Next Door Nepal: Non-alignment in Kathmandu

If it continues, India-China stand-off could test Nepal’s equal-distance policy

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire | Published:July 17, 2017 12:47 am
doklam stand-off, india china standoff, indo -nepal relations, nepal-china relations,  Nepal’s equal-distance policy, indo-china war, 1962 war In 1962, when India and China fought a war, Nepal had far less stakes.

The recent stand-off between India and China over Doklam has fueled speculation in Nepal, mainly over the impact it may have on the country should it escalate into an unanticipated war. After all, the stand-off involves two countries that Nepal, in principle, wants to maintain relations of equal distance or proximity. Officially, India has congratulated Nepal for sincerely pursuing “balanced” relations with its neighbours. In fact, that is how India remembered Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal when he quit as prime minister in June after holding office for about 10 months.

The prolonged transition process and the visible loss of authority of the state at home and abroad has drastically reduced Kathmandu’s influence, owing to its geo-strategic location, in the neighbourhood. Neither side in the current stand-off seems to have contacted Nepal, officially and explained the issues behind it.

It wasn’t always so. Indira Gandhi had profusely thanked Kirtinidhi Bista, the then-prime minister of Nepal, for sharing his assessment, in response to a query, that as far as he understood, China may not want to get involved in the event of the Indian army joining the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. L.P. Singh, a renowned bureaucrat, had thanked him on behalf of Mrs Gandhi after Bangladesh’s liberation was secured without China objecting to Indian military activities then, Bista, now 89, and ailing, states in a write-up.

In 1962, when India and China fought a war, Nepal had far less stakes. “We were fearful that China may raise the issue of Gorkha deployment in the war but to save us from diplomatic embarrassment, China did not,” says a senior diplomat who then held a key position in the government. Despite being a neighbour, China, for all practical purposes, was then a distant land for Nepal. However, China’s South Asia policy has undergone a sea change over the years: It now seeks to neutralise and challenge Indian presence. Nepal has already signed trade and transit agreements with China besides preparing for multiple road projects and railway lines connecting the two countries.

Nepal’s growing connectivity with China is largely in rebound to India’s economic blockade of 2015, and the unpopularity it earned for brazenly interfering in Nepal’s internal politics during the Maoist insurgency and after. China seems to have taken note of it in the current stand-off. “India controls Bhutan’s defence and diplomacy, seriously violating Bhutan’s sovereignty and national interests. Indians have migrated in large number to Nepal and Bhutan, interfering with Nepal’s internal affairs. The first challenge for Nepal and Bhutan is to avoid becoming a state of India, like Sikkim,” a prescriptive opinion piece by Xiangchun, published on July 9, in the Global Times, said.

This comes as a setback for Nepali leaders, especially those at the helm of affairs now, who have been asserting that with India-China trade crossing the billion dollar mark, Nepal will benefit from its proximity to two giant economies. Both India and China, through their ambassadors in Kathmandu, were regularly in touch to formulate a common “position” on Nepal to ensure an early end to the transition and political stability. That initiative may suffer if the current stand-off is not settled amicably, or it escalates further.

The immediate task for Nepal is to set its house in order. Conciliatory measures need to be taken to bring all sides as stakeholders in the Constitution even if that will need drastic changes in the document. Damannath Dhungana, civil society leader, peace negotiator and a former speaker of Parliament, recently raised a pertinent question in a public debate. “A sovereign people constitutes a republic, but did Nepal adopt a due process to get there?” he asked. The republic involves popular sovereignty and it can’t be dictated by a handful of leaders, as it happened in Nepal. Many actors now also realise that a political and power vacuum at the top, when there is a conflict in the neighbourhood, will reduce Nepal to a playground of the forces in conflict and their allies. That will not be in the interest of India or China, not to speak of Nepal.

Throughout the peace and transition process that has run in parallel since 2005, China asserted that its interest in Nepal is as high as any other country. But Beijing has constantly conveyed in public and through diplomatic channels that China will do everything to protect Nepal’s “independence and sovereignty”, giving a clear message that the “politics of Nepal has to remain in its sovereign domain”. And as India seems to realise gradually that its policy and conduct in Nepal during the past decade needs a review — the U-turn on its Tarai policy is an indication — it may at least encourage Nepali actors to settle the contentious issues by going to the people wherever necessary.

A stronger and stable Nepal will be able to stop its territory from being used by outside forces inimical to its immediate neighbours and maintain meaningful neutrality like it did in 1962.

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  1. K
    Jul 19, 2017 at 4:38 pm
    Chinese incursion of Nepal is evident and not a far sight after it allienates India. Just like Chinese did with Tibet, Taiwan, Siachin northern regions of pok. This will be beginning of end of Hinduism from the world.
    1. R
      Jul 19, 2017 at 1:04 pm
      A vast majority of Nepalese regarded India as its closest ally and elder brother. Sadly post 2015 Nepal blockade for nearly 6 months which directly affected the entire nation (more than the disastrous earthquake in Nepal). Post that incident, India is the last thing Nepalese trust. Shame Indian bureuocracy failed big time.
      1. C
        Jul 18, 2017 at 1:34 pm
        India's delusionary perception of being an Asian super power is indeed laughable. Inherently, Nepalese are faithful to death. But once betrayed, they never forgive. This is the hallmark of the Gurkha. The only reason why we British love and trust them.
        1. R
          Jul 19, 2017 at 1:13 pm
          Its an honest, brutal and noteworthy observation. After punishing Nepal and its entire citizen with painful border blockade for 6 months depreiving children, hospital, school without any food, milk products, daily essential, medicine etc (that too right after the devastating earthquake which affected 8millions Nepalese), who is going to trust bully India now? TRUST is the last thing Nepalese have in their mind - for once their closest ally India.
        2. P
          Pork Kabab
          Jul 18, 2017 at 3:46 am
          Time has come for Modi to act tough on Nepal. It cannot have equal distance with China and India and then enjoying every facility that an Indian in India enjoys.
          1. R
            Jul 18, 2017 at 10:20 pm
            its not a one way, even indian enjoy lot of facility in nepal. e kathmandu and travel main business district and you will be shock to see how comfortablly indian (marwari mostly) are doing business and thats not the concern for us cause ..historically plus social and cultural dimension and language proximty makes india and nepal relation unseperable..taling about china we are one of the few neighbout of china who dont have much border issue and maintain cordial relationship...
          2. K
            Kamal Pasha
            Jul 18, 2017 at 1:06 am
            Modi's India is in complete mess because they never agree with the honest opinions of media.
            1. B
              Bihari Krishna
              Jul 17, 2017 at 11:51 pm
              Much of what Nepal is going through at present, figuratively called protracted transition, is basically of Indian doing: her interference leading to the end of the Panchayat system, dumping Bhutanese refugees in third country, Nepal, and refusing to help solve it even after more than a quarter century, hosting the self-styled Nepali Maoists who went on to slaughter 18,000 plus fellow Nepalese operating from their base in Noida, using those Maoists to end monarchy in Nepal, fomenting Madhesi problem by using the first generation Indian immigrant, self-declared Bharatbadi opportunist Madhesis, failing to welcome Nepal's new cons ution, clamping prolonged blockade against landlocked and earthquake-devastated Nepal and so on and so forth. By any definition, India remains the "evil empire" in the midst of South Asia that has also managed to keep most of its own people "impoverished and dispossessed" even after 70 years of independence. India does need to learn a lesson or two from China.
              1. S
                Jul 17, 2017 at 11:38 pm
                Once India foolishly played a good guy in Tibet and allowed Tibet to be captured by China little understanding that Tibet was like the palm and surrounding states were like fingers attached to the palm. Having firmly established themselves in Tibet they are now they are now trying to draw these fingers in to close it into a fist. It would have been a great strategic B er on the part of India not to respond to China's activities on Bhutan's land.It has been seriously impaired in Himalayan region by the capture of Tibet by China. It can not play a good boy in Bhutan who have remained a loyal friend all throughout unlike Nepalese Kings. We consider people of Nepal as our brothers. But if Nepal think that they are better off with China we should convey our best wishes to Nepal.
                1. K
                  Kumar Regmi
                  Jul 17, 2017 at 11:06 pm
                  India quickly needs to thoroughly review its Nepal policy if it wants to remain a relevant close friend. Otherwise, China soon will take its place.
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