The Nepal-China agreements on trade, economy, connectivity and security signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit last week could mark the beginning of the end of Nepal being in India’s ‘sphere of influence’. If that happens, the strategic shock waves will be felt beyond Nepal’s borders.
The Himalayan mountains have historically been a barrier between Nepal and China, but railways, roads and tunnels are about to change that. In the battle between geography and technology, Nepal will fall into the Chinese embrace if technology wins. If geography remains a factor however, India can continue to wield political, strategic and geopolitical influence on Nepal. The idea of political geography will come into play around the trilateral relations between China, India and Nepal.
Xi’s trip to Kathmandu immediately after his informal summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was geo-strategically nuanced. It showed the confidence China exudes over South Asia vis-à-vis India, and the difference in national comprehensive power between the two strategic rivals says it all: China is far more powerful than India.
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Nepal has to make a choice, and it seems to have made it. Upgrading Nepal-China bilateral relations from a ‘comprehensive partnership’ to a ‘strategic partnership’ was a masterstroke of Chinese diplomacy. If Nepal has drifted toward China or is increasingly doing so, India’s own Nepal policy is to blame.
The top priority of small countries is always security and survival. Their foreign policy behaviour is a response to the possible threat from a bigger neighbour. The fears do not necessarily have to be real, they could be perceived. In geopolitics, perception and speculation determine a state’s response to the geopolitical environment. When small states are cornered, they take risks that have implications for relations with other countries, especially bigger neighbours.
The 18 agreements and two letters of exchange China and Nepal inked in Kathmandu last weekend are ambitious and challenging. The timing was also interesting: right after Xi’s India trip and when China-India ties are strained over the Kashmir issue. China’s message to India is that the traditional concept of ‘spheres of influence’ is losing its relevance in geopolitics. And that Nepal cannot be construed a permanent ‘strategic backyard’ of India — it has to belong to whoever wins the power game.
The China and Nepal developments are a pointer to what is going to happen in South Asian geopolitics as China continues to rise and India pushes back its inroads into the region. These are not only signposts, there are lessons here. India will have to learn why it is detrimental to its own interest to push a smaller neighbour too much. Similarly, Nepal should ponder whether it is wise to move too far away from India without preparation.
An Indian scholar once said to this commentator about Nepal: “If India has learnt one thing, it is not to interfere.” A Nepali scholar said: “Post 2015, Nepal has learnt the danger of depending on one neighbour too much”. It is important to strike a balance to ensure a working China-Nepal-India relationship. This will determine the geopolitical environment of the Himalayan sphere in years to come.
For India, the Nepal-China deal is evidence of the changing strategic and geopolitical architecture of its neighborhood. If China-India-Nepal relations are not managed properly, the ramifications will spill beyond their borders. The interests of political giants do not just diverge, they also converge in places, countries and ideas that matter to their national, regional and global ambitions.
We cannot discount the interest of other powers, the United States for instance, in the Himalayan dynamic. With Nepal being a candidate for the Indo-Pacific strategy, Washington’s reaction to the new developments will be worth following. Nepal, for its part, should not forget that when its political market is open to too many players, it could lose control.
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When push comes to shove, Nepal will have to decide based on its own national interest. ‘Nations do not have permanent friends and foes, but only permanent interests’ is still relevant in inter-state relations, especially for smaller countries like Nepal.
Nepal’s domestic politics is key to its response to Sino-Indian overtures, and it will have huge implications for the implementation of the deals struck with China. And the way Nepal puts its own house in order and manages its domestic political issues will determine India’s response to the China-Nepal deal. An indifferent or no reaction from New Delhi to China-Nepal bilateral developments do not mean it is not interested. It is in ‘wait and see’ mode, and any unmanageable domestic political fissure in Nepal can wreck the China-Nepal deal.
The growing Chinese footprint in Nepal is proof that Beijing is already the chief player in South Asian geopolitics. Its Belt and Road Initiative is gaining momentum in Nepal and the region despite India’s resistance and non-membership in it. But the future of the recent China-Nepal agreements will depend on Nepal’s foreign policy dexterity and to some extent, on the character of Sino-Indian relations henceforth.
China has become a reality in South Asia. Ignoring that fact would be a mistake.
Passang Dorji, PhD, is a member of Bhutan’s Parliament, and a scholar on Bhutan and Nepal relations with China and India. The views in this article are his own.