Context: Changing dynamic between India, China and Nepal.
More in news:
- The Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Kathmandu on his return trip from India on October 12 and 13, 2019.
- Xi stated that Nepal and China are strategic partners. However until now, only India was regarded as Nepal’s strategic partner.
- Locked between Tibet and the Gangetic plain, Nepal has close civilization ties with both China and India.
- Prithvi Narayan Shah, who unified Nepal at the end of the 18th century, famously described Nepal’s strategic condition as a “yam between two rocks”.
- Political evolution of Nepal is a balance between Tibet and the Qing Empire in the north and British Raj in the south.
- By mid 19th century southern influence gained dominance.
- When the People’s Republic of China gained control of Tibet in 1950, Nepal’s monarchy that was frightened by the communist threat.
- This brought India and Nepal close. Both the countries signed Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950.
Foundation of Modern India and Nepal relations:
- Under the provisions of this Friendship Treaty, the Nepali citizens have enjoyed certain advantages in India, availing facilities and opportunities at par with Indian citizens.
- Articles 5, 6 and 7 of the treaty were the key components of the treaty.
- Article 5 allowed Nepal access to weaponry from India.
- Article 6 established national treatment for both Indian and Nepalese businesses.
- Article 7 established reciprocal treatment of Indian and Nepali citizens in the two countries, in residence, property, business and movement.
Emergence of China between India and Nepal:
- The 1960s would mark the beginning of Nepal balancing its relations with both India and China.
- In 1961, Nepal signed a border treaty and also agreed to the building of a highway route that would connect with China.
- However post the 1962 war between India and China, Nepal signed a ‘secret’ agreement with India that allowed Nepal to only import arms from India in 1965.
- Multiple Trade and Transit Treaties were signed between India and Nepal as trade ties strengthened between the two countries in the 1970s and the 1980s. The first being in 1971, and in 1978.
- While on the China front, Nepal would not see any significant developments in the 1970s, or the early 1980s.
- In 1989, Nepal failed to negotiate a new trade treaty and the purchase of weaponry from China which lead to the expiration of vital trade and transit of goods treaties between India and Nepal. This in turn placed massive strain on Nepal economy. This resulted in the restoration of the parliamentary democracy in Nepal in 1990.
- China’s dramatic rise in the 21st century makes Beijing a far more compelling partner for Kathmandu.
- India’s failure was not in an over-reliance on geopolitics, but the neglect of geoeconomics.
- Though India remains the largest foreign investor in Nepal, is providing aid and is jointly constructing hydel power projects with Nepal, with the extension of a $1 billion credit line, yet China maintains relation with Nepal.
- China too has made recent efforts to maintain a presence in Nepal, with investment in the Araniko Highway that connects Kathmandu with the Nepal-China border and facilitates easier trade and movement of goods between the two countries.
- With Madhesi crisis, the relation between India and Nepal is bit strained. This made Nepal tilted towards China.
- Nepal supports Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The country signed BRI in 2017. Under BRI, Nepal agreed to work on $2.75 billion trans-Himalayan connectivity network for the construction of road tunnel along the road from Jilong/Keyrung to Kathmandu and also for conducting a feasibility study for the construction of railway line.
- China did not succeed in its attempt to pursue Nepal to sign the Treaty of Extradition, but it gained mileage by signing the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, which is regarded as a precursor to Treaty of Extradition.
- While India still struggles with its project implementation backlogs.
- The recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping resulted in about 20 agreements between Nepal and China. Though it is very difficult to pinpoint as to what is that Nepal gained from the 20 agreements made with China. Both the railway and the roadway connectivity between the Chinese border and Kathmandu provide the upper hand to China.
Way forward for India:
- It is time stop whining about China’s growing presence in Nepal or lamenting the loss of much-vaunted primacy in Nepal. The protectorate relationship that Delhi inherited from the Raj was never sustainable.
- India must work towards faster implementation of the development projects in Nepal.
- India should counter Chinese hard power by projecting soft power. In contrast to China’s efforts to muscle its way into Nepal, India should emphasize on its historically close cultural, religious, and people-to-people relations with Nepal.
- India needs to change its Big Brother attitude towards Nepal.
- The best corrective India can offer is a new compact with Nepal that can build on the natural geographic and cultural interdependence between the two nations. This time around it must be based on sovereign equality and mutual benefit.