Lumbini and China
There was an invigorating line in President Xi’s banquet speech delivered at the Shital Niwas the presidential palace in October 2019: he confided that among the countries of South Asia, it was Nepal that the people of China wanted to visit the most. It is the inefficiency of Nepal’s tourism sector that the President Xi’s quote has not been used to promote Nepal, which could provide an important post-Covid tourism boost even today.
Despite problems with tourism planning, it had become clear, long before Covid set in, that tourists from Mainland China will be a mainstay of the Nepali economy. Before the Covid closures, Kathmandu, Pokhara and Lumbini had already emerged as major destinations for Chinese travellers, the only challenge being to attract clientele from a higher economic bracket. Before Covid, Kathmandu was already better connected by air to half a dozen Chinese cities, whereas most flights to India tend to be Kathmandu-Delhi shuttles.
Of the six sites linked to major events in the life of Sakyamuni, all are within present-day India other than his nativity place Lumbini and nearby hometown of Kapilvastu. This itself has enhanced Nepal’s draw for the Chinese, and the opening this year of the international airports at Bhairahawa and Pokhara is bound to lead to a spurt of inbound flights.
It looks like Lumbini/Kapilvastu will be a long-time draw because the Chinese state is keen on promoting Buddhism as a homegrown faith amongst its growing middle class. The challenge for Nepali authorities, including the Lumbini Development Trust as administrators, will be to protect the spiritual, cultural and archaeological sanctity of the Kapilvastu region even as the footfalls shoot up from lakhs to crores in coming years.
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China’s unprecedented assertiveness along the Himalayan frontier has New Delhi flummoxed and frozen in inaction. From lethal hand-to-hand skirmishes in Ladakh to upturning long-held demarcations along the Line of Actual Control, to rapidly building airbases and other military infrastructure in Tibet, Beijing is progressing with its plans undeterred.
India has been nervous about the Himalayan region as a whole, not just its own frontiers with Tibet/China, since it was defeated in the brief war of 1962. China’s present-day hyperactivity along the frontier with India makes New Delhi additionally concerned about Beijing’s plans vis-à-vis Nepal, which in turn constricts Kathmandu’s geopolitical elbow room between the two Asian giants.
Given the escalated acrimony between New Delhi and Beijing, it is incongruous that back in 2015 the two governments signed an agreement on the high pass of Lipu Lek, to allow passage for Kailash-Manasarovar pilgrims coming up from Uttarakhand. The Limpiyadhura area of which Lipu Lek is part is claimed by Kathmandu, and here too Beijing can be faulted for not practicing due diligence.
The train of events on Limpiyadhura which includes the bilateral India-China agreement, India’s unilateral building of a road up to the pass, and Nepal’s amendment of the Constitution to include the pointy Limpiyadhura finger in official maps, has now delivered a trilateral challenge requiring sagacity on all sides.
The Indo-Chinese agreement on Lipu Lek is one indication of the Chinese strategists eyeing the great Indian market – it will be pilgrims coming up for now, but goods and services going down before long. In that context, Kathmandu observers make the mistake of believing that China’s interest in building expensive infrastructure to Nepal – roads, railways, aviation and communications within the framework of the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network – is meant as a bilateral link.
Clearly, for the amount of money required to build the transport infrastructure, the mercantilist communists of Beijing have an eye on the massive market of India’s Gangetic plain and beyond, which can be supplied through railroads and highways breaching the Himalayan ridgeline – the most convenient being the Kimathanka Corridor in east Nepal along the Arun River gorge. Despite current worries about the Chinese, India’s long-term strategy would have goods, services and people move both ways. In the evolving world of trans-Himalayan connectivity, Nepal’s challenge is to benefit more than merely from transit duties.
Even as India-China relations become tense, diplomatically Nepal should resist the temptation of playing one side against the other. The relationship with Beijing and New Delhi have to be consciously delinked, and each and every bilateral issue has to be considered on the merits – with the neighbours made confident that Kathmandu will not play dirty. At the same time, given the presently fraught relationship between the two Asian giants, Nepal needs a third leg to its diplomatic stool, and that is the West. Hence, also, the importance of the MCC bill’s successful passage.
When Nepal is politically stable internally as a vibrant democracy, it will be better able to withstand, demand and expect non-interference from its two land neighbours. With the respectability and neutrality it will command at that point, Kathmandu may actually be able to play a role in helping bridge the distance between Beijing and New Delhi.
Read also: The India-Nepal-China geopolitical tri-junction, Kunda Dixit