They believe these actions were taken by China clearly with an eye on the dragging border standoff with India, which is in its eighth month with little sign of a breakthrough in the disengagement of troops

China’s actions during its defence minister’s recent visits to Nepal and Pakistan, including the signing of a defence agreement in Islamabad, were apparently made with an eye on India, experts and former diplomats said on Wednesday.

Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe began his tour of the region with a day-long visit on Sunday to Nepal, where he told the leadership in Kathmandu that China “firmly supports Nepal to safeguard the national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Wei’s next port of call was Pakistan, where the two sides signed a memorandum of cooperation (MoU) for enhancing defence cooperation. Wei met Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and discussed regional security and expressed appreciation for Islamabad’s efforts to secure the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Bajwa too thanked Wei for China’s support to Pakistan on all key issues at regional and international forums.

Experts and former diplomats believe these actions were taken by China clearly with an eye on the dragging border standoff with India, which is currently in its eighth month with little sign of an immediate breakthrough in the disengagement of troops and de-escalation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Former ambassador Vishnu Prakash, who closely tracks developments in the neighbourhood, said Wei’s visit to Nepal came at a time when relations between Kathmandu and New Delhi were returning to normal after a border row over Nepal’s new political map that included Indian territories.

“China was letting Pakistan and Nepal know it is still with them and this was also a message to India,” Prakash said.

The experts said Wei’s remarks about China helping Nepal protect its territorial integrity clearly appeared to have been made with the India-Nepal border row in mind, especially when the two countries are making efforts to tackle the issue.

“We had a number of good visits to Nepal, including by the Indian Army chief and foreign secretary, and the relationship was on the mend. The Chinese want to keep Nepal attuned to Beijing’s priorities and within the Chinese orbit. They also want to keep the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) intact,” Prakash said, referring to rifts within Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s ruling party.

China’s envoy to Nepal has often publicly interceded to iron out differences between Oli and his main rival, Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”.

Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, pointed to India’s outreach in recent months to key neighbours such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal – including several major development and connectivity projects and high-level visits – and said Wei’s visits to Kathmandu and Islamabad were meant to counter these efforts.

“At a time when China is also facing criticism for its role in tackling Covid-19 in the initial stages, it wants to send out a message that it hasn’t vacated its space in India’s neighbourhood. China couldn’t send a senior minister, so sending a key general is the best case approach to ensure those who it believes are on its side remain there,” Patil said.

Prakash added, “In Islamabad, the Chinese clearly wanted to add some steel to Pakistan’s spine. Besides, the Chinese have concerns about the pace of implementation of projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including CPEC, and they’re leaning on Gen Bajwa to ensure it remains on course.”