Nepal and India have shared a unique bond as neighbouring countries. Both the countries have an open border, allowing for free flow of goods, services, technology and people. However, the emerging territorial, political and diplomatic disputes have strained the relation. On the other hand, Nepal’s flourishing relation with China has troubled India after both the superpowers recently engaged in a rift in Galwan Valley, Ladakh. With domestic political conflicts, Nepal seems to be sandwiched between the two Asian giants. Mumeninaz Zaman writes.
Growing tension with India
It was in 2015 when Nepal just emerged from the devastating earthquake that killed 9000 people. The country was hit by yet another tremor- ‘border blockade’, following the passage of a new constitution in Nepal on September 19, that has choked the import of various essential supplies from India, including fuel and medicines. The blockade turned out to be an economic and humanitarian crisis, which severely affected Nepal’s economy. The Nepal government blamed India for the blockade. Reports suggest that India demanded specific changes in the constitution, which the Indian Government denied saying that it was due to the internal protests in Nepal that have stopped the passage of supplies in the country.
Later in November 2015 after stripping the Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status it was divided into two federally administered territories of Ladakh and J&K. Following which India published an updated map that consolidates its claim over the Kalapani region, which Nepal claims as its territory. Kalapani region (the 335 sq km area between the areas of Limpiyadhura and Kalapani and the Lipulekh pass), holds strategic significance because of its geography. It is the shortest trade route between India and China.
This was followed by the inauguration of a new 80km Lipulekh road by India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in May this year. The road, which serves as the shortest route between capital New Delhi and Kailash-Mansarovar, a revered Hindu pilgrimage site in the Tibetan plateau.
There was an outburst in Nepal against India’s actions. In retaliation, Nepal unveiled its own new map in late May which included the Kalapani region as part of Nepal and was approved by its parliament and the president in late June.
The Government of Nepal asked New Delhi “to refrain from carrying out any activity” on the road that has triggered a fresh dispute over the strategically important territory.
Hinting at China the Indian Army Chief M.M. Naravane commented that the problems have arisen at “the behest of someone else and that is very much a possibility,” he said.
China making way
India’s action has stirred nationalism in Nepal. Whist it was an opportunity for the Chinese to enhance its economical, political and cultural relations with neighbours and countries in its periphery and growing its economic presence in South Asia. China has enhanced its foothold in the region through financial assistance and investments that includes huge infrastructure related projects like developments of highways and roadways etc.
In 2017 Nepal became part of China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), through this initiative Nepal aims to be a part of the global supply chain and diversify its dependency on India.
The landlocked nation has been dependent on India not only economical but also socially and culturally. In 2019, many schools across Nepal have made it mandatory for students to learn Chinese lured by the Chinese government’s offer to cover salaries of teachers who teach Mandarin, the Himalayan Times reported. The move came at a time when the Chinese involvement in Nepal is surging at the back of the BRI project.
Nepal has been in a geopolitical spree ever since its dispute with its Indian counterparts. As Nepal fears increasing Indian dominance, it is opening its door for China to receive the much needed aid and support. Nevertheless, the trade war between China and the US and the border skirmishes between India and China have put the small country at the centre of geopolitical activity. Henceforth, to maintain a balance it is indispensable on the part of Kathmandu to resolve political stability at home and resolve the bilateral ties on the regional and global front. Given the foreign influence in Nepal which has been cultivated by the country’s leaders, only encourages the media and citizens to speculate China is now more active in Nepal’s internal politics. However, analysts are firm on the belief that foreign actors should stay out of Nepal’s internal matters.