The Himalayan neighbour of Nepal in recent times has been a bitter-sweet ally for India. The KP Sharma Oli led Communist government has been warming up to the Chinese lately, despite the fact that India is Nepal’s largest trading partner, accounting for almost 65 percent of Nepal’s total trade. The landlocked country of Nepal exports nearly 57 percent of its total to India and imports almost 65.5 percent of merchandise goods from India.
Things have been naturally steady for the two neighbouring countries, but since 2015 there have been some hiccups here and there and the Chinese led by Xi Jinping have been quick to catch the sniff of an opportunity. China is sneaking and quietly making inroads in the country to register its influence and counter the behemoth Indian presence.
A series of events four years back led Nepal turning to China to reduce its heavy dependence on India for facilitating trade. In 2015, following the disastrous Nepal earthquake, a four-month-long truck blockade by India at the India–Nepal border created a huge fuel and essential-goods crisis in Nepal. This was India’s response to Nepal’s lack of adequate inclusion of Madhesis in its Constitution. Madhesis, the Indian-origin inhabitants of the Terai region in Nepal, opposed the splitting of Nepal into seven provinces designed in such a way that rendered the Madhesis as minorities in each province.
The issues were further exacerbated by the longstanding logistical problems that Nepal as a landlocked nation has had with India. The cost of cargo between Kolkata and Kathmandu is three times compared to the cost of cargo between Hamburg in Germany and Kolkata. In addition to that, traders also face customs trouble at the Indian ports. The trade blockade that started in September 2015, ended in February the following year though it was not the first time that India blockaded its northern neighbour.
China, which currently accounts for just 13 per cent of Nepal’s imports mainly because connectivity is hindered by the Himalayas has been amping up its operations in the region. China has been investing heavily in Nepal as Beijing has pledged $8.3 billion to build roads and hydropower plants in Nepal. The Chinese have started planning a railway line from Rasuwagadhi to Kathmandu, which will be 72 km long and will cost $2.7 billion.
The plan is to reach Kathmandu by 2029. China has been trying to extend its influence in the Indian Ocean region as well as in small landlocked nations like Nepal which can ideally serve as a buffer state between the two rising giants.
Both India and Nepal share long-drawn cultural traditions and this significantly has taken the relations forward. It is not very difficult to comprehend as to why close relations with Nepal and countering Chinese influence in the landlocked nation is crucial for India. The Himalayan country is geo-strategically located and if the Chinese get control of Nepal, they will be able to cut off the Siliguri corridor or the ‘Chicken’s neck’- a narrow passage of 22 kilometers that connects north-east India with rest of the country and other bordering states such as Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. India, therefore, needs to be on its toes and look out for all possible moves by China aimed at increasing its influence in the region
The Indian government has been pretty successful in checking the growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka and in turn, improving its own relations with the island nation, where the power of cultural affinity came into play. Sri Lanka last year had reversed a $300-million China housing deal to build houses in the region and instead partnered up for an all India-Sri Lanka venture. The project was halted after residents demanded brick houses, saying they preferred their traditional type of dwelling instead of the concrete structures the Chinese firm had planned.
India has already built 44,000 houses in the war trodden northern Sri Lanka which is primarily inhabited by Tamil people As India and China have intensified their geopolitical interest in the Indian Ocean, the region’s smaller states have aimed to balance their political relations with these major powers. But in at least one realm of engagement, countries have resisted balancing their relations. Since 2015, the island countries of Mauritius, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka have procured military equipment only from India.
The strategic significance of the area’s island states notably Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Maldives, and the Seychelles arises primarily from their proximity to key international sea lanes and India has checked the right boxes here, cornering the Chinese and its “string of pearls” plan. Now, it is high time for India to demonstrate and replicate the same diplomatic exploits in case of Nepal as well.
All is not lost as India and Nepal share a strong cultural affinity. The Government of India has started making efforts to bring relations between the two countries back on track after a brief hiatus. The initiation of the Janakpur-Ayodhya bus service helped India in striking a chord with Nepal. In August last year, Modi-government had announced plans to build a 130-km (80-mile) train line from its northern border city of Raxaul to Kathmandu. Prime Minister Modi has already declared Nepal to be the centerpiece of his government’s “neighbourhood first” policy.
The government seems to have realised the significance of securing warm and close relations with Nepal given the fact that China is trying its best to increase its influence in the region. India should be providing an alternative narrative for India-Nepal ties, one that takes into account the longstanding people-to-people ties and cultural connect even as it underscores New Delhi’s commitment for an equitable and sustainable partnership between two sovereign nations. While Oli and his communist government may pose difficulties in improving bilateral relations, the Nepali Prime Minister recognizes that the links with India, which traverse history, culture, and geography, cannot be severed so easily.
New Delhi should also be aware that nearly all governments in Nepal have tried to play the China card vis-à-vis India. Therefore Oli is certainly not unique in that regard nor will he be the last. India should be looking to use its position of dominance in Nepal and counter Chinese influx through its subtle man-management skills by handling KP Oli delicately.