New outlook in Nepal’s relations with India and China

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The past month has seen significant activities in Nepal’s diplomatic sphere, starting from Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s state visit to India as well as Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali’s visit to China. To cap it off, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to arrive in Nepal on May 11. Oli’s visit to China is also on the horizon and a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Nepal some time this year cannot be discounted.

The Indian side left no stones unturned in according a very warm welcome to Oli, as New Delhi was keen to improve the strained relations he had with India in the aftermath of the economic blockade it imposed in 2015. Consequently the nationalist election campaign led by Oli resulted in the Left Alliance gaining a two-thirds majority in parliament.

India has realized by now that the use of coercive diplomacy severely dented bilateral relations. Therefore, India wants to revamp its image in Nepal, and Modi’s reciprocal visit within a month of Oli’s visit to India signals the urge and necessity to do so.

India has realized by now that the use of coercive diplomacy severely dented bilateral relations. Therefore, India wants to revamp its image in Nepal, and Modi’s reciprocal visit within a month of Oli’s visit to India signals the urge and necessity to do so

Historically, India has always had political and economic influence in Nepal. However, the recent Chinese overtures in Nepal are not much to India’s liking. The agreement made by Nepal with China to join its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has become a major concern for India as it would increase the Chinese role and influence in Nepal. Hence it would be fair to assume that Modi will be making every effort to woo Oli away from China.

Nepal’s foreign policy has traditionally been influenced by the  geopolitical dynamics between India and China. Because of an open border and the ease of cross-border connectivity, Nepal is asymmetrically dependent on India for trade and economic activities. In contrast, the Himalayan terrain has posed difficulties in connectivity between Nepal and China. This scenario might change for the benefit of Nepal if the past agreements related to enhancing connectivity and transit with China are implemented.

The biggest question, however, is whether the Oli government will move ahead with implementing the accords or if India will give concessions to Oli in hopes of delaying the Chinese projects.

India would ideally want the second scenario to unfold, but it would be in the best interests of Nepal if it moved ahead with diversifying its connectivity and transit options.

During Gyawali’s recent China visit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed the creation of a trans-Himalayan network connecting China, Nepal and India. Furthermore, he emphasized the need for China and India to support Nepal’s development so that Nepal could serve as a bridge between China and India.

Wang’s remarks bear special geopolitical significance and must surely have not gone unnoticed in New Delhi. While Nepal has agreed to become part of the BRI, India is opposed to China’s project. Unless all three countries find a common ground, it will be difficult for the idea of trilateralism to take off.

Ties between China and India seem to be on the mend after the Doklam crisis with the informal meeting of Modi and Xi that took place recently in Wuhan, China. The camaraderie between the two leaders should be treated with cautious optimism, as the divergent strategic interests and territorial issues between the two countries outweigh the possibility of perceiving each other as true friends in the long run.

Unless India decides to join the China-led BRI, talks of a possible new world order will be premature. Nevertheless, the initiative should be appreciated, as both these nuclear neighbors have felt the need to cooperate with each other, which is essential for maintaining peace, stability and prosperity in the entire region.

The upcoming visit by Modi to Nepal can be analyzed from various angles. There is no doubt that the primary aim of his visit is to reassure that relations between Nepal and India are back to normal after the blockade, although India has never admitted that it had imposed any sort of blockade.

The landslide victory of the Left Alliance in the Nepalese elections necessitated that India suspend the policy of carrying the constitutional amendment agenda of the Madesh-based parties for the time being so as to improve its relations with the Oli government. In a symbolic gesture, Modi is being sympathetic to the Madesh-based parties by arriving first at Janakpur, the capital of the province and where these parties run the provincial government.

Considering the upcoming Indian parliamentary elections in 2019, Modi will try to project an image that portrays him as regaining Nepal’s faith as part of his “neighborhood first” policy. Projects related to the India-funded Arun III hydropower plant and rail connectivity up to Kathmandu are expected to gain fresh impetus after Modi’s visit in view of his country’s competing with similar Chinese projects.

Modi must be aware by now that nationalism is one of the core attributes of every Nepali citizen due to the proud fact that Nepal was never colonized in its history. The Indian blockade severely dented that sentiment and hit the daily lives of the Nepali people in utter disregard of the rights of landlocked countries as guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Nepal has reiterated on several occasions that any sort of activity against India will not be allowed to emanate from its soil. If Modi really wants to reinvigorate ties with Nepal, he needs to push the reset button and be more accommodating.

Efforts should be made to respect Nepal’s sovereignty in earnest and not engage in petty border encroachments or micromanagement of state affairs.

The Indian establishment’s mindset that advancement of ties between Nepal and China is directed against India is totally unfounded and biased, as Nepal has always sought cooperation with all and confrontation with none.

Oli came to power riding on a wave of nationalist sentiments and promising to diversify Nepal’s trade and transit options. Every country places importance on its national interests. Therefore, the national interest of Nepal would be best served if Oli kept his promise and expedited trade, transit and connectivity with China. Oli’s image in Nepal will suffer if he decides to abandon the goals he set earlier.

India should stop worrying about Nepal’s ties with China, as Indo-Nepalese ties are unique and time-tested because of deep geographical, historical, cultural and familial linkages.

Nepal would surely benefit if China and India maintained friendly relations with each other and assisted in Nepal’s quest for economic development after decades of political instability.

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