Chinese Checkers: India’s Nepal problem

Representative image. (PTI photo)

Just when one thought that the hyperbole over China’s bilateral equations with South Asian countries could not surpass its “higher than the mountains, deeper than the ocean, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey” ties with Pakistan, comes this one from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Nepal: that China and Nepal were “close as lips and teeth”. Xi reassured Nepal that China will “always support Nepal in safeguarding its national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Overall, the visit, a first in 23 years by a Chinese head of state to Nepal, resulted in a promise of $500 million in economic aid for Nepal and the signing of 20 agreements across areas from health, agriculture, infrastructure and tourism to security and border management. Xi’s visit to Nepal is significant due to two broad reasons. First, it was almost entirely centered around border security and limiting the movement of Tibetans from Tibet to Nepal, signaling Nepal’s increasing strategic importance in Asian geopolitics. Second, the visit elevated the bilateral relations to the level of a strategic partnership.

China has had formal ties with Nepal since the late 1950s, but what must cause concern in New Delhi now is the increasing Chinese role in Nepal’s internal security, defence and most importantly in matters of its sovereignty. India’s porous border with Nepal, its Tibetan population and its own border dispute with China make the evolving Sino-Nepal relations a worry for Delhi and calls for alertness.

Xi’s India visit was also carefully sandwiched between his meeting with Imran Khan in Beijing and his visit to Nepal, signaling the Middle Kingdom’s inroads into South Asia. Nepal’s embrace of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Kathmandu’s promise not to allow “any anti-China activities on its soil”, and its disapproval of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy are tellingly symbolic of the Sino-Nepal partnership and of the diminishing strategic space for India’s regional and neighbourhood visions.

For China, the deliverables expected from Nepal are broadly three. First, over 2,500 Tibetans cross over from China and enter Nepal every year. China has sternly asked Nepal to keep a check on them and not allow its land to be used for anti-China activities. There are also talks underway for an extradition treaty between the two states as well as one on “mutual legal assistance in criminal matters.” Second, Nepal is expected to conform to Chinese principles and projects in the region. This is reflected in Kathmandu’s engagement in the BRI and its support for the “One China Policy”.

Third, as China is likely to deepen its presence in South Asia, it seeks to do so not only through the maritime space but also through the continent. Nepal provides the strategic continental space for China to advance its interests. After deepening relations with a network of states in the Indian Ocean rim, China is now invested in creating a broader Himalayan connectivity network linking Shanghai to Nepal, and providing Nepal port access. A seamless Himalayan connectivity network by China could transform its southern mountainous borders into an opportunity, further deepen its ties with South Asian states and fuel India’s concerns over being encircled.

China’s growing political and economic muscle will create inroads in Nepal and limit India’s ‘sphere of influence’. India’s anxieties are justified as Nepal is a buffer between India and China, and like all small buffer states it is making the most of its relations with big states to its north and south. One of the ways for Delhi to sustain its productive engagement with Nepal without drawing competition or hostility from China is to approach its relations with Kathmandu from a trilateral perspective, with China. But India’s history of hostility with China and the nature of Chinese investments elsewhere in the world will quell such an option. The other option is to compete with China for investments, influence and soft power in Nepal.

While India lags substantially behind China in the areas of aid and political sympathies in Nepal, it can use its ‘special relationship’ to its advantage and create a favourable narrative for itself. Towards that, it has to do away with its hard-headed approach, one that was characteristic of its 2015 border blockade. India also needs to highlight China’s unsustainable steps, such as the coercive nature of its debt-trap diplomacy or its clamp down on Tibetan dissenters and potential deportations to China. Delhi must also work substantially on perception management in Nepal to neutralize the anti-India sentiment, alongside taking concrete steps to better ties.

Sino-Nepal relations in recent years must be seen through the broader lens of China’s quintessential give-and-take policy. Nepal views Beijing as an opportunity to scale up its growth and open up new avenues of development through aid and soft loans. Additionally, courting China, an economic mega-power and a political giant, also reduces Nepal’s over-dependence on India. This helps Kathmandu since its own relations with Delhi have been bittersweet.

Chinese engagements with Nepal overlap with Kathmandu’s own interests. After his re-election, Prime Minister KP Oli has been arguing for transforming Nepal from a landlocked to a ‘land-linked’ state. While Nepal is courting China for grants and aids, it is also careful not to ruffle Delhi’s feathers. China’s growing importance in Nepal notwithstanding, India still is Nepal’s most important neighbor, providing it transit and access to the sea, developmental aid and capacity building programmes, remittances from the Gorkha regiment of the Indian Army and an inseparable cultural and social overlap. A Nepal tilting toward China cannot do away with certain dependencies on India and hence has to do the balancing act between the two giants.

(Mishra is Deputy Director, Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies; Das is Assistant Professor in St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata)

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