Chinese Takeaway: Sushma in Nepal

The NDA government’s real challenge in Nepal, however, is not China.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published:July 25, 2014 12:00 am
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (Source: PTI photo) External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (Source: PTI photo)

When External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj arrives in Kathmandu this week to review the state of bilateral cooperation and prepare for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal, China is bound to loom large. For Beijing’s profile Nepal has steadily risen in the last few years and has generated concerns in the Indian security establishment. As elsewhere on its borders, China is rapidly expanding its trans-frontier influence in Nepal.

It is upgrading the Araniko highway from the Tibet border to Kathmandu, built in the 1960s. It also has plans to extend the Tibet railway line to the Nepal border. China’s trade and investment ties with Nepal as well as development assistance have steadily risen in recent years, as Beijing’s economic influence radiates across the border. Chinese tourist arrivals in Nepal have grown at an average of nearly 25 per cent a year over the last few years. Beijing’s cultural presence has significantly expanded with the setting up a number of China Study Centres in Nepal, including in the Terai region, which shares a long border with India.

RIVALS & FRIENDS

China’s presence in Nepal has long been viewed as a “zero-sum-game” in New Delhi. If the security establishment in Delhi sees Nepal as part of an exclusive Indian sphere of influence, Beijing has affirmed the right, as the large northern neighbour, for a substantive engagement south of the Himalayas.

Given this structural tension in the approaches of Delhi and Beijing, China has been a useful card to play against India for some in Nepal’s elite. They have insisted on some kind of “non-alignment” between Nepal’s giant neighbours, much to the irritation of Delhi. This game has become somewhat complicated as economic relations between China and India have improved, despite their other political problems, including the boundary dispute.

China views many of its transport projects in Nepal as a means to access the large markets in the Gangetic plains. In the last few years, there have been repeated hints from Chinese think-tanks on the need for Delhi-Beijing economic cooperation in Nepal. Beijing has now formally suggested the idea of China and India developing a Trans-Himalayan zone of cooperation. It is one of a piece with the Silk Road strategy that Chinese President Xi Jinping has made his own.

Although there are many sceptics in Delhi who are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of economic cooperation with China across the land frontiers, there are signs of a shift within the foreign policy establishment. For example, Delhi was until recently cold to Chinese proposals on developing the so-called BCIM corridor, which would link Beijing’s Yunnan province with Myanmar, Bangladesh and eastern India. Delhi now appears more open to the idea of regional economic cooperation with China, which in turn sets a very different framework for Delhi’s engagement with Kathmandu.

INDIA’S IMAGE

The NDA government’s real challenge in Nepal, however, is not China. It is the tragic failure of Delhi’s own engagement with Kathmandu. Despite geographic proximity, cultural intimacy, economic interdependence and shared political values, India has stumbled in Nepal.
Consider, for example, two popular current images of India in Nepal in relation to China. One is the deep dismay at the pathetic state of infrastructure on the Indian side of the border, which stands in contrast to the shining new roads and bridges on the Chinese side. If Swaraj finds time to visit the Nepal border, she will understand why so many Nepalese crossing the frontier see India as belonging to the “Fourth World” rather than as a rising power.

India can improve its Nepal engagement by simply helping itself through the development of frontier regions in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, modernising border infrastructure and upgrading transborder connectivity. India’s image in Nepal has also been bruised by the growing perception in Nepal that “India promises, China delivers”. India’s record of project implementation in Nepal is awful. Swaraj might want to see a summary of promises made to Kathmandu and kept in the last few decades before she arrives in Nepal. While there are many problems on the Nepal side, Swaraj must convince her interlocutors that the Modi government will remove all the obstacles from the Indian side for the timely implementation of projects.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express.

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  1. B
    B.D.SINGH
    Jul 25, 2014 at 9:38 am
    As the saying goes 'it is economy stupid'. Now a days relations between countries are decided by economy. The countries like Nepal decide the relations on the basis of economic advantage he gets from other country. It depends upon strength and depth of economy how other countries will treat us vis a vis other countries. Till our economy grows and becomes powerful, this country can not be powerful and can not command respect. See example of China, now it is commanding respect in Nepal on the strength of economy where as there is seldom a family in Nepal not having family relation or service interest in India even then we are afaraid of Chinese influence in Nepal. So economic strength is the deciding factor in international matters.
    Reply
    1. G
      Gautam
      Jul 25, 2014 at 12:04 pm
      In my undiplomatic opinion, the relationship between India and Nepal are like brothers. Of course, one is too big and other, a small one. The relationship between China and Nepal are like friends. Here too, one is too big and other, a small one. The best thing India and China can do to Nepal is that Nepal learn, earn and stand on its own feet and live happily with the big brother in the South and the big friend in the North.
      Reply