By Ananya Singh
A cold war is brewing between the two most influential countries in South Asia. The world watches as India and China continue their tussle over establishing dominance, disguised in the form of border disputes and economic trade routes. Meanwhile, sandwiched between the two lies Nepal, a possible key to unlocking the tangled web of South Asian diplomacy.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) has amassed support from 65 countries. On 12 May 2017, two days before the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Summit was to begin, China managed to rope Nepal into signing the memorandum.
Nepal’s position and policy of ‘equidistance’
Nepal’s government is charged with the task of removing the tag ‘underdeveloped’ that looms over the country. Nepal’s ill-fated geographical position makes this tricky. Landlocked between India and Tibet, with the Himalayas comprising a territorial majority, it has a difficult terrain. Due to this, Nepal lacks adequate infrastructure like roads, rail and ports.
India was the sole provider of access to ports and sea routes. Most of Nepal’s goods were imported from India. However, this scenario has undergone change due to an upheaval of diplomatic ties between the two.
Nepal’s foreign policy is shaped by growing distress over its dependence on neighbours for access to supplies as well as world trade. The Nepalese government under Pushpa Kamal Dahal (better known as Prachanda) thus aims to maintain ‘equidistance’ from both China and India. This will allow Nepal to maintain friendly ties with India while benefiting from economic projects with China.
India’s breaking monopoly
In 2015, Nepal rewrote its Constitution and declared itself a “secular republic.” The division of the country into seven federal provinces witnessed an upsurge of violence in the foothills bordering India. These areas are predominated by ‘Madhesi’ and ‘Tharu’ communities that are ethnically linked to the Indian subcontinent. The new Constitution was accused of attempting to marginalise these communities.
The volatile state of affairs resulted in an unofficial blockade being imposed. Though India denied involvement in the blockade, the inept handling of matters further strained the already taut threads of diplomacy between the two.
The five-month blockade caused colossal damage to Nepal’s economy. In the aftermath of the devastating 2015 earthquake, Nepal’s rebuilding efforts were hampered due to lack of supplies. The country faced shortages in fuel, cooking gas and medicines. With no other option visible, it signed a series of agreements with China.
India’s monopolistic influence over Nepal was broken. Nepal’s import of petroleum from India was replaced by China. They also provided Nepal with access to their sea routes and ports, which had earlier been the prerogative of India. Hence, Nepal’s foreign policy began shifting towards China.
China’s growing influence
A Nepalese government report on Official Development Assistance(ODA) revealed that India’s share in aid to Nepal dropped by over 50% in 2014-15. In addition, China has knocked India off the list of top five aid donors to Nepal.
The growing distance between India and Nepal is advantageous to the Chinese, and they know it. Recently, China shelled out immense amounts to aid development projects in Nepal. Military drills between Nepal Army and Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a further step to erode Indian influence in Kathmandu. China also invested in the infrastructural development of Nepal, including post-earthquake reconstruction efforts.
China’s foreign policy toward its underdeveloped neighbour has seen a gargantuan shift from neutrality and non-interference to directly supporting K.P. Sharma Oli’s party. This was to counter Indian lobbying for Prachanda government due to the number of bilateral agreements signed between Oli and China.
What will Nepal gain from BRI?
Nepal’s primary aim is development. Better connectivity will help foster trade. By getting on board the BRI project, Nepal aspires to open up avenues to South Asia and beyond. Increased exports will improve the country’s economic conditions. Better infrastructural facilities will also allow them to focus on other aspects of their economy, such as tourism.
China promises to build roads, rail and aviation in Nepal through BRI. This will further help tackle the growing unemployment in the region.
Nepal, therefore, stands to gain from BRI through economic collaboration with China. It sees BRI as a viable option to reduce its reliance on India. If BRI is executed to fruition, the country may serve as an indispensable link between India and China.
Looming uncertainty in South Asia
India disapproves of the BRI, citing infringement on the nation’s sovereignty. A major strategic concern is the BRI-proposed economic corridor (CPEC) between Pakistan and China. India refused to send an envoy to the BRI and was waiting to see which way Nepal’s foreign policy will tilt.
The tri-factor of India-Nepal-China is a significant aspect of South Asian politics. Nepal’s decision to join the BRI leaves no doubt as to China’s growing influence in the region. India needs to revamp its foreign policy towards Nepal if it wants to retain the country as a strategic ally. Whether the BRI will further strain relations between the countries remains to be seen.
Featured Image Source: PMINDIA
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius