After 1791-92, when Chinese forces had trounced the Nepalese army from Tibet, Nepal was reduced as a “tributary state”, sending tribute to China once in five years. The last tribute had been sent in 1910.
Nepal played the so called “China card” against British India during the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816. But China refrained from helping Nepal and denounced the “Ghurkhas as bullies and insatiably avaricious, responsible for fomenting trouble in the south-western frontier.”
When Nepal tried to play the “British India card” threatening China, the latter was irked and rebuked Nepal.
“If you throw your allegiance to the British, then you would not be entitled to send tributes to the Celestial Empire…As regards dealing with the tribes outside our frontiers, the Celestial Empire will not extend militarily assistance to any of the warring sides [referring to the Nepalese invasion of Sikkim]. The Celestial Empire is least bothered if your country concludes peace or goes to war with the British, approach or eventually throws your allegiance to the British.” (Deepak, B. R. India and China 1904-2004: A Century of Pace and Conflict, p.13).
Today, when China has emerged as the second largest economy in the world, and as the challenger of the established hegemon, to expect China to be indifferent to the smaller countries in the vicinity and beyond, as shown above, would be wishful thinking.
As for Nepal or any other country, not to benefit from China’s deep pocket, would equally be foolish and tantamount to ignoring ground realities.
As for India, rather than helping Nepal overcome the calamity of the devastating earthquake in 2015, threw Nepal further into the abyss of misery by ‘supporting’ the Madhesi blockade.
Furthermore, K.P. Sharma Oli, the then Prime Minister had blamed India for removing him “by remote control” when he concluded trade and energy deals with China in the wake of the blockade.
China and Nepal were likely to announce the Lhasa-Kathmandu rail link under the ‘Belt and Road Initiative” of China during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposed Nepal visit that had to be cancelled in the wake of Oli’s resignation.
In the December 2017 parliamentary elections, the alliance of the communist parties in Nepal registered an impressive majority amidst anti-India sentiments. Oli was sworn in as Prime Minister once again in mid February 2018.
It is against this background that Oli is visiting India. There are already noises in Nepal that the visit has been announced unilaterally by New Delhi, not giving enough time to Oli to prepare for the visit.
Will he be able to convince New Delhi that his policy of “equidistance” does not envisage embracing China? Will he buy New Delhi’s argument that China’s entrenchment in Nepal remains a concern for India? Will he be able to extract as much benefits from India as he has been able to extract from China, especially when the Modi government is already in election mode?
And, will India introspect as to why a culturally close neighbor has moved away from its so called “sphere of influence”?
There are no easy answers to these questions. However, we may find some answers if New Delhi introspects on the question of Nepal moving away from its influence.
It Is Economics Stupid!
In November 2017 during a two two-day Nepal Investment Summit, 89 companies from China committed an investment of US $8.3 billion in various sectors compared to an investment of US $317 million committed by 21 Indian companies present at the Summit.
Even the commitments of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka committed more than the Indian investment. China is executing projects such as the Pokhara airport budgeted at US$216 million; Melamchi Water Supply Project at US $294.4 million; US$ 3 billion Lumbini Project that will have an airport, hotels, convention centre, temples and a Buddhist University and well a connecting highway.
The US$2.5 billion Budhi Gandaki hydroelectric project that Nepal scrapped last year is certainly going to be given back to China. The 750 MW project to be built on the West Seti River is also being built by China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his Nepal visit in 2014, blamed previous Indian governments for letting Nepal down. In tandem with his Nepalese counterpart, he unveiled a plaque for the Police Academy that India had promised to Nepal in the 1990s.
But like much of the ‘foundation stone’ ceremonies in India, the academy remained an empty promise. The Chinese seized the opportunity and built a swanky academy at a cost of US$ 350 million in a record two years’ time and gifted it free of cost to Nepal in June 2017.
India’s other projects in Nepal such as INR 33108 crore Pancheshwar multi-purpose project on Mahakali river envisaged in the 1990s and revived during Modi’s Nepal visit, has not made much progress.
During the Nepal Infrastructure Summit 2017, India announced that it would build the Delhi-Kathmandu and Kolkata-Kathmandu railways to increase Nepal’s connectivity with India. But that is likely to remain an announcement for some time to come.
Meanwhile, China plans to complete the Lhasa-Kathmandu line by 2020-22.
It is the lack of commitment from India, added to its arm twisting tactics, which forced Nepal to embrace China. Chia is deeply entrenched in Nepal’s infrastructure, energy and transport sectors.
By signing of the “Belt and Road Initiative” with China, Nepal would be connected even better with China through rail, road, dry ports, optical fiber so and so forth.
Simultaneously, China has been assisting Nepal in strengthening its armed forces. In 1989, when Nepal imported arms from China, India imposed economic sanctions and closed 13 of the 15 transit points on the India-Nepal border. This was the time when India enjoyed exclusive influence in Nepal.
However, today, Nepal is not only buying military equipment from China but has also concluded first ever military exercise named “Sagarmatha Friendship 2017” with China in April 2017.
Moreover, while India has taken its cultural ties for granted with Nepal, China has invested $80 million to boost its soft power in Nepal. Dozons of China Study Centers, a Confucius Institute in Kathmandu University, and a few Confucius Classrooms are imparting Chinese language and culture training to thousands of Nepalese.
It has been reported that the Confucius Institute alone has trained over 20,000 Nepalese in a decade. These include personnel from the armed forces, police, bureaucracy, business so on.
The Ministry of Education in Nepal has announced that it will offer courses in Chinese. Today, over 3000 Nepalese students are studying in Chinese universities on Chinese government scholarship programs.
Why have Nepal and other neighbors of India embraced China. It didn’t happen overnight, it has been happening since the economic rise of China in the last 40 years.
In these years starting from India’s parity with China, the latter’s economic muscle has become 5 times bigger than India’s at $13 trillion and the gap is yawning.
The Indian blockade, be it in the 1960s, 1989 or 2015 may have crippled the Nepalese economy. But it rubbed salt into the wounds and flared anti-India sentiments in Nepal.
Conversely, will China salvage Nepal from its difficulties? May be to some extent it will, but to replace India’s 15 transit points of open India-Nepal border with a 900 kilometre Nepal-Lhasa road is just impossible.
India has to have the magnanimity to open its border to Nepal, not any other nation. And the magnanimity here needs to be replicated in other spheres. India needs to act more and be less cacophonous at home and abroad.
India needs to lie low, strengthen its domestic economic base, build capacities and make India attractive to its neighbors and the world. Until that happens, strategies to engage with and integrate these nations into India’s economic development, will have to show magnanimity in various disputes and increase our footprints in these countries.
In this context, India should have a selective approach to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and reap benefits from bilateral and multilateral engagement with China.
The trans-Himalayan region, where Nepal lies at the heart, would be crucial for transport, trade and tourism. India must think beyond the security prism as far as the 3Ts are concerned.
From this perspective Nepalese Prime Minister Oli’s India visit is extremely important, even if his coalition government at home may already have run into some difficulties. Here again, India must assure him that she aspires to see a stable and prosperous Nepal.
(The author Prof.B.R.Deepak is with Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi)