Countries averse to India-China working together

The Nepalese would gain tremendously if that happens. At present, they are at a loss as to how to maintain cordial relations with both the countries without upsetting any one power

NH Photo by Vipin
NH Photo by Vipin

Dhairya Maheshwari

While India cannot stop Nepal or neighbouring countries from courting China, the two countries can agree to work together in the region, says Mahendra Lama, a member of the Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) working to better Indo-Nepal relations, in this interview to Dhairya Maheshwari.

Q. Does India have reasons to worry about China’s increasing interest in Nepal?

A. China-India competition in Nepal is not a new one. We had one-to-one competition with the Chinese in the 1950s as well as the 1960s, 70s and the 80s, when we built the Kathmandu-India border highway. The Chinese, on the other hand, built the Kathmandu-Tibet Highway. Then we built the Pokhara-Sunauli highway, known as the Siddharth Marg. The Chinese built the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway, known as the Prithviraj Marg.

But today, the way the Chinese are going about their Belt and Road strategy, it is bound to have implications not only in Nepal, but across the entire region. In face of such Chinese actions, India is presented with three options- you close your eyes, you react as and when developments happen, or you be proactive.

At least in the neighbouring countries, we can be proactive. We know these countries so well. The main problem, however, has been that we are slow. The Chinese are building Nepal’s second international airport at Bhairahawa, which is close to Gorakhpur. Chinese presence in Nepal is the new reality. So, why doesn’t India start thinking big?

Q. What is the image of China in the eyes of Nepalese people?

A. Well, on interacting with Nepalese students, policymakers, politicians and common people, one gets a sense that the people there are keen to engage the Chinese in a big manner, which wasn’t the case in the 1980s, or even in the 1990s. They see how China has invested and helped drive development in central and south-east Asia. Now, Nepal sees countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka also developing close ties with China.

Having said that, South Asia has remained India’s neighbourhood. India must understand that its role in the region’s overall development cannot be replaced so easily. So, the next ten years are crucial for India to reclaim the role it once enjoyed in South Asia.

Q. Some commentators speculate that Nepal is using its growing ties with China as a leverage against India…

A. Look, India can’t stop Nepal from developing its relations with China. But one way forward could be both India and China working together in Nepal, at least in some projects. We could work together in South Asia, Africa or in South-East Asia. And we have worked together in the past. Look how we managed the Nathu-la trade route.

I happened to author the government report detailing the benefits of reopening the Nathu-la trade route. Back then, everyone was sceptical about the prospect. There were concerns that Chinese good would flood the Indian market and kill the Indian industry. But, look what happened once it re-opened.

People-to-people interaction began, trade resumed. Nathu-la used to be such a hard border. Now, it has become a soft border.

Q. Is the current Nepalese leadership under Prime Minister KP Oli receptive to such a partnership between its two bigger neighbours?

A. Well, the Nepalese would gain tremendously if that happens. At present, they are at a loss as to how to maintain cordial relations with both the countries without upsetting any one power.

In fact, all the smaller countries of the region are presented with the same dilemma, be it Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or even the Maldives. The solution lies in India and China sitting together and discussing critical issues facing the region

This the concluding part of the two-part interview with Mahendra Lama. The first part can be checked out here.

(The interview first appeared in NH on Sunday)

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