While China doesn’t want to directly challenge India in Nepal, it will not let a crisis in Nepal go to waste
Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli returned home after a six-day state visit to India that he described as “completely successful.” Oli said his visit helped clear misunderstandings and improve bilateral relations that had been strained after the promulgation of a new constitution in Nepal on September 20, 2015.
The Nepali prime minister, who has traditionally had close contacts not just with Indian establishment figures but also with the Indian foreign ministry bureaucrats overseeing Nepal desk was clearly on a mission to remind the Indian side of his fealty. He probably realises that his tenure as prime minister will be short-lived without the backing of India, traditionally the predominant power in Nepal.
This is not an erroneous reading. The only Nepali prime minister in the contemporary history of Nepal who openly dared to go against India – the chief of the main Maoist party in Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal – had to resign after just nine months in office. The army chief he had fired for insubordination had been restored, with India’s direct assistance. The only way Dahal could save face was by quitting.
This is why the recent Indian embargo on Nepal was misplaced. But wait, wasn’t it the Madhesi parties of the Terai plains abutting India who had actually imposed the embargo? Perhaps it is enough to point out that the restrictions on movements of goods from India into Nepal started on September 20, 2015, the day of promulgation of new constitution. The Madhes-based parties started blockading border points only on September 24.
The “mysteriously” imposed blockade was lifted as “mysteriously.” Goods from the blocked Raxaul-Birjung border started to flow in from February 3, 2016. Stunned by India’s unilateral decision to open the border, the alliance of Madhesi parties then decided to officially lift the embargo on February 8, 2016.
Clearly, India had a different set of expectations from the three big parties – Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and UCPN (Maoist) that were responsible for bringing the new constitution – to the expectations of the Madhesi parties that had been protesting in the Terai plains against the new constitution.
So what was the real reason for the embargo? And why was it lifted?
There were many reasons why it was imposed. The most obvious one is again that India wanted to secure the rights of the Madhesi people (who have close ties with people across the border in India) in the new constitution. The Indian establishment didn’t think that the constitution that came out on September 20, 2015 — whose promulgation India merely “noted” even as the rest of the world readily welcomed it—was in the interest of the Madhesi community.
The old game
However, could it be that India’s displeasure concerned its geopolitical rival in Nepal, China?
In the lead up to September 20, a number of high-level Chinese officials had visited Kathmandu. Likewise, many top leaders from Nepal – most notably Dahal – had visited China. This made India suspicious. This suspicion of growing proximity between Kathmandu and Beijing was vindicated, in India’s reckoning, when the three big political parties decided to promulgate the new constitution without notifying India.
In the thinking of some on the Indian side, Nepali leaders would not have acted so boldly without China’s backing. The major party leaders, too, started boasting that they had overcome great odds to bring the constitution, in a not-so-subtle rebuke to India.
But New Delhi’s reaction to the perceived proximity between Kathmandu and Beijing was misplaced. Nepal-China relations, even in the best of times, cannot match the extensive ties that exist between Nepal and India, not just between the two governments but also between the two sets of peoples. And you only need to look at the geopolitical map of Nepal – with all of the Nepali territories completely submerged in the Indian landmass with only its northern border abutting Tibet – to realise that Nepal has no option but to be on good terms with India.
This is also what the Chinese have been telling Nepali leaders, according to this author’s private conversations with top government officials in Nepal. China is India’s biggest trade partner. China does not want to jeopardize its beneficial relations with India over Nepal.
Yes, the Chinese were concerned about the new constitution. Specifically, they didn’t want the creation of new provinces in Nepal on purely ethnic or identity basis, which they feared would have direct consequences in the neighbouring Tibet. That was the limit of their concern. The Chinese wanted a firm assurance – even though the interim constitution of Nepal had clearly said that the future federal provinces would be demarcated on the basis of both ‘identity’ as well as ‘financial viability’. But that was it for the Chinese.
Ironically, the Indian embargo has made China reconsider its priorities in Nepal. According to government officials in Kathmandu, for the first time the Chinese have categorically told Nepali leaders that if India continues to inflict hardship on Nepal, China is ready to come to Nepal’s rescue – provided Nepali leaders come up with clear, long-term partnership plans with China. This makes sense. While China doesn’t want to directly challenge India in Nepal, it will not let a crisis in Nepal go to waste. It can easily increase its presence in Nepal on the pretext of helping a small and helpless neighbor with no one else to turn to.
That said, India’s concern over the place of the Madhesi people in the new constitution is understandable; so are some of its strategic concerns. But given the enormous leverage New Delhi has in Kathmandu, these agendas are best pursued behind the scenes. The recent history of Nepal is a testament to the fact that if India wants something in Nepal, it usually gets its way, and through far less coercive means.
If India wants to maintain its preeminent role in Nepal in the long run, it must learn to treat Nepal as a sovereign country that is capable of dealing with its own problems. Otherwise, the Chinese rail is set to come up to Nepal’s border by 2022. All the nine road links between Nepal and Tibet are now being upgraded following the Indian embargo. The prospect of regular trade between Nepal and China through the Tibetan plateau is no longer fanciful.
The choice is for India’s to make. The Nepali political establishment understands that in the long run economics triumphs. It will always cost Nepal less to import goods from the plains of India than having them transported through the rugged terrain of Tibet. But the recent surge in anti-India sentiments in Nepal also means that most Nepalis won’t mind paying a little more if it means they will no longer have to rely on the whims and fancies of Indian leaders for their bread and butter.
The feeling in Kathmandu is that though late, there has been a realisation in New Delhi that the embargo was counterproductive. This is why India quickly capitalised on the face-saver offered by Kathmandu: the amendment of the constitution to accommodate some demands of the agitating Madheshi parties.
But after five months of unmitigated hardship, the pressure from ordinary Nepalis on their politicians to ‘diversify’ Nepal away from India has never been higher.
Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist who writes on Nepal’s foreign policy