Nepal must make the best of the opportunities that it is receiving from its neighbours and tread carefully.
The Kathmandu Valley is now witness to several diplomatic possibilities of Himalayan proportion as the world has been keenly observing the high-profile ambassadorial visits from neighbors India and China. Chinese Defence Minister and State Councilor, Wei Fenghe and Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, were present in Nepal within a gap of two days (27 and 29 November respectively), thereby ripening speculations of a major geopolitical stance in South Asia and beyond. Interestingly, both aiming at strengthening the bilateral cooperation with the landlocked Himalayan nation have chosen a time of visit when the country is embroiled in a very sensitive and longstanding internal intra-party dispute that has been threatening the peace of the country.
It is not unknown that the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is on the verge of division, as its leaders — the party’s executive chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli — are at wit’s end with each other with inconclusive deliberations and Secretariat meetings. With the primary aim of demanding Oli’s resignation, the situation has often been claimed to have roots in the border dispute with India in 2019 when Nepal had redrawn the political map of the country as a response to India’s map, taking upon a somewhat cold demeanor towards the southern neighbour. Similarly, in this regard, predictions and postulations of a border encroachment with China in the Humla district had also surfaced in the media in 2020. Even though Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali has refuted any such claims as ‘fake news,’ along with in-depth probe into the issue, it must be noticed that almost all the major criticalities surrounding Nepal and its neighbours in the recent past are mostly around land and border, reclaiming the strategic location of the country therein.
For India, this is the third high-level visit to Nepal in the current year, the first being in (21-22 October) with Chief of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Samant Goel and the second being the visit of Chief of Army Staff, Indian Army, M.M. Naravane (4 November). While, the first exchange has supposedly broken the ice between the two countries after the border and map row, the second one held up the age old traditions between the two countries, acknowledging the deep seated historical ties. Naravane was conferred upon with the title of ‘Maharathi’ from the Nepalese Army. He also gifted several medical equipment items for the hospitals in Nepal to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The third visit by Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla witnessed the call for pertinent border mechanisms that were promised along with other connectivity projects and post-earthquake reconstruction programmes that have been aided by India for a long time now. Moreover, in this crucial hour of the pandemic, the future of economic collaboration between the two countries through investments in Nepalese multipurpose projects, the future of people-to-people engagements through the creation of an air bubble for travel and the availability of vaccines from the Indian side to Nepal as early as possible were mentioned. At the same time, an invitation was also extended by Shringla for the next session of the Joint Commission Meeting on behalf of Indian Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar. Holistically, this meeting reflected a better situation between the two nations that had hit rock bottom, akin to 2015, when the blockade was in place, often described as a humanitarian crisis for Nepal, blamed on India. Now “on-track” with formal dialogue, the visits were mainly initiated with the agenda of making each other’s positions on the physical boundaries of the countries clear and reminding each other of the joint ventures that have been undertaken.
On similar lines, the visit of the Chinese side was also focused on cross-border infrastructure and connectivity, with other aspirations shaped according to the post-COVID dynamics. It is already known that Nepal is one of the most important members of the multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, much to the dismay of India and is also the second largest trade partner of Nepal. For instance, the trans-Himalayan connectivity project is one of the most ambitious plans that have been envisaged under this programme along with the revival of the traditional Silk Route. This bilateral meeting was also a mirror to such developments.
Minister Wei was presented with the prestigious Guard of Honor at the Nepal Army headquarters. In fact, there was also reiteration of the resumption of China’s military aid to Kathmandu. Nepal Army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Santosh Ballav Paudyal mentioned that the RMB 159 million military assistance package agreement that was signed during former Nepalese defence minister Ishwor Pokharel’s visit to Beijing in 2019 has been reinvigorated with a protocol to the deal during the present exchange. Even though there was no particular press release from Beijing, this one-day visit by the defence minister, before leaving for Pakistan, is a guarantee of the further deepening Sino-Nepal ties. Even though this thread came under the radar of criticisms with the civil society protesting against illegal Chinese construction with slogans like “Return Nepal’s Land” and “Stop Chinese Expansionism,” the government’s posture is quite the opposite.
It has been often argued that capitalising upon the Sino-Indian rivalry is one of the strengths of the Nepalese foreign policy. Even though it has not been able to neutralise the dynamics between the two countries, there lies two probabilities of it either acting as a bridge between the two gigantic neighbours or becoming a zone of contention — “a proxy battlefield that has been caught in the crossroads of vaulting regional ambitions of India and China in South Asia.” Circumstantially, it is high time for Nepal to move beyond the connotation of ‘buffer’ that has been associated with it for a very long time now. It must realise its potential as a major ‘transit’ state in South Asia, which has the potential of creating an identity of its own. One of the first steps to curate this possibility should be to move away from these countries to interfere in the internal political matters of Nepal. For example, China’s ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, supporting Oli, as against ‘Prachanda’ must be done away with, as it might create an illusion of the latter being supported by India. This situation holds within itself the potential of creating unnecessary misunderstandings between the major powers of the region, that is India and China, who are associated with Nepal with similar developmental packages. The idea must be to avoid any race, vis-a-vis Nepal, and focus on creating a conducive and peaceful community that bolsters better economic, and now health, facilitations in the region, with other negotiations related to the overall growth.
Undeniably, China’s participation is equally important because of its economic prowess. Whether this idea would manifest into reality or not is a question only time will answer. However, at present, Nepal must make the best of the opportunities that it is receiving from its neighbours and tread carefully at the same time as India and China have their own bilateral relationship, which is ever dynamic and prone to different facades of disagreements and collaborations at the same time.
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Sohini Nayak was a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Presently she is working on Nepal-India and Bhutan-India bilateral relations along with sub regionalism and ...Read More +