Nepal is a country standing at a vantage point and at the crossroads of two major powers of South Asia, India and China. Sitting as the mixing bowl of two of the world’s oldest civilisations, it has always been a focus of world attention. Nepal’s significance in India’s strategic calculus and its security radar has always been known. However, the relations between India and Nepal are undergoing tumultuous times. The present deterioration in their relation came after Nepal unveiled a new map wherein portions of Indian territory (state of Uttarakhand)—Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipu Lekh—were mapped as part of Nepal. New Delhi had objected to that move. Also, Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli’s remark at a public function in July claiming that Ayodhya (revered for its association with the great Indian Ramayana) is in Nepal and that Lord Ram was in fact born in Nepal clearly showcases Nepal’s current leadership’s antipathy towards India.
Viewed as the first signs of thawing of relations between India and Nepal, both countries engaged in the Eighth Meeting of Nepal-India Oversight Mechanism (first in 2016), held in Kathmandu through Video Conferencing on the 17th August under the co-chairmanship of Foreign Secretary of Nepal, Shanker Das Bairagi and Ambassador of India to Nepal Vinay Mohan Kwatra. The meeting made a thorough review of the implementation of the projects under bilateral cooperation. However, the border issue was not addressed leaving the discomfort as it is. Interestingly, a day after (on the 15th August, Saturday) the telephonic talk between Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to exchange pleasantries on India’s Independence Day , Nepal’s ambassador to India Nilamber Acharya claimed that the ties between the two nations are “close and friendly” and that both sides can sit together in “proper times and solve any problem”.
Given the present circumstances, it would be noteworthy to see how Indian diplomacy can resolve the border dispute with Nepal, as Sukh Deo Muni, Indian expert on Nepal Affairs, calls them the “world’s closest neighbours”. But what is more worrisome is Nepal’s proximity with China. Chinese engagement in Nepal is sharply increasing with new areas of cooperation, making India uncomfortable. India views Nepal as its traditional sphere of influence (historic and civilizational ties) while also acting as a strategic buffer between the two Asian giants. New Delhi also aims at containing Chinese influence in India’s neighbourhood as well as its backyard vehemently encircling India. India has been seen as someone playing a paternalistic role in Nepal and has used connectivity as a coercive tool while China continues to hedge against India by funding projects in Nepal especially which India was unable to complete, the Belt and Road Initiative also factors in.
China’s Proxy Battle with India
China while following a policy of aggressive expansionism across different parts of the world, it is also using India’s neighbours against Indian interests to fulfil its strategic agendas in the region. China’s shadow in India-Nepal relations complicates the situation further and acts as a deterrent for long-term resolution of disputes.
China-Nepal relations have geopolitical and geostrategic implications for India. Nepal has in the past and still does play the China card and flaunt it whenever they feel the necessity of neutralising India’s “over-lordship”. This tension is a perpetual fixture in India’s neighbourhood diplomacy. China has in recent times also been actively involved in Nepal’s domestic politics, hence, Nepal’s PM Oli’s leaning towards China.
The sudden knee-jerk reactions by Nepal seems to be part of a plot laid down by China, which by itself has been causing trouble at the Indian border. China has for the longest time possible along with Pakistan been trying to wean off Nepal away from India’s sphere of Influence and make it an inalienable part of Pakistan-Nepal China axis that will transpire as a enduring headache for India and will be vacillated as an effective containment measure against India.
What Nepal, however, needs to be mindful of is that Beijing is known for its notorious unfair trade practices. Also its economic engagements with developing neighbours come with caveats and a heavy price that are mostly based on loans rather than grants. China has been known for its debt-trap diplomacy which our Himalayan neighbour should be wary of.
India needs to Fast Track its efforts in mending its relations with Nepal while ensuring that it is not bullied into any sort of compromise that may hurt Indian interests. Nepal seems to be walking on a tightrope between India and China. New Delhi has to guard itself against the cementing of Pakistan-China-Nepal axis and counter the despicable motives of Nepal very dexterously. That represents a real challenge for India. Although amidst the CoVID-19, Nepal has been reluctant towards China and has been looking for support from India, however, China’s economic high-handedness can hardly be matched at present, and given geo-economic circumstances, it’s hard to say if India can replace China. Nepal is sitting on the edge, between a rock and a hard place. It looks at India with suspicion 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 superpowers. Such a difficult balancing act requires more than will. Political stability at home front and a consensus among the domestic power brokers – all of which, unfortunately, have proven to be obscure in Nepal. Its needless to say that it will be in Nepal’s best interest to balance between the two-India and China for its own growth & security prospects.
Author: Saloni Salil
Ms. Saloni Salil, is currently positioned as Defence Analyst and Officer on Special Duty at Defence and Security Alert Magazine, New Delhi. She has held honorary positions in various organisations and has a number of published works among her credentials. She has been a regular contributor to a number of prominent strategic affairs platforms. She has also been associated with Future Directions International, Australia, as a Visiting Fellow in the Indo Pacific Research Programme since 2012. She authored a monograph titled ‘China’s Strategy in the South China Sea: Role of the United States and India’, along with several other publications on maritime security and power struggles. Her major research work has been on the Indian Ocean Region, South China Sea and Indo-Pacific Studies( US, Japan, Australia), Sino-India relations, US foreign Policy, India and its neighbourhood however, not limited to the above. Ms Salil contributes to the growing discourse on the concept of the Indo-Pacific and major power intentions in that region. She is currently pursuing LLB as she believes that Lawfare is the new Warfare and plans to further do an LLM in International Law (Maritime Law).
Twitter Handle: @SaloniSalil