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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sino-Indian rivalry plays out in Nepal

For long Nepal has been dependent on India both politically and economically while maintainig stable relationship with China. The emerging realities of increasing Sino-Indian rivalry are making the balancing act of Nepal harder as the time passes.

While mocking the severe dependency of Nepal, particularly the politicians, to India and the Indian establishment, it is often joked that if it rains in Delhi, they open umbrella in Kathmandu.
While people keep debating whether particular government in Kathmandu is pro- or anti-Indian, the relationship between the two very dissimilar neighbors in South Asia remains highly complex and quite often veers towards trouble.
Nepal’s geographical proximity to India apart, the ‘dependency’ factor has become historic as the latest uninterrupted period of such relationship exists for almost two centuries by now. It was in the fateful Sugauli Treaty of 1815 that Nepal was forced to cede almost one third of its territory in the east, west and the south to the British India thereby also ensuring that the British would not encroach further north.
Ever since, regardless of the nature of regime in Kathmandu and the ups and downs in the formal political relations, the social and economic realities of the Indo-Nepal relationship have remained largely unchanged, with the low-productivity subsistence economy of Nepal being dependent on the industrializing Indian economy. After the Indian independence, the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950 was signed, which galvanized the relationship between Nepal and independent India.
Even though the calls for amending or even scrapping the 1950 treaty are ccommon and occasionally become very loud in Nepal, the persistent economic dependence on India as a result of chronically under-performing economy and lack of clarity about alternative of that treaty has ensured that the treaty endures even though it can be scrapped unilaterally with a year’s time.

Interestingly, the time of the latter treaty between Nepal and India almost coincided with the invasion of Tibet by the newly born People’s Republic of China led by Mao Zedong. In the context of new found determination of the Chinese to reassert themselves after the triumph of communist revolution, it became necessary for India to maintain and even strengthen the existing relationship with Nepal.
Even now many analysts in India regret the act of their then government which condoned the Chinese act of transgression eventually loosing the important buffer zone between the two Asian giants to China.
With eventual peaceful takeover of Sikkim in 1975, however, and the whole-spectrum dominance that India enjoys in another buffer country Bhutan, some of the scores of loosing Tibet to China were settled, many others argue.
By any means, the only effective and strategically important buffer zone between the two rising Asian powers is now Nepal with its whole length separating the northern provinces of India from the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. With increasing economic and military clout of both the powers, the stakes for both in maintaining influence in Nepal have risen significantly.
The increasing importance attached by both the countries to the relationship with Nepal is shown by the fact that both of the new envoys sent to Nepal by India and China recently are senior most till date.
Even as successive governments in Kathmandu keep reassuring the Chinese side about Nepal’s firm commitment to ‘One China Policy’ and the Chinese keep praising that commitment, the real and overwhelming concern of the Chinese is somewhat different.
There is no denying the facts that there is steady traffic of Tibetans fleeing to India through Nepal and that there is a significant Tibetan refugee population inside Nepal. Given China’s determination to project Tibet as a part of Chinese economic miracle and not the socio-culturally exploited periphery, this flow of refugees through Nepal has become very sensitive issue between Nepal and China while dragging other countries into spotlight occasionally.
The other important issue for the Chinese has been, particularly in the recent past, to ensure that the government in Kathmandu should not be so pro-Indian as to threaten the Chinese interests in Nepal.
On the other hand, the core interests of India in Nepal go even further. Even though Nepal, small and landlocked as it is, has historically been dependent on India economically, the cost of having a regime in Kathmandu overtly hostile to India serves worst the Indian interests in Nepal. Unlike Bhutan where India has become hugely successful in harvesting the hydropower in addition to establishing itself as a trusted big brother in all strategic matters, similar attempts in Nepal have brought patchy success at best.
The lingering border disputes and the perception in Nepal that India is exploiting Nepal for its weakness and systemically encroaching the Nepali land has all along generated a strong anti-India sentiment in Nepal. It is to take advantage of this sentiment that the politicians in Nepal have time and again resorted to anti-India rhetoric even though there is little prospect of meaningfully confronting India in any front.
On the other side, the Indian elites are not at all enthused by the fact that the leftists and apparently pro-China parties have been constantly gaining ground in kathmandu pushing the traditionally India-friendly parties like Nepali Congress to the corner. And they repeatedly show this displeasure through anti-Nepal rhtoric in India where many draw a parallel between the rise of Maoist insurgency and eventual ascent to power of the Maoist party in Nepal and steadily growing Naxalite insurgency in many Indian states.
Above all this, around 800 km long open border between the two countries means that any strife or instability in Nepal obviously tends to spill over to the northern part of India. Moreover, given the eternal hostility between India and Pakistan the issue of Pakistan-based terror-groups using the Nepali land and open border to attack Indian targets has been a constant source of attention and apprehension for India. It is in best interest of India to have a compliant or at least cooperative regime in Kathmandu.
In wider geopolitical context also, the overarching concerns of both the neighbors intersect in Nepal. With increasing warmth in the Indo-US relations and the worsening stand-off with the East Asian countries in the South China Sea, the matters are only worsening for China with the latest news of Indo-Vietnam deal to jointly explore for oil in the waters that China says are ‘contested’. Further collaboration between or among other Asian countries that share the apprehension about China’s rise can create further trouble. In this context, it only makes sense for China to strengthen relationship with Nepal which despite its tiny size, forms an important buffer with India.
All this said, the act of balancing the interests of the south and the north has been a very delicate task for the government in Kathmandu. When the acts of deporting back the Tibetan refugees on China’s pressure anger the western benefactors like US, the matters get further complicated.
While the two Asian powers are involved in active exchange of gestures and even threats with each other in ‘hot’ issues like the Sino-Indian border dispute or the Indian deal with Vietnam, a silent but crucial diplomatic game goes on Kathmandu. With Chinese ambassador to Nepal Houlan recently blasting the “international forces” for instigating the Tibetan movement to contain China’s rise, it takes little for these issues to come in the front.
In this backdrop, the imminent trip of Nepal’s PM Dr. Baburam Bhattarai to India starting October 20 will see increased attempt of the Indian side to reassert itself in Nepal. And when he goes to China at some future date, the Chinese side will try to strike the balance. This is how the diplomacy has been proceeding for long but with increasing mercury of the diplomatic tensions between the two giant neighbors because of a host of issues ranging from border disputes to increasing Indo-US and Sino-Pakistan proximity to increasingly hot dispute in the South China Sea, striking a balance could be increasingly hard for Nepal.
And so long as Nepal remains mired in dismal economic performance and politics starting and ending at demagoguery, thereby perpetuating its endless dependence on India, little will be Nepal’s ability to choose what policy vis-à-vis each of the neighbor best suits its interest. As of now Nepal is focused at just at not offending or annoying any of the neighbors, oblivious to the greater geostrategic rivalries and games.

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