Reports emerged in September that China has constructed nine buildings on the Nepali side, encroaching on Nepali land in Limi of Humla. There were widespread anti-China protests outside the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu. Media reports also cited a recent survey conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nepal, that has claimed that there have been illegal Chinese encroachments in bordering districts including Dolakha, Gorkha, Darchula, Humla, Sindhupalchowk, Sankhuwasabha and Rasuwa. To understand the nature of the present border disputes, it is important to look at the historical context and how the Sino-Nepal border agreement was drafted.
Nepal and Tibet signed a trade agreement to strengthen border relations at Khasa on September 5, 1775. The agreement also mentioned that the border will remain unchanged. During the reign of Bahadur Shah, he sent a strong message expressing dissatisfaction with the trade agreement and in the summer of 1778, Nepal sent troops to attack Tibet. With this attack, the congenial relationship between the two neighbours deteriorated. Tibet often used China’s military help to push Nepal back but, finally, when Tibet realised that Nepal had achieved success in most sectors (like Khasa and Kuti), it pushed for border talks. Hence, the treaty of Thapathali, or the Nepal-Tibet peace treaty, was signed on March 24, 1856 through which the final settlement of Nepal's northern border with Tibet was reached.
The relations between Nepal and China in the last few decades has been an example of friendship and mutual understanding. The relationship between the two countries flourished after Tibet became a part of the autonomous region of China and, for the first time, the two neighbours shared a boundary of 1,439 kilometres. Nepal and China decided to delineate and demarcate the boundary line through the Nepal-China Boundary Agreement on March 21, 1960. This boundary agreement replaced the Treaty of Thapathali and recognised China's sovereignty over Tibet and agreed to surrender all privileges and rights granted by the old treaty.
After a detailed survey and mapping on both sides, a formal settlement of the Boundary treaty was finalised on October 5, 1961. The boundary line was demarcated on the basis of traditional use by the country, possessions and convenience. There were conflict areas where the policy of ‘give and take’ was used. Nepal had given about 1,836 square kilometers of land to China, while China had given Nepal 2,139 square kilometers of land. Furthermore, the watershed principle of the Himalayan range was used to demarcate the boundary on the Northern side. The area encompasses various passes, mountain peaks and pasture lands. The cases in which the pasture lands of a citizen of one country falls on the other side of the border, the choice of citizenship was given to the landowner.
The boundary line was jointly demarcated physically and there were conflicts, debates, claims and counterclaims in 32 areas. The disputes that emerged during the joint demarcation were settled with the five principles of peaceful co-existence and respecting the status of each other in the international arena. After the border survey and demarcation of territory according to the delimitation of the treaty, the joint survey team started erecting permanent pillars and markers, specified from serial number 1 to 79 from west to east from June 21, 1962, at various points on the border line. There were 48 larger and 31 small size pillars and markers. Apart from this, there were 20 offset pillars constructed where there was a possibility of disappearance of the main pillars due to natural calamities. The total demarcated boundary between the two countries was 1439.18 kilometres.
The Nepal-China boundary protocol was signed on January 20, 1963, which laid out a basic rule for an inspection, every five years, of the whole demarcated boundary by teams from both countries. The protocol was renewed three times and the damaged pillars were repaired.
However, there were some minor conflicts that emerged over the boundary over the last few decades. For instance, in the north of Lapchigaun in Lamabagar area of Dolakha district, the pillar marked 57 has been claimed to be placed inside Nepal instead of what was initially assumed. The dispute concerns six hectares of land and because of this dispute, the fourth protocol is still on hold. There was another conflict regarding the ownership of Mount Everest (Sagarmatha) but with Chou En-lai’s visit to Kathmandu in 1960, he made it clear that Mount Everest belongs to the people of Nepal. Currently, the dispute is regarding the height of Mount Everest. China claims it to be 8844.43 metres while Nepal claims it as 8848 meters. The boundary markers were repaired and installed after inspection in 2005 to formulate the fourth protocol, but with the dispute that emerged over the pillar marked 57, the fourth protocol never happened. The boundary talks between the two nations have also been at a halt since then.
Nepal and China have both denied the encroachments that were mentioned in the recent reported survey and they have decided to solve the dispute in an amicable way. However, if the border disputes continue, it will harm Nepal as its domestic politics won’t allow it to acknowledge the encroachments, thus, risking it losing hectares of land to China.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.