China on their mind: why the India-Nepal border has become a global flashpoint

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 6:30pm, 22 May, 2020

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  • While territorial disputes between the countries go back to the 19th century, the coronavirus has injected a new level of ill will into the relationship

  • The latest crisis has China written all over it

A Nepalese activist burns an image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a protest in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: EPA

The Indian subcontinent is sweltering and it is not the summer heat.

All is not well between India and its neighbour and old friend, Nepal.

Both countries have been engaged in cartographic disputes and a war of words that have taken ties to a new low over the past week.

The diplomatic fracas has shone light on a border dispute between the two Himalayan neighbours, one that has its origins in early 19th-century colonial rule. However, with Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Oli broadening the dispute by saying that the “Indian virus was more lethal than the Chinese and Italian now”, the tensions between the two are unlikely to be defused any time soon.

Instead, the bilateral border dispute is now threatening to snowball into a geopolitical regional flashpoint. The Indian Army chief, General MM Naravane, last week hinted at China’s role in pushing Nepal to rake up the border dispute, even as the 

United States jumped in, asking India to “resist the Chinese aggression” on its border, drawing parallels between the border skirmishes and the disputed South China Sea.

It didn’t help that the last week has also seen clashes between Indian and Chinese army personnel after the latter claimed that Indian troops had transgressed into Chinese territory.

Police detain demonstrators during a protest in Kathmandu against India's newly inaugurated link road to the Chinese border. Photo: AFP

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

The dispute isn’t new. If anything, the dispute came into existence after Nepal’s borders were demarcated in the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli between Nepal and British India. Thetreaty stated that the Maha Kali River would form Nepal’s western boundary. But this has been a protracted, complicated border dispute. At the root of it is the fact that neither side can agree on the location of the Kali river.

In November, after India revoked the special status of Jammu & Kashmir and bifurcated the state, it issued fresh maps showing approximately 62 square kilometres of territory, known as Kalapani, as its own. The move stirred a political storm in Nepal, with the Nepali government declaring that India had “encroached upon two per cent of Nepali territory”.

In the current tussle, the immediate provocation arose when the Indian defence minister remotely inaugurated an 80km road, much of it through the disputed territory, a move that was seen in Nepal as India further consolidating its hold over the disputed territory. Nepal’s objections – calling the Indian move “unilateral” – were dismissed by New Delhi. Many believe that domestic political factors forced Prime Minister Oli to respond to the situation.

Nepal’s new territorial map, released earlier this week, has shown the area in the light red shade to be part of its territory, evoking strong reactions from India. This came after India, in its new maps released in November last year, showed the Kalapani area (marked in deep red) to be part of its territory.

HOW TENSE IS THE SITUATION?

India has, for decades, cast itself in the role of an older brother in the Nepal-India relationship. But over the past week, Oli has sought to reverse that by openly taking on the Indian leadership. Oli, on the day his government cleared the new maps, took a dig at India and wondered aloud if India still subscribed to the motto under its emblem – “truth alone triumphs”. The next day, Oli struck again, attributing the rise in Nepal’s coronavirus cases to Indians visiting Nepal, calling it the “Indian virus”.

Yet, experts say that there is history to it. “This isn’t sudden at all. Tensions have been building in the India-Nepal relationship and have escalated since the 2015 blockade,” said Dr K Yhome, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based think tank, Observer Research Foundation.

Yhome was referring to the economic crisis in Nepal, five years ago, caused by crippling shortages of essentials like fuel, medicines and food items, a crisis that was believed to be caused by India’s decision to hold back supplies to protest against changes in Nepal’s constitution. India’s perceived high-handedness and bullying, under the regime of Narendra Modi, forced Nepal to think hard about its reliance on India. That’s when it looked north – to China.

An Indian youth in front of a poster of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: EPA

IS THIS JUST A NEIGHBOURS’ SQUABBLE?

The crisis has China written all over it. Some 98 per cent of India’s disputes with Nepal have been settled. The reason why this one assumes so much importance is that it is located at a very critical tri-junction, between India, Nepal and China. In fact, in 2015, India and China had decided to use the Lipulek pass, currently disputed by India and Nepal, for trade. In response, Nepal had raised objections to this being done without its consent, and it pointed out how India has done little to assuage its concerns.

In fact, after Nepal objected to India inaugurating a new road going through the disputed territory, Indian Army chief Naravane hinted at China’s role in prodding Nepal. “There is a reason to believe that they might have raised this problem at the behest of someone else and that is very much a possibility,” he was quoted as saying, while addressing an online conference organised by a New Delhi defence think tank.

Behind this suspicion lies a nagging feeling in New Delhi that Kathmandu has grown uncomfortably close to Beijing. Last year, after his informal summit with Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping flew to Kathmandu for a two-day visit – the first by a Chinese president in two decades – and announced aid to Nepal worth US$493 million. The two countries also decided to move ahead on a cross-border railway project that would bring China closer to Nepal’s southern border with India. Interestingly, even as the India-Nepal dispute plays out, China and India have witnessed escalating border tensions over the last two weeks after their personnel clashed with each other and both countries traded charges over transgressions in each other’s territories. Little wonder that the United States’ top diplomat for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, said the border skirmishes between India and China were “a reminder that Chinese aggression is not always rhetorical … in this instance, the border disputes are a reminder of the threat posed by China”.

Police detain demonstrators during a protest in Kathmandu against India’s newly inaugurated link road to the Chinese border. Photo: AFP

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Much depends on how far Oli, who is struggling on the political front as intraparty rifts put him on a poor footing, is willing to ratchet up the rhetoric against India. Experts like Yhome believe it will be difficult for both sides, but especially Oli, to be seen doing a climbdown from his position. China hasn’t broken its silence on the issue yet. India, meanwhile, has called out Nepal’s new maps as “cartographic assertions” and an “artificial enlargement of territorial claims”.

Modi’s muscular, hypernationalist brand of politics means he cannot be seen kowtowing to Nepal.

However, Sameer Patil, a fellow of the International Security Studies Programme at the Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House, said that New Delhi did not have to be alarmed at the recent happenings just yet. “This might just be a temporary blip in relations. India’s problems with Nepal might be specific to this particular government rather than the nation, almost like what we saw in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.”

Addressing Nepal’s objections to India’s road inauguration in early May, the Indian foreign ministry spokesperson had said that both sides were planning to schedule foreign secretary-level talks. If those indeed happen, they might be good first steps towards toning down the rhetoric and returning to normalising relations.

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