29.02.2016 Author: Sofia Pale

Nepal Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

456456456456Nepal is a small country caught as if between two fires, between two Asian giants – China and India. As you know, India is a China’s main rival in Asia. Among other disputes, for many years now they have been competing for influence in Nepal. Both China and India are not averse to acquiring a zone of influence on their competitor’s doorstep. At the same time, both countries try their hardest to hinder the independence of Nepal. It seems that we are now witnessing another escalation of geopolitical confrontation, which is associated with a number of events that occurred in Nepal in the last year.

China has long been increasing its cooperation with countries bordering with India, with the goal of weakening its position in the region. As Mao Zedong said, “Tibet is China’s palm; Kashmir, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim and Ladakh are her 5 fingers to grab India!”. Since then, Ladakh, Sikkim and Kashmir became part of India. Yet, Bhutan and Nepal are still on China’s agenda. Chinese investment in Nepal in 2015 amounted to more than half a billion dollars – compared with only $120 million in 2012. In addition to Nepal, China cooperates with the Maldives, Sri Lanka and the main opponent of India – Pakistan. China is making huge investments in the economies of these countries in an effort to surround India with a ring of its allies. India, in turn, is trying to win over neighbors on its side. At the end of 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s intention to remove barriers to exports from neighboring countries and to take other measures to promote economic cooperation. We have to admit that financially China wins by miles, since it can invest more. In the past few years, the Chinese influence in Nepal has grown significantly: economically, politically as well as ideologically, which is reflected in the coming to power of Maoists.

Nonetheless, India and Nepal share strong ties through common culture and religion, a considerable part of the Nepalese population belongs to the Madhesi ethnic group that considers themselves both Nepalese and Indian. The most important thing is that Nepal and China are only connected by a passage through otherwise impassable mountains, while the Indo-Nepal border is easily traversed almost throughout its length, and therefore almost all important goods get delivered to Nepal from India. It was from there, until recently, that Nepal received hydrocarbon fuels, many items of foods and medicines. Naturally, this makes complete independence of Nepal from India practically impossible.

Perhaps, it was to reduce the monopoly on the Indian supply in Nepal that the idea to extend the high-altitude Qinghai-Tibet road to the Nepalese capital Kathmandu was developed. The Chinese media reported of this project in the beginning of April 2015. According to the statements made ​​by the Chinese side, it was the Government of Nepal that initiated the project by making a request to the PRC. Construction is expected to be extremely challenging. From the north Nepal is framed by the Great Himalayan Range, where it borders the Tibet autonomous region of China. It is impossible to build a road over the mountains or around them. Thus, we are talking about the construction of a mountain tunnel. According to one of the founders of the project, Wang Manshu, member of the Academy of Engineering Sciences of China, a tunnel may pass under the tallest mountain in the Himalayas, which is also the tallest mountain in the world – Chomolungma, also known as Mount Everest

At first glance, such a project may seem like a harebrained idea. Its implementation would be extremely difficult from a technical as well as economic point of view. Nonetheless, proponents of the project argue that the benefits, in case of success, will more than compensate for all the costs: railway connection with Nepal will allow China to firmly establish itself there.

At the end of April 2015, (after the railway project application was announced) there was a series of earthquakes in Nepal, which resulted in the death of 10 thousand people and severely damaged infrastructure across the country. One of the negative economic impacts of the disaster was a sharp decline in tourist flow. Tourism is a major component of the Nepalese economy, and a strong decline in tourism revenues is a blow to the entire society. Being in a difficult situation after the disaster, Nepal now more than ever relies on help from the neighbors, and the neighbor who can give more aid on more favorable terms has a chance to strengthen their influence even more. From this point of view, India has an advantage due to the aforementioned geographical features, especially when you consider that after the earthquake that caused avalanches on Mount Chomolungma, which killed 19 mountaineers, the passage through the Nepal-China border was temporarily closed by China for safety reasons.

However, in the fall 2015 protests broke out on the Indo-Nepal border, due to which it was closed, too. The protests were related to the adoption of the Constitution of Nepal on September 20, 2015. Madhesi people that live on the Indo-Nepalese border started the protest against the fact that the Constitution violates their right to autonomy and self-determination, and that the new administrative division of Nepal divided their historical area of habitation. People were killed in clashes with the police. Due to the cessation of imports from India, Nepal deprived of its tourism income in the aftermath of the earthquake found itself on the brink of a disaster. There was a shortage of fuel, food and medicines. At the same time, the Indian government claimed that it was the Madhesi protesters that blocked Indian trucks from entering Nepal, while the Nepalese leadership blamed India for the closure of borders.

There are no reports, however, about China’s fervent attempts to organize transportation through the Sino-Nepalese border, though it does seem like a perfect opportunity to sway the Nepalese to their side. The project of a tunnel under the Everest is still on the agenda: during his visit to Kathmandu in December 2015, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the railway will reach the Greater Himalayan Range by 2020. However, the food and medical supplies are needed in Nepal today. Because of the protracted chaos on the Indo-Nepalese border the country now finds itself amidst the energy crisis and on the verge of starvation.

The Prime Minister of India N. Modi appealed to the Madhesi protesters with a proposal to end the border blockade, promising to double the supply. The Government of Nepal, in turn, announced its agreement to amend the constitution. However, Madhesi refuse to make concessions as long as there is no revised territorial division of Nepal.

How long will this conflict last, it is not clear, but one can assume that, having realized its total dependence on supplies from India, Nepal will make additional efforts to create transport connection with China in order to have reserve supply lines, which may lead to further growth of Chinese influence in the region.

Sophia Pale, PhD, Research Fellow of the Center for South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”