construction of a high-voltage electric power line and upgraded roads. But some Nepali observers fear that the power line project, which will link to India’s electric power grid, may increase Kathmandu’s dependence on New Delhi and harm its burgeoning trade partnerships with Beijing.

Nepal is between a rock and a hard place. It undoubtedly wants US support, but equally fears increasing Indian dominance and hence wants to keep China on its side for balance. To receive much needed aid and protection, it somehow needs to simultaneously satisfy these regional and global superpowers, who are all capable and willing to manipulate Kathmandu’s internal divisions and weaknesses for their own benefit. Such a difficult balancing act requires more than will. It requires political stability at home and consensus among domestic power brokers – all of which, unfortunately, have proven to be elusive in Nepal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Iran imposes 10-day restrictions amid sharp rise in COVID cases | Coronavirus pandemic News




Tehran, Iran – Authorities in Iran have been forced to impose fresh nationwide restrictions after lack of control over travels during the Persian new year holidays last month led to an explosive rise in COVID-19 cases.

On Saturday, authorities reported 19,666 cases across the country, with the figure only second behind the highest single-day figure of 22,478 cases registered a day earlier.

Iran has reported more than two million cases since the start of the pandemic, including 64,232 deaths, 193 of those being reported in the past 24 hours.

Starting Saturday, all regions across Iran will undergo various degrees of restrictions based on how they have been classified under a colour-coded scale denoting the severity of outbreaks.

Iran’s coronavirus map looks like a sea of red as more than 250 cities, including all 32 province centres, are now classified “red”, indicating the highest level of severity.

In these regions, only essential services can continue while educational activities, dine-in at restaurants, cinemas, shopping centres, and a variety of retail vendors will have to shut down.

Travelling to those regions using personal vehicles will also be prohibited while up to 50 percent of staff will be allowed inside offices.

A curfew is in place across the country for private vehicles from 10pm to 3am.

However, a report by state television from the streets of Tehran showed traffic jams and people crammed in public transport on their way to work on Saturday.

“They say it’s closed but everything is open,” a citizen told the state TV reporter in front of a packed bus.

Fourth wave

Last week, Iran announced the country is facing a fourth wave of infections which would be the biggest so far.

The announcement came weeks after tens of millions of people were allowed to travel across the country and make in-person visits to family and friends during two-week holidays for Nowruz, the Iranian new year, that was celebrated on March 20.

On Saturday, in a televised address during a session of the national anti-coronavirus task force, President Hassan Rouhani said the main reason for the fourth wave is the large-scale entry of the COVID-19 variant first found in the United Kingdom through the country’s western borders with Iraq.

Iranian health officials now estimate that more than half of all cases reported across Iran are of the UK variant.

The president said massively increased shopping activity prior to Nowruz, in-person visits on the day of Nowruz, and weddings in the past two months were the other big reasons behind the rise. Nowruz travels “that were made without following protocols” also contributed to the numbers, he added.

Rouhani said on average only 56 percent of people are now following health guidelines.

“If more than 90 percent of people follow protocols, then we won’t have a new wave. Our healthcare workers are tired. Our society is tired,” he said.

Iran has imported more than 1.7 million doses of coronavirus vaccines from Russia, China, India, and through COVAX, a global vaccine initiative.

Three locally manufactured candidates are also undergoing human trials and five more are in the works.

But less than 1 percent of the country’s population of more than 82 million people has been vaccinated so far.

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Iran unveils new centrifuges, civilian nuclear ‘achievements’ | Nuclear Energy News




Tehran, Iran – Iran began feeding gas to cascades of new, advanced centrifuges and unveiled dozens of “achievements” to mark its national nuclear technology day in an effort to show its nuclear programme is peaceful.

President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday launched several projects across the country via video link in Tehran that was broadcast live on national television, and an exhibition of 133 technological innovations with civilian and medical uses was also unveiled.

The display comes after the opening week of negotiations in Vienna, Austria, to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers – ended on Friday on a hopeful note, and is slated to continue from Wednesday.

In Isfahan’s Natanz, where Iran’s largest nuclear facilities are located, the order was given to feed gas to 164 all-Iranian IR6 centrifuges, with 10 SWU – separative work units that indicate the amount of separation done by an enrichment process.

The IR6 was also deemed the most sustainably efficient centrifuge Iran currently deploys, which is slated to be mass-produced on an industrial level.

It was said to be able to produce 10 times more uranium hexafluoride (UF6) than IR1, Iran’s first-generation centrifuges.

“We can industrialise these machines without any reliance outside the country,” the engineer who answered Rouhani’s questions said.

Rouhani launched an exhibition of 133 technological innovations with civilian and medical uses [Iran President’s Office]

Rouhani also gave the order to begin feeding gas to test a number of 30 IR5 centrifuges and 30 IR6s centrifuges, numbers that could grow if they are successful.

Moreover, mechanical tests began on the top-of-the-line IR9 centrifuge that has a separative capacity of 50 SWU.

Also in Natanz, a unit to assemble and evaluate advanced centrifuges was launched, where the presenting engineer said more than half of all operations are currently industrialised.

The “terrorist move” to blow up parts of the nuclear facilities in Natanz last year in an attack Israel has been suspected of orchestrating did not stop the progress, the engineer said.

In Arak, the second phase of industrial production of deuterium compounds at the Arak Heavy Water Reactor Facility was launched by the president, who also oversaw the launch of a first-of-its-kind emergency unit aimed at treating radiation burns.

A series of achievements were introduced at the National Centre for Laser Science and Technology in the Alborz province, while the president next discussed advances at a national centre to research stable isotope separation.

‘Ill-placed concerns’

After the new projects were launched, the president delivered a televised address in which he once more emphasised Iran does not seek nuclear weapons, and railed against Western powers for acting based on the presumption that it did.

“These ill-placed concerns have created many problems for our people in the past 15 years,” Rouhani said, referring to multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran prior to its nuclear deal that provided sanctions relief for curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Western intelligence maintains that Iran sought to weaponise its nuclear programme, plans that it abandoned in 2003.

President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday launched several projects across the country [Iran President’s Office]

Israel still repeatedly claims Iran is after nuclear weapons despite thorough inspections of its nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Rouhani also harshly criticised world powers and the IAEA for their lack of assistance in developing Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme.

“We don’t owe them, they owe us,” the president said, adding they should have assisted Iran as part of commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Hours before the unveiling of Tehran’s latest nuclear advances, Reuters news agency cited a confidential IAEA report that Iran has produced a small amount of fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, containing 20 percent enriched uranium.

The IAEA reportedly said in its report that Iran aims to produce molybdenum, which has many civilian uses, including in medical imaging.

As part of the nuclear deal, Iran’s enrichment of uranium was capped at 3.67 percent, a limit that it started gradually scaling back in 2019, one year after then-United States President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the nuclear deal and reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran.

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10 Myanmar police killed in attack by ethnic armies: Reports | Conflict News




Fighters from an alliance of rebel groups reportedly attack a police station in a new escalation after the military coup.

An alliance of ethnic armies in Myanmar that has opposed the general’s crackdown on anti-coup protests attacked a police station in the east on Saturday and killed at least 10 policemen, local media said.

The police station at Naungmon in Shan state was attacked early in the morning by fighters from an alliance that includes the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, media reported.

Shan News said at least 10 policemen were killed, while the Shwe Phee Myay news outlet put the death toll at 14.

A spokesman for the military did not return calls asking for comment.

Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from neighbouring Thailand, noted the ethnic armies are some of the oldest in the world, having battled central government forces for decades.

“Since the coup, there has been a lot of talk about armed groups operating together but we have not actually seen it before. Today it’s claimed three acted together, joined forces, attacked this outpost manned by Myanmar police, killing a number of policemen,” said Cheng, adding the assault occurred over two hours early on Saturday.

More than 600 people have been killed by the military in the crackdown on protests against the February 1 coup, according to a monitoring group. As violence has escalated, about a dozen armed groups have condemned the coup-makers as illegitimate and pledged to stand with the protesters.

Civilian lawmakers, most of whom are in hiding after their removal, have announced plans to form a “national unity government” – with key roles for ethnic leaders – and are holding online talks about joint resistance to the generals.

Dozens of bodies

Meanwhile, reports from Myanmar say dozens of people may have been killed in a military assault on anti-coup protesters in the city of Bago. About 60 people may have died in the clashes in the city, about 60km (32 miles) northeast of Yangon, according to Radio Free Asia citing witnesses.

News site Myanmar Now cited a protest leader as saying dozens of bodies had been brought inside a pagoda compound where the military was based. Witnesses cited by both media outlets reported hours of gunfire that started early on Friday.

Protests against the February coup continued on Saturday in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Sagaing, Myeik and many other cities.

The military crackdown has also included reports of protesters being tortured in detention and harsh sentences.

The military issued death sentences on 19 people from Yangon’s North Okkalapa township on Friday. They were charged with beating an army captain, according to Radio Free Asia.

The military coup dismissed the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest.

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