By James Lewis
Nepal, historically aligned with India, has recently shifted its focus to its northern neighbor, China. This diplomatic shift sits at the forefront of the Sino-Indian rivalry and may provide a template for greater Chinese influence in the region.
In autumn of 2016, the dusty streets of Kathmandu begrudgingly welcomed then Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. The holiday season of Tihar was fast approaching, but celebrations were somewhat curtailed by the ongoing humanitarian crises brought forth by the earthquake a year prior. In the brief three days he was there, Mukherjee witnessed firsthand the scale of the destruction, the leveled monuments, and the rampant homelessness. Amongst the ruins and makeshift housing, perhaps the President also noticed the bold blue tents that occasionally appeared throughout the valley. On their side, in block white lettering, were Chinese characters, heralding the arrival of assistance from Beijing.
Mukherjee’s trip aimed to reestablish a positive relationship with Nepal, an ambitious project that remains unfinished. Though India gave an unrivaled amount of assistance to Nepal in the immediate aftermath of April 2015’s disastrous earthquake, a disagreement over the new Nepali constitution that September caused unrest at the border. Critical supplies, such as fuel, were blockaded. Nepali officials blamed New Delhi, whereas India maintained that the blockade was caused by Madhesi groups within Nepal. Regardless, the incident did irreparable damage to the bilateral relationship and forced Nepal to look to its only other neighbor, China.
The importance of Nepal to both India and China lie in its position in the Himalayas. The mountain range is Earth’s most brutal feature; even the intensity of its image amongst the valleys cannot impose upon the viewer the hardships endured by those who dare try to cross it. The Himalayas serve not only as a barrier between India and China, but also a critical resource. Both civilizations owe their existence to the mighty rivers that flow through them, the Indus and the Ganga, and the Yangtze and the Huang. All four rivers find their source in the icy caps of the mountains in and around the roof of the world. Nepal is also home to key mountain passes, such as Jilung, that connect Tibet to the south.
This has placed Nepal in a precarious geopolitical position. Over the past generation, it has witnessed these nuclear powers casually swallow its neighbors – Tibet was absorbed by China in 1950, and Sikkim voted to be part of India in 1975. It has seen them do battle over the region, which created a yet unresolved border dispute. The few existing passes, namely Nathu-La and Cho-la, are still the site of occasional military unrest, most notably a shoving match between the People’s Liberation Army and Indian Army last year. But as a landlocked and less-developed nation, Nepal finds itself both wary of and reliant on its coastal neighbors, and suddenly finds itself the target of massive diplomatic efforts from both parties.
On the surface, China may seem like the odd one out in the region. The might of the Himalayas curbed even the great cultural influence of the Middle Kingdom, whereas Nepal’s southlands enjoy a much less dramatic geography that has allowed Indian culture to permeate the small nation. Indian influence can be easily seen throughout Nepali culture, including the language and the preeminent religion, Hinduism. China does not enjoy the same deep cultural tie with Nepal, but has been able to circumvent this shortcoming with more pragmatic tools.
When fuel stopped moving between India and Nepal, China moved in in a matter of weeks. The state owned PetroChina signed a long-term deal with the Nepali Oil Corp., and China pledged a donation of over a million liters. Nepali officials later said that they wanted to have 33 percent of their petroleum consumption come from Chinese sources, a massive increase. Today, China continues to move their diplomatic might by making Kathmandu a beneficiary of the One Belt, One Road initiative. The massive infrastructure push aims to improve electrical service to the ancient capital, and to connect it to Chinese cities via modern railways. Chinese investment also comes after changes in the Nepali political scene. After the grueling civil war from 1995-2006, Maoists have become a legitimized political force in the capital and for several years occupied the office of Prime Minister. And while India has slowed arms assistance since 2005, China has ramped it up, slowly replacing the mishmash of World War II era equipment with modern models. Nepal has also engaged India’s long-time adversary, Pakistan, hosting Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi earlier this month.
India’s attempts to retake the diplomatic momentum have done little to ebb Chinese influence. When Nepali President Bidya Devi Bhandari visited the country in 2017, she discussed at length with Indian diplomats the potential energy and transportation projects that could help bridge the gap. India also attempted to play up the ancient cultural connections, having the President tour important temples. But even the grand projects and cultural connections from the Indian side seem to be eclipsed. It did not help that the visit happened around the same time as the first ever joint Nepal-China military drills.
Chinese efforts to move its influence deeper into the Himalayas has historically met a number of snags, and continues to do so in sensitive areas like Nathu-La. The One Belt One Road initiative will continue to reignite some of these tensions, but the sheer economic weight of China has afforded it a number of options. Nepal will serve as a proving ground of sorts, and China has seen a good deal of success there. However, this success comes with good timing, as Nepal’s relationship with India remains in a slump. Beijing may not have such an easy time with other potential partners.
James Lewis is an analyst based in New York City, focused primarily on East Asian defense affairs. In 2011, he graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Social Science and a specialty in Diplomacy and War.