The resurfacing of the dispute while all three countries face serious economic impact from the global pandemic is the latest reminder of Nepal’s precarious balancing act between its southern and northern neighbours.
“Nepal condemned India’s unilateral action, but what we have to remember is that India would not have dared build the road through the dispute region without Chinese acquiescence,” said a Nepali geopolitical analyst. “This was a bilateral action by China and India.”
The rare outpouring of anti-Chinese rhetoric in Nepal’s public sphere had as much to do with widely shared videos of scuffles between police and Chinese protesters in Kathmandu on Friday as with the realisation that Indian occupation of Nepali territory could not have happened without a green light from Beijing.
India and China agreed even as far back as 1954 to allow Indian Mansarovar-Kailash pilgrims to use the Lipu Lekh Pass. Nepal’s claim to the territory was discussed during visits by Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to Beijing in 1999, by Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao to Delhi in 2005, and by Chinese President Xi Jinping in India in 2014.
A joint communiqué between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi in 2015 in Beijing listed Lipu Lekh as one of the Sino-Indian border passes through which the two countries agreed to conduct trade. All this goes to show that Beijing and new Delhi are on the same page on Nepal’s claim to Kalapani.
The Sugauli Treaty of 1816 between the East India Company and the defeated Gorkhalis clearly stated that the main channel of the Mahakali River would form a shrunken Nepal’s western border with British India.
After the Chinese annexation of Tibet in the 1950s, Nepal allowed India to put up 17 military checkpoints along its northern border. China and India fought a fierce Himalayan war in 1962 during which the Indian military set up a base on the strategic Lipu Lekh Valley. India pulled out its checkpoints from the rest of Nepal in 1969, but the base in Kalapani remained.
Nepal may have a legal claim over the territory, but its rulers have hisotrically used anti-Indian nationalism for political benefit. In fact, Nepal’s own official maps did not demarcate the Kalapani region with the country’s boundary.
Analysts believe that India has used the COVID-19 crisis as well as political disarray in Kathmandu to inaugurate the road, rightly concluding that there is little Nepal can do.
“There must be grand bargain between New Delhi and Beijing over weathering the economic fallout of COVID-19, as well as China’s effort to wean India away from the American Indo-Pacific Alliance,” the analyst said.
For Nepal it is a fait accompli if both China and India agree on Kalapani, and all it can do is take the matter to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague just as the Philippines did over its dispute with China over The Spratlys. Although the court ruled in favour of the Philippines, the Chinese are still on the islands.
For the time being, Nepal could take immediate action to upgrade airport and highway infrastructure to Hilsa in Humla to streamline international Hindu pilgrim traffic to Mansarovar-Kailash from the more accessible Nepal side of the border.
The China Syndrome, Editorial
India and China sacrifice Nepal, From the Nepali Press