President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Kathmandu has helped focus on the changing dynamic between India, China, and Nepal.  What is the recent discourse on India- Nepal ties?

  • One of the central themes in the new discourse is the alleged loss of Indian “hegemony” over Nepal.
  • However, the proposition is based on questionable assumptions.

Why is the discourse of  India’s hegemony or primacy in Nepal is somewhat overstated? The story of Nepal’s geopolitics is a complicated one. It was limited in time and space and always constrained by Nepal’s domestic politics. Historical evidence of Nepal’s balanced relationship with India and China

    • Lodged between Tibet and the Gangetic plain, Nepal has close civilizational ties with both China and India. 
  • Its geopolitics, too, was shaped by both the neighbors. 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”.
  • Balancing between Tibet and the Qing empire in the north and British Raj in the south was very much part of modern Nepal’s political evolution. 
  • It was only with the weakening of the Qing and the rise of the Raj from the mid-19th century that set the stage for southern dominance over Nepal. 
  • When the People’s Republic of China gained control of Tibet in 1950, Nepal’s monarchy that was frightened by the communist threat turned to Jawaharlal Nehru for protection. Delhi and Kathmandu revived the 19th-century security arrangements of the British Raj in a 1950 Treaty of Friendship.
  •  China’s premier Zhou Enlai was quick to assure Kathmandu that there would be no export of the communist revolution from Tibet to Nepal
  • The Sino-Indian conflict, meanwhile, opened up space for Kathmandu to weaken the treaty arrangements with India and re-balance the relationship

India’s Failure in the sphere of geoeconomics

    • The emergence of strong state north of the Himalayas tested India’s claim for an exclusive sphere of influence in Nepal.
    • China’s dramatic rise in the 21st century makes Beijing a far more compelling partner for Kathmandu.
    • While the security establishment and the political classes operated as if Nepal was a protectorate of India, Delhi’s economic bureaucracy treated Nepal as a separate entity. 
    • Delhi’s emphasis on economic autarky meant there was no special value attached in India to the commercial interdependence with land-locked Nepal.
    • Delhi also allowed the border infrastructure to rot over the decades. 
    • Delhi’s attempts to revive connectivity with Nepal in recent years have run into India’s traditional problems with project implementation.
  • There has been growing political resistance in Kathmandu to deeper economic relations.

China’s change in Nepal policy:

  • In the past, China sounded sensitive to India’s concerns in its engagement with Nepal.
  •  As the second most important power in the world and the foremost in Asia, China perhaps is a lot less interested in what Delhi might think about its Nepal policy
  • China today is driving regional change with its expansive Belt and Road Initiative.

What option does Nepal have towards its policy of China and India? Kathmandu has at least three possible options in crafting a new strategy for Nepal. 

  • Neutrality and symmetry in its relations with India and China. 
  • This is not a new idea and was reflected in Kathmandu’s past debates about “Nepal as a Zone of Peace”.
  • If Nepal opts for strict symmetry, it would have to turn its open border with India into a closed one similar to its northern frontier with China.
  • Second, it could decide that a special relationship with China is more valuable than the one with India. 
  • Nepal’s sovereign choice would also involve an assessment of the inevitable Indian countermeasures to a strong security partnership between Beijing and Kathmandu
  • Strategic tilt towards China means Kathmandu would want to discard the special privileges it has in the relationship with Delhi, for example, the freedom for Nepali citizens to live and work in India.
  • Third, it could continue a policy of dynamic balancing and make the best of the possibilities with both China and India.
  • Involve modernization of the India relationship and expansion of the China ties with sufficient regard to the concerns of both the powers

India has had its share of strategic errors in dealing with Nepal. The best corrective Delhi 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. It is up to Kathmandu, in the end, to accept, reject or negotiate on such an offer. Also read: China – Nepal Bilateral Relationship Know About India And China Border Disputes