Musings from afar

Why India needs to keep an eye on China-Nepal ties

India should not prevent Nepal from developing closer links with China so long as Kathmandu remains cognisant of Indian interests.

 |  Musings from afar  |  4-minute read |   07-04-2018
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Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Oli is in India this week for his first foreign visit as the head of a new government. Much like his predecessors, he is signalling that he values ties with India but unlike most, he is also coming after three years of difficult times when the relationship seems to have hit a rough patch.

He comes with a renewed political mandate and so he has also taken a hard line on a range of issues from suggesting that “debt trap” on account of China’s BRI is “Indian perception” to arguing that his nation’s constitution is “now perfect”.

Indian commitments

He expects fast delivery of Indian commitments and wants to connect to the seas through both China and India. He wants to “update” relations with India “in keeping with the times”. India, on the other hand, is also likely to draw out its red lines clearly.

While a red carpet is being rolled out, New Delhi is likely to underline that it would find it difficult to buy power from Nepal if China build those dams. So, clearly, there is now a new phase in India’s ties with its closest neighbour.

The scale of victory for the Left coalition can be expected to bring some stability to a country that has faced continuous political turmoil for the past two decades. After the Maoist insurgency ended, several prime ministers have come and gone, unable to manage a political transition in the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom effectively.

The constitution-making process was equally tortuous, with the eventual promulgation of a new document in 2015, leading to the mobilisation of the Madhesi groups in the Terai region against what they perceived to be a discriminatory document.

The blockade along the Nepal-India border in September 2015 by Madhesi groups was blamed on India and it was then that Oli emerged as a vocal critic of New Delhi’s policy towards Nepal, even as he made his intention of taking his country closer to China clear.

Oli secured China’s support during the six-month-long blockade and after he was forced to resign, he had accused India of effecting a government change by forcing Maoists to withdraw support from his government through a “remote control”. Oli made it an electoral issue by raising the India bogey during his campaign, scapegoating New Delhi for the blockade and for breaking the coalition.

The blockade along the India-Nepal border due to the Madhesi crisis indeed had angered a large part of the Nepalese population, allowing China to step in as an alternative to India by providing not only internet access but also alternative trade routes.

Nepal’s economy has been ailing since the 2015 earthquake as its reliance on aid and remittances remains at an all-time high. China’s attraction under such circumstances is quite natural. Beijing has pledged $8.3 billion (Rs 53,900 crore) to build roads and hydropower plants in Nepal even as Indian commitments remain in the realm of $317 million (Rs 2,000 crore).

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Chinese activities

As part of its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Beijing is looking into the possibility of connecting Kathmandu to Lhasa in Tibet via railways at an estimated cost of $8 billion (Rs 51,900 crore). China’s activities have been steadily expanding in Nepal after Kathmandu’s support for OBOR materialised. This happened despite India’s stiff resistance to OBOR.

The Modi government’s proactive outreach to Nepal in its early days suffered a setback due to the Madhesi crisis. The Deuba government had decided to cancel a major $2.5 billion (Rs 16,200 crore) hydroelectric project awarded to Chinese state company China Gezhouba Group in November 2017 much to the annoyance of Beijing.

The new government in Nepal is keen to reverse the decision. Oli had warned against revoking the plan. “The issue here is about foreign investment and such decisions cannot be taken on a whim,” he had said. Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to visit Nepal in March 2018.

He was supposed to visit in 2016, but the trip had to be cancelled due to a change of government in Nepal. China’s major security interests in Nepal include its border with the Tibet autonomous region, a potential hotbed of domestic instability over questions of sovereignty.

Engage Kathmandu

While New Delhi will be viewing the developments in Nepal with some concern, for Kathmandu there is a greater room for manoeuvrability now between China and India. India cannot and should not prevent Nepal from developing closer links with China so long as Kathmandu remains cognisant of vital Indian interests. Nepali leaders also recognise that the links with India, which traverse history, culture, and geography, cannot be severed so easily.

While Oli may look like a difficult proposition for India, New Delhi should also be aware that all governments in Nepal have tried to play the China card vis-à-vis India. Oli will not be unique in that respect, nor will he be the last. India will have to engage the new Nepali government pro-actively and work towards ensuring that its interests do not become marginal in the new dispensation in Kathmandu.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Writer

Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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