Nepal’s position is such that it stands to suffer when India and China get close, and even when they drift apart.
Kathmandu: The current standoff between India and China over the Doklam plateau has been a source of great concern in Nepal, which, just like Bhutan, is precariously sandwiched between its two giant neighbours. Like the Doklam tri-junction point between the three countries involved in the current dispute, there are two tri-junction points between Nepal, India and China – one at Lipulekh in western Nepal and another at Jhinsang Chuli in eastern Nepal.
Since Jhinsang Chuli is covered in snow for most of the year, it is not considered a strategic point and there has not been much dispute over it. But the tri-junction point of Lipulekh, which has been used since ancient times for trade between Nepal, India and Tibet, is considered crucial for the realisation of Nepal’s old dream of developing itself into a vibrant ‘economic bridge’ between India and China.
This is why there was a lot of hand-wringing in Nepal, when in 2015 India and China signed a bilateral agreement to increase trade through Lipulekh, without consulting Nepal.
This bilateral agreement came at a time when India and China enjoyed relatively good relations. But now, with India-China relations taking a hit following the Doklam incident, there is another kind of fear in Nepal. It is thus said that Nepal suffers both when India and China come close as well as when they drift apart.
Following the nearly five months of blockade on the Nepal-India border in 2015-16, Nepalis have become highly suspicious of the intent of the Indian establishment. Relations between the two countries are coming back to an even keel after the appointment of Manjeev Singh Puri as the new Indian envoy to Kathmandu, but it will be a long time before the suspicions generated by the blockade are completely removed.
This is why many in Nepal fault India for the current standoff over Doklam.
“We have to see the Doklam incident as indicative of the tendency of big countries to unnecessarily intervene in the affairs of small countries,” said Gopal Khanal, who was the foreign policy advisor of ex-prime minister K.P. Sharma Oli. “Basically, India is yet to give up the ‘Nehruvian mindset’ whereby it sees the whole of South Asia as coming under its sphere of influence and does not brook the presence of any other actor here.”
With China also looking to spread its influence in South Asia, and given India’s anxieties over China’s activism, the two countries are bound to clash sometimes, Khanal told The Wire.
But even as he blames India for the dispute, Khanal said it would be dangerous for Nepal to take sides. “What the Nepali government should do is tell both India and China to resolve Doklam diplomatically, and in line with the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890,” Khanal said.
Khanal sees the intervention of Indian troops in Doklam as “dangerous” since it is a “purely bilateral issue between Bhutan and China”.
Hari Bansh Jha, a Madhesi intellectual and executive director of the Centre for Economic and Technical Studies in Kathmandu, has a slightly different view. Since Nepal’s trilateral junctions with India and China are still ill- defined, “all three countries must sit together and quickly settle the tri-junction disputes in both east and west of Nepal,” he told The Wire.
Unlike Khanal, Jha sees China rather than India as the main aggressor in Doklam. But like Khanal, Jha too believes Nepal should maintain strict neutrality and not be swayed by either side to the dispute.
Security and strategic affairs expert Geja Sharma Wagle also blames China for failing to understand Indian sensitivities over the Chumbi valley. “In its single-minded pursuit of infrastructure building, China seems to have either forgotten or ignored the impact of such activities in India’s sensitive chicken neck Siliguri corridor,” he told The Wire.
Wagle made another important point: “We should also not forget 65,000 Nepalis serving in India’s military and para-military forces. They will be on the frontline in case of a war between India and China.”
The presence of such a large number of its citizens in Indian security forces certainly complicates things for Nepal, muddling its preferred policy of maintaining ‘equidistance‘ between its two giants neighbours.
Wagle is of the view that the standoff over Doklam is an “extremely serious issue” for regional security in South Asia. But the government and security agencies in Nepal have failed to grasp the gravity of the matter, he added, especially as Nepal too has potential flash points for conflict between India and China.
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Irrespective of who is technically at fault in Doklam, there is this natural sympathy for Bhutan here in Nepal. It is widely believed that India wants to keep Bhutan under its thumb and that there is great pressure on Thimpu not to get close to Beijing. In this reading, even if the Chinese are at fault in Doklam, China was left with no option but to pursue hard options when it was denied a straightforward attempt to establish diplomatic relations with China.
Others see a double-standard in India’s current stand in Doklam. As renowned expert of Nepal’s borders Buddhi Narayan Shrestha pointed out recently, if the Indian contention in Doklam is that China is building roads in its ‘no-man’s land’ with Bhutan, then India too should refrain from building on no-man’s land in its border areas with Nepal. For instance, India has built a road on the no-man’s land on the stretch of Nepal-India border between Mane Bhanjyang and Pashupati Nagar in Nepal’s Ilam district.
Moreover, it is not just at the tri-junctions that Nepal has border disputes with India. In the case of China, most of its border disputes with Nepal were settled during the reign of King Mahendra back in the 1960s. Nepal thus has no significant border disputes with China right now. But it is a different story with India.
India has been occupying around 300 square kilometres of disputed land in Kalapani in Western Nepal. Indian troops had opened a camp in Kalapani after the 1962 war with China, as it was considered strategically important to check future Chinese incursions into India. The camp is still in existence, even though Nepal claims that Kalapani falls firmly within its Darchula district.
Another disputed area is Susta in Eastern Nepal. Nepal accuses India of encroaching up to 14,500 hectares of land there. There are many such unresolved border disputes between Nepal and India. With India seen as reluctant to resolve these disputes, they have been a perennial irritant in Nepal-India relations.
All the security and foreign policy experts that The Wire spoke to, were of the opinion that the time had come to push for the final settlement of disputes over the two tri-lateral points between Nepal, India and China. This is considered vital if Nepal is to avoid a Doklam-like situation.
Likewise, bilateral disputes over Kalapani and Susta also need to be resolved at the earliest, so that these enduring sources of anti-India sentiments in Nepal are also removed. As the bigger country, China in the 1960s took the initiative to settle its border with Nepal, even with concessions in some disputed regions. Similarly, today, it is in India’s interest to take the lead in final settlement of its borders with Nepal.
Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist. He tweets @biswasktm.