A clearly identifiable motive of China stoking Doklam is difficult to determine.
Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba will begin his five-day visit to India from 23rd of this month. The visit is coming at a time when Doklam standoff continues between India and China with no signs of conciliation. Amidst the standoff, China has made attempts to reach out to Nepal which would have intensified with recent visit of Vice Premier Wang Yang to Kathmandu. The visit of Prime Minister Deuba to India now is therefore critical. A direct concern for India against a rising China and its involvement in South Asia is that it would adversely alter the balance of power in the region for India.
Some of those fears seem to be taking shape with growing Chinese influence in countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and especially in Pakistan, with whom China shares an ‘all-weather’ friendship. The two Himalayan nations in this equation become extremely critical with whom India enjoys a ‘special relationship’ — Bhutan and Nepal. What is significant is the fact that these two nations have been on the Chinese radar for quite some time now. In case of Bhutan, it has been, and continues to be, India’s most trusted friend in South Asia. With Nepal, however it is a different story. India-Nepal relations have experienced vicissitudes, with current relations under stress between Kathmandu and New Delhi, China could move closer to Nepal. The recent India-China standoff at the Doklam provides an avenue, which can be leveraged by China to influence India-Nepal relations to its benefit.
A clearly identifiable motivation of China for stoking the Doklam front is difficult to determine, however, it is broadly consistent with the pattern of belligerence, which China has displayed in claiming ‘disputed areas’ elsewhere, most notably in the South China Sea. What is distinct in this case is the high-voltage diplomatic offensive pursued by Beijing, at times by resorting to undiplomatic language, which included frequent war threats and threats to reignite the Sikkim issue among others. Such psychological warfare is aimed at subduing the adversary, without the actual use of force, to achieve strategic objectives.
In this particular case, this psychological offensive appears to have a twofold purpose.
One, to check India’s resolve to stand up for its ‘friends’ against pressure. India has made its moves very well. It has not responded to the undiplomatic language of Beijing and has maintained a judiciously low profile diplomatically. Yet firmly stuck to its stated position of not withdrawing its troops from the area and kept the diplomatic option open to resolve the issue. To that extent, Beijing’s psychological manoeuvres do not appear to be earning any dividends.
The second is to create an atmosphere of mistrust among India’s neighbours through concerted propaganda that portrays an image of India as overbearing with a proclivity to interfere in the internal affairs of ‘smaller nations’ in the region and also by accusing India of infringing on its sovereignty by sending troops in to ‘Chinese territory’. China is relentlessly using its state media to feed disinformation in support of its coercive strategy. In addition, it has persistently used the media to make direct military threats against India. On the other hand, China has also used its diplomatic channels to amplify this propaganda. Beijing has reportedly been briefing various other countries regarding India’s ‘violation of Chinese territorial sovereignty’. This second component of Beijing strategy is aimed at sowing confusion, especially among nations who share similar misgivings about India.
This is where Nepal becomes extremely critical. The Doklam standoff is of particular significance to Nepal, as it has similarly two trijunction points — the Lipulekh and Jhinsang Chull. Among these two, Lipulekh is extremely critical, as it has been used by India, Nepal and China for years for travel. Recently however, in a joint statement, India and China mentioned the Lipulekh without any reference to Nepal on which Nepal made its displeasure explicit by calling on both India and China to drop the mention of Lipulekh from the joint statement. To make matters even more complicated, Lipulekh is close to the Kalapani area where India and Nepal are yet to settle their dispute.
The developments over Doklam would therefore be closely scrutinised by the Nepalese. Though Nepal has made clear its neutral stance on the entire issue, there is nevertheless, negative opinion regarding India among influential elites within the country. Gopal Khanal for instance, who was the foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Oli sees this as a ‘purely bi-lateral issue’. However, he observed, “We have to see the Doklam incident as indicative of the tendency of big countries to unnecessarily intervene in the affairs of small countries.” China too has been reaching out to Nepal on the issue of Doklam, on different levels, which certainly would have raised concerns in New Delhi.
Of late, India’s relations with Nepal have suffered setbacks, especially after a five-month blockade due to protests by Madhesis. The perception of India ‘interfering in Nepal’s internal matter’ is still prevalent in Nepal. The Chinese grabbed this opportunity as they attempted to ingratiate the Nepalese through their timely supply of the essential commodities. Nepal also has readily joined the ambitious Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR), much to India’s displeasure, which is likely to bring the two nations even closer. Beyond that, the economic incentives which China is set to offer Nepal outweigh the ones which India can give. What works in favour of China in this equation is that Nepal has no outstanding border disputes with China, except for the two trijunctions.
While with India, there are pending disputes concerning the Kalapani region and the Susta region in East Nepal, which affects bilateral relations between New Delhi and Kathmandu. China would certainly exploit this opportunity by strengthening the anti-India constituency within the country and move close to Nepal. One of the ways through which China is attempting to do is using the Doklam standoff and attempting to build a narrative around it suitable to their strategic objectives. It is therefore critical for India to counter this propaganda as relations with its neighbour Nepal are going to be crucial for its strategic interests in the region.
The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation.
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