Umer Ahmed is a second year International Relations undergraduate. His latest article focuses on the geopolitical dilemma facing Nepal, a small Himalayan nation sandwiched between Asia’s two rising superpowers.
The landlocked nation of Nepal sandwiched between two giant adversarial states of India and China faces an important geopolitical question: China or India?
Historically, Nepal has always been a close ally to India. This relationship was initiated by the “India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950” signed by then Nepalese Prime Minister Mohun Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana and then Indian ambassador to Nepal Shri Chandreshwar Prasad Narain Singh. But China’s global economic influence is certainly playing a major role in shifting Nepal’s alliance from its rival India.
The close links between India and Nepal are easily explained in geographical terms. The topographical nature of Nepal means that the country is split into 3 major physical regions. The north is dominated by the tallest mountain range in the world – the Himalayas which form the border between Nepal and China. The central area of the country is a hilly region and is where the capital of Kathmandu and most of the population resides. The southern area of Nepal (known as the Terai region) consists of mainly flat land as it forms part of the greater Gangetic plain. As the Terai region is flatter than the rest of the country and borders the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, links between India and Nepal are certainly more accessible than trans-Himalayan connections between China and Nepal. Currently, only 2 major roads lead into Chinese Tibet from Nepal – the Araniko Highway and the Pasang Lahmu Highway, whereas there are numerous cross-border roads between Nepal and India.
The location and hard border between China and Nepal also has effects of the social makeup of Nepalese culture and media. Owing to the large Bollywood industry, neighbouring India’s film and TV has had a huge influence on Nepalese culture, with many people being able to communicate in Hindi (the national language of India). On linguistics, many languages spoken in Nepal are native to the area rather than only Nepal thus many recognised languages such as Nepali, Bhojpuri, Maithili and Urdu are official state languages in bordering Indian states also. Additionally, Nepal and India share another connection – religion. Both countries are two of the only three states (the other being Mauritius) where the majority religion of the population is Hindu, with 83.1% of Nepalese identifying with the religion.[i]
With the large cultural, linguistic and religious links between India and Nepal, it would be easy to question how China fits into this. The Chinese link here is through the ideological connection. Nepal has, for the majority of its history been a monarchy (parliamentary monarchy from 1990 to 2006). However, throughout its history, Communism has been influential in the politics of the state, with 2 of its largest parties – the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) identifying with the ideology. Currently, out of the 275 seats in the House of Representatives (lower house), 174 seats are occupied by the CPN with another 16 occupied by the Federal Socialist Forum of Nepal, thus marking a 190 seat-strong coalition government. Khagad Prasad Sharma Oli, leader of the CPN and the incumbent Prime Minister of Nepal is certainly pro-Beijing rather than pro-New Delhi on his views, especially as Prime Minister Modi stands on the opposite end of the political ideological spectrum from PM Oli. Nepal remains the only country to host a consulate in Chinese Tibet [ii], was supportive of the Chinse government in suppressing Tibetan protestors [iii] and produces unwavering support for Chinese claims over both Tibet and Taiwan. On his 2016 trip to Beijing, PM Oli managed to sign 8 agreements worth US$2.4bn focused mainly on Nepal’s energy sector [iv].
Furthermore, PM Oli and President Xi agreed on the urge to strengthen cross-Himalayan transport links, with a special commitment to rail connections. The implementation of this is already apparent, as of March 2019, Nepal has opted to change its railway gauge from those used in India to those used in China. Whether the standard gauge (as used in China) was opted for as it is “less expensive” (as argued by the Nepalese Minister for Physical Infrastructure and Transport Raghubir Mahasethor) or because Nepal sees China as a stronger ally can be argued. [v] What is for certain however is that the plan to switch to the standard gauge not only undermines India’s previous plan of railway link between the Kathmandu and Indian bordering town of Rauxal, although it is likely that Nepal will ask India to change from its broad gauge to the standard gauge for the 130km long Rauxal link [vi]. The 2015 Madhesi Crisis in Nepal also led Kathmandu to look less favourably on India. The crisis caused by the adoption of a new constitution, which resulted in internal ethnic tensions, reportedly led to an undeclared blockade from India. As Nepal remains highly dependent on trucks coming in from its southern neighbour for petroleum imports, the ramifications of New Delhi’s actions was profound. According to PM Oli, the situation was “worse than in a war-time situation“, although India denied ever imposing a blockade on the country [vii].
For China, Nepal serves as the last piece in the geopolitical encirclement of India. Nepal’s compliance with the Belt and Road Initiative means that now, India faces the threat from Chinese investment: in Pakistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in Sri Lanka and now in Nepal. India will certainly be wary of Chinese influence in the area, especially since its arch-rival Pakistan has extensive Chinese support with the CPEC, which India vehemently opposes.
On the other hand, India’s ties with Nepal may be too deep to cut suddenly. Although it is true that there has been a shift in Nepal’s political orientation from India to China, arguably New Delhi remains Nepal’s most favourable ally. In terms of trade, India remains the top importer of Nepalese goods (54%) and the top exporter to Nepal (63%), much larger than China (at 3.3% and 12% respectively) [viii]. Additionally, the cultural links between the two nations are difficult to destroy and although China could politically entice the government, enticing the Nepalese people would certainly be burdensome and much harder to achieve.
Nepal will certainly remain dependent on India for its trade for the near-future, but China still seems to have its eye on the prize: completing its Indian puzzle with the Nepal piece.