Until 2008 when the 239 year old monarchical institution was abolished in Nepal, China was not much interested in Nepal affairs except in the Tibetan issue. But thereafter, China started enhancing its clout in this country to such an extent that by now it is giving hard time to India.

Sikkim, Nathu La, Doklam, Doklam standoff, Hari Bansh Jha
Photo: Shayon Ghosh/CC BY-ND 2.0

After seventy two days of standoff between the Indian and Chinese troops at Doklam region of Bhutan, the two sides finally agreed to withdraw their troops, artillery and other war weapons to their initial positions. The problem in Doklam areas had started when on 16 June, the Bhutanese government made a formal protest against Chinese encroachment of its region. As India was committed by the 1949 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Bhutan to safeguard its security, the Indian troops immediately rushed to Doklam areas to check the advancement of the Chinese troops engaged in building roads towards the Bhutanese territory. The Chinese troops could not move forward thereafter as they had to face the Indian troops.

However, the Doklam crisis does not seem to be fully settled. Both the Indian and Chinese troops have been watching the developments in Doklam areas carefully and are prepared to confront if necessary. The Indian troops have been placed in an advantageous position so that they could move forward again if at all the Chinese troops make any further attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by extending the memorable track towards the Jampheri Ridge as that would mean putting India’s most vulnerable Siliguri corridor at risk. [1]

The standoff between the Indian and Chinese troops did not only create tensions between the two countries, but it also created tensions in other parts of the world. Nepal was more concerned about the development in Doklam areas as Bhutan is closer to the Nepalese territory from its eastern part. Only the tiny Indian state of Sikkim is in between Nepal and Bhutan. Therefore, the war between the Indian and Chinese troops in Doklam areas could have directly affected Nepal.

Above all, what also worried Nepal most was the situation in which it could have been forced to take the side of one of the two neighbours. As per the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Nepal and India, the two countries are bound together by security pact and so Nepal could have been dragged to take the Indian side.

Article II of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship stipulates that the governments of Nepal and India would inform each other of any friction with its neighbour in a case that affects the friendly relations between the two countries. [2] And, in the letter exchanged with the Treaty, it was further added that neither the government of Nepal nor that of India would tolerate any security threat to each other by any foreign aggressor. They also vowed to consult each other and devise effective counter-measures to deal with such situation. [3]

Article II of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship stipulates that the governments of Nepal and India would inform each other of any friction with its neighbour in a case that affects the friendly relations between the two countries.

But against the letter and spirit of the 1950 Treaty, Nepal escaped taking the side of India during the Doklam standoff. Nepal amply made it clear that it would remain neutral between the two countries in context to Doklam standoff in the same way as it maintained neutrality between them during their war in 1962.

Yet, before the visit of Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to India on 23 August, speculation was high that the Indian government would discuss with him the Doklam standoff as per Article 2 of 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. [4] In some quarters, it was also claimed that India’s Ministry of External Affairs was making necessary preparation for that event.

But Baburam Bhattarai, former Prime Minister and leader of Naya Shakti Party, urged Prime Minister Deuba not to make any commitment during his visit to Delhi on the Doklam issue. Instead, he suggested him to stake Nepal’s claim over Lipulek, the disputed tri-junction point between Nepal, India and China. [5] Of late, Beijing has been trying to instil fears among the Nepalese of Indian aggression in the disputed Kalapani/Lipulekh areas. [6] Moreover, former Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli wanted Prime Minister Deuba to help de-escalate the geopolitical and tensions in the region as the SAARC chair.

At a time the tension between India and China was at its peak over the Doklam standoff, Sushma Swaraj, India’s External Affairs Minister, visited Nepal in August on the eve of BIMSTEC meeting. Soon afterwards, China’s Deputy Prime Minister also visited the country. Both the leaders are believed to have discussed the Doklam issue to get Nepal’s favour.

The news was rife in certain Indian media that Nepal and India had a discussion on the Doklam issue during Deuba’s visit to New Delhi. But Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jayshankar denied any such discussion between the two sides on this issue. [7]

Ever since China made its inroads into Tibet in 1950, Nepal found itself unprotected from the north. The 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed between Nepal and India to counter any such threat from the north. But during his recent visit to Delhi, Prime Minister Deuba ruled out any threat to Nepal’s security from the north.

Before 1950, it was Nepal that guaranteed security to Tibet. During the Thapathali Treaty of 1856, Nepal and Tibet had agreed that Nepal would protect Tibet in case it was invaded by any external power. [8] In return for such support, Tibet used to pay tribute to Nepal until 1953. This was also because Tibet and not China happened to be Nepal’s neighbour in the north. It was only after China maintained control over Tibet in 1950 that Nepal had to face a new neighbour.

Before 1950, it was Nepal that guaranteed security to Tibet. During the Thapathali Treaty of 1856, Nepal and Tibet had agreed that Nepal would protect Tibet in case it was invaded by any external power.

Until 2008 when the 239 year old monarchical institution was abolished in Nepal, China was not much interested in Nepal affairs except in the Tibetan issue. But thereafter, China started enhancing its clout in this country to such an extent that by now it is giving hard time to India. Today, China is competing with India and trying to take its space in Nepal on all possible fronts — be it economic, social, cultural or even strategic sectors.

At a time, Deuba was on his visit to India and the Nepalese business community were asking the Indians to make investment in Nepal, a higher level delegation from China was engaged in making discussions with the Nepalese leaders as to how to boost up Chinese investment in such larger projects as Sigatse-Kerung-Kathmandu railway and its further extension to Pokhara and Lumbini near the Nepal-India border. On that occasion, Nepal pursued China to make an investment in the construction of East-West Railways whose survey has just been completed and in which India is keen to make the investment. Additionally, Nepal also requested China to make an investment for the up gradation of the Pokhara-Baglung Highway, apart from the Arniko Highway that connects Kathmandu to Tatopani at Nepal-China border.

Moreover, the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Yu Hong has claimed that Nepal-China relations have touched a new height with the signing of OBOR initiative in May. Recently, Rasuwagadi-Kerung point at Nepal-China border has been upgraded to an international border point with a view to implementing China’s OBOR initiative and also to facilitate the movement of third-country citizens through the border crossing. Expectations are high that this would boost trade, tourism and people-to-people relations between the two countries. [9] With some of these developments, the Rasuwagadei-Kerung point could emerge as the main gateway for China to connect to Nepal, if not with South Asia. Initially, this route was opened as a bilateral border point on 1 December 2014 to facilitate the Nepali and Chinese nationals to enter each other’s countries.

China’s influence in Nepal seems to be growing. As many as 5,160 students from Nepal studied in different academic institutions in that country in 2016. Their number increased further this year. [10] Also, 40,000 of the Nepalese students are being taught Mandarin in Nepal with a view to building up Chinese constituency in this country. [11]

Nevertheless, Nepal has welcomed India and China for their efforts to disengage from the Doklam areas. This development in Nepal’s neighbourhood signals that no country howsoever powerful it is militarily can bully smaller neighbours. Bhutan is its glaring example today. In the modern world, the real strength of a country is not its military might, but the ‘diplomatic skills’ and ‘alliances’ that it makes.[12] If this were not the case, the tiny Bhutan would not have faced China in the Doklam areas. Also, it is for the first time after the Sino-Indian war of 1962 that India has proved its capability to protect itself and safeguard its allies from foreign aggression. In fact, the Doklam crisis proved blessing in disguise for India as its image in South Asia and even in international arena has grown all the time high.


References

[1] Pandit, Rajat, “Indian soldiers withdraw but hold vantage point, ready to step in again,” The Times of India, 29 August 2017.

[2] Treaty of Peace and Friendship, 31 July 1950, Kathmandu.

[3] Letter Exchanged with the Treaty, 31 July 1950, Kathmandu.

[4] Naya Patrika Dainik, “Modiko Tayari: Chunauma Sahayog Garne, Doklamma Samarthan Mangane,” Online Khabar, Bhadra 7, 2074.

[5] Republica, “PM heading for India today leads 59-member delegation,” My Republica, 23 August 2017.

[6] TNN, “China bid to play ON Nepal fears on Indian aggression,” The Times of India, 8 August 2017.

[7] Annpurn, “Doklambare Chhalfal Bhayen,” (Nepali), Annpurn, 25 August 2017.

[8] http://www.mongabay.com/history/nepal/nepal-relations_with_china.html

[9] Himalayan News Service, “International border point at Rasuwagadi,” The Himalayan Times, 31 August 2017.

[10] Kantipur Sambaddata, “Chin-Nepal Rajanitik Bishwas Badhdo,’ (Nepali), Kantipur, Kathmandu, 27 August 2017.

[11] Baral, Biswas, “Carefully on China,” My Republica, 31 August 2017.

[12] Deshpande, Rajeev, “Doklamresolution: A message to China’s other small neighbours,” The Times of India, 29 August 2017.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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