China and India's turf war in Nepal

Posted in China , Asia , India | 20-Feb-10 | Author: Bhumika Ghimire

Bhumika Ghimire

As protests in Lhasa erupted just five months before 2008 Beijing Olympics, China was forced to realize that the Tibet issue could no longer be dealt as a solely internal matter. Neighboring Nepal's capital Kathmandu was scene of violent struggle between local police and Tibetan protesters. International media flashed pictures of Nepalese police brutality against agitating Tibetans, just as Beijing imposed media blackout in Tibet. China could no longer ignore its Tibet-Nepal problem.

For centuries, Tibetans have enjoyed a warm relationship with Nepalese. Kathmandu is home to almost 12,000 Tibetan refugees; many of whom have assimilated into the society and rarely face any social problems because of their origin. Nepal's Himalayan regions of Mustang and Manang are culturally and linguistically Tibetan; and Tibetan Buddhism has significant following across Nepal.

For the Nepalese authorities to ignore the long shared history with Tibet and come out in force against Tibetan agitators was a tough call.

Compared to Nepal's relationship with India, China is a distant neighbor. The two countries share a geographically restrictive border with the Himalayas standing on the way. Majority of Nepalese are culturally and linguistically very different from the Chinese. Historically, Beijing has played a hands off, very limited role in Nepal's affairs. Instead choosing to focus more on economic cooperation.

Changes in Nepal's political climate coupled with growing confidence among Nepal based Tibetan leadership, however, has forced China to examine relationship with Nepal more closely. Following events of 2008, they have realized it is time to cash in the goodwill it has with the Nepalese establishment.

2006 peace accord between then Nepalese government and the Maoists ended 10 year long civil war in Nepal. The Maoists promised to be peaceful partners in democracy and emerged as a majority party after impressive performance in 2008 constituent assembly elections.

Maoist lead government pushed for a closer relationship with China. They looked at Beijing for economic support and also backing on the international arena. More than ideology-communism had limited role to play here-Maoist push was driven by the desire to check India's influence in Nepal. Beijing found just the right partner to stop Tibetans from crossing into Nepal and to contain their leadership, and an opportunity to counter India's growing influence in Nepal.

After the Maoist lead coalition government was replaced by Communist Party of Nepal(United Marxist and Leninist) lead coalition, the desire to keep China closer remained. This indicated a definite shift in Nepal's policy, that it is no longer willing to solely rely on India for support-any kind of support.

New Delhi is no doubt disturbed. China's meteoric rise- as an economic and military superpower has long perturbed India. As Beijing slowly began to flex its muscles in South Asia, expanding its sphere of influence; India felt directly challenged. After the British left the Indian subcontinent, India has regarded the region as its playground where it is the big brother whose wishes no one dare disobey. But Pakistan acquiring nukes and Chinese and American backing followed by closer ties between Kathmandu and Beijing; New Delhi is feeling the push back and is courting Nepalese leadership in a hurry.

Unfortunately for India, Nepal's internal political uncertainty and ongoing climate of mistrust and fast skidding economy has meant that the courtship is not producing desired result.

For decades, India enjoyed a very close friendship with Nepal. It would not be an exaggeration that New Delhi had the final word on a number of serious matters regarding Nepal's foreign policy and internal security. A very much enviable position, but what did New Delhi do to sustain the relationship? It treated Nepal as a second class friend.

Instead of cashing on its position of influence to build relationship based on respect, trust and equality; Indian leadership followed the misguided policy of keeping Nepal weak and unsure. There were no mutually beneficial trade deals, no joint effort to reduce poverty through industrialization and technology; absolutely no effort to be partners. It comes as a no surprise that after decades of being pushed around, Nepal is now not willing to take it. With China's changed attitude, it has found another ally.

But Nepal is in no position to give up on India completely. It would be very short sighted for Nepal to completely ignore India and depend on China. After all, India and Nepal share miles long open and very porous border, almost 44% of foreign direct investment in Nepal is from India, and the two countries are bound by strong cultural and religious ties.

Future equation between Nepal and its closest neighbors- India and China largely depends on how the Tibet issue is handled, and the economy. As long as Nepal agrees to deal with anti China elements in the country and to control the flow of Tibetan refugees into the country; Beijing will act favorably towards Kathmandu. China has already doubled its economic aid package to Nepal and more good news might follow. India is also finally ready to listen to Nepal's concerns and work on bilateral issues. Nepal is in a position to get the best from its two neighbors, but the deteriorating law and order situation in the country and political turmoil could spoil the opportunity.