How Nepal Viewed the India-China Border Standoff
A recent dispute between the two regional powers highlights the risk to smaller neighbors between them.
September 16, 2017
The recent extended border standoff between India and China caught the world’s attention, as the two rising global powers came perilously close to a war. The two were quarrelling over the sensitive Doklam plateau, which lies in their tri-junction, shared border point with Bhutan.
Thankfully, after nearly 10 weeks of the standoff, India and China decided to step back from the brink, largely of their own accord.
Unlike past conflict resolution in this region, there seems to have been little mediating role by the United States or the EU or any other outside actor. This showed that both India and China are maturing in their roles as responsible global actors.
On the downside, the dispute was seen as a battle of ego between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which was one reason it dragged on for so long. Perhaps there was little outsiders could have done.
Bhutan first, Nepal next?
With seemingly no solution in sight while the crisis lasted, however, the developments in Doklam sent shockwaves across Nepal. Like Bhutan, Nepal is precariously sandwiched between India and China.
As most Nepalis saw it, Bhutan was not consulted – either at the start of the standoff or at its end. The long-term fear is that small countries in the region like Bhutan and Nepal could get badly caught up in the intensifying India-China rivalry.
As the geopolitical competition between India and China heats up in South Asia, Nepalis look at the recent crisis and fear a Doklam-like situation in Nepal in future.
This is a valid concern. Just as Bhutan shares a tri-junction with India and China, Nepal too shares two disputed tri-junctions with these two countries.
Most controversial is the one at Kalapani, an area that has been occupied by Indian troops following its 1962 border war with China. India believes Kalapani is far too important strategically to be conceded to Nepal.
There were alarm bells in Kathmandu when, at the height of the Doklam standoff, an Indian news agency quoted a senior Chinese official as asking what would happen if China entered Kalapani like India had meddled in Doklam.
War or peace
Some in Nepal question whether the Chinese official really raised the issue of Kalapani, as the news only appeared in the Indian press. Nonetheless, it does highlight the kind of risks Nepal faces.
Moreover, it would be wrong to infer from this recent crisis that buffer states like Nepal and Bhutan are threatened by their big neighbors only during hostile situations between India and China.
Even when the two regional powers have been at peace, they have bypassed Nepal’s concerns.
Take the Lipulekh tri-junction at Kalapani again. On at least two occasions, India and China have signed agreements to enhance trade via Lipulekh, an ancient trade pass between Nepal and Tibet, without consulting Nepal, even though Nepal is acknowledged by both sides as a legitimate third party in Kalapani.
The way Nepalis see it, whether the two giants fight or make love, the grass under them gets trampled.
Indian influence in Nepal
The risk that Nepal’s fate may be decided between its two big neighbors without consulting it is increasing. Since its independence in 1947 India, which borders landlocked Nepal on three sides, has enjoyed disproportionate influence in Kathmandu.
Around 70% of Nepal’s foreign trade is with India and almost all of its third-country trade currently takes place via Indian ports. India has as such enjoyed considerable, and until recently unchallenged, leverage over Kathmandu.
In the past, India has been accused of making and breaking governments in Kathmandu, which is something that Bhutanese leaders in Thimpu can also relate to.
India at times tries to “micromanage” events in Kathmandu. It is seen as sitting on important bilateral projects for years, instead of promptly completing them.
The dams and roads made on the Indian side of its open border with Nepal flood millions of acres of Nepali farmlands every monsoon. The list of Nepal’s grievances against India is endless.
The view in Nepal is that India still sees buffer states of Nepal and Bhutan as falling squarely under its “sphere of influence.” As such, it will brook the presence of no third party here, especially not the Chinese.
This is why the common perception in Kathmandu is that India decided to intervene in Doklam, in what was a purely bilateral issue between Bhutan and China, in order to retain its exclusive influence in Bhutan.
In this reading, Beijing – which has repeatedly tried to establish diplomatic ties with Thimpu, but has each time been prevented from doing so by India – pushed ahead with unilateral road expansion in the disputed Doklam area precisely because India denied it more straightforward attempts to engage Bhutan.
Nepalis these days are far more sympathetic to China than they are to India, which they see as a bullying big brother.
China, on the other hand, has mostly pursued a hands-off policy on Nepal, even as it has pumped billions of dollars into the country, making Nepalis suspicious of India and rather kind toward China.
The Chinese have subtly exploited anti-India feelings in Nepal and cashed in on the goodwill towards them. Nepal recently signed up to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR).
Movements of goods and people between the two countries have greatly increased. The Chinese presence in Nepal has never been more visible. Kathmandu is these days filled with Chinese tourists, and hotels and restaurants catering to them are popping up everywhere.
The same is true of the Nepali tourist hub of Pokhara, which has been transformed by Chinese tourists. The Chinese are also building many of Nepal’s “national pride projects,” including two international airports.
But while there is a feeling that we should try to offset Indian influence in Nepal by inching close to China, the way India and China have overlooked Nepali concerns in recent times also makes the establishment in Kathmandu rather nervous.
Landlocked Nepal is fated to maintain a delicate balance between India and China. But that is easier said than done. Growing Indian and Chinese presence in Nepal could take on a momentum of its own, to grave consequences for Nepal.
Whether India and China are clashing or getting along, they are giants trampling on countries like Nepal.
China is trying to build influence in Nepal, which India still treats as a buffer state within its sphere.
Growing Indian and Chinese presence in Nepal could take on a dangerous momentum of its own.