India has all but lost Nepal to China

There is a consensus among former diplomats and experts that China is presenting itself as a convincing alternative to countries like Nepal, seen as a longstanding Indian ally

Photo courtesy: PTI
Photo courtesy: PTI

Dhairya Maheshwari

As China tightens its economic and political embrace over Nepal, military and political experts are warning that Nepal’s tilt away from India could pose serious security challenges for New Delhi.

“Nepal has always acted as a 1,753-km long shield for India against China. India has to secure Nepal to secure its future,” Brigadier Narendra Kumar, Senior Fellow at New Delhi-based Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), said during a conference, Changing Contours of India-Nepal Relations, in New Delhi this week.

The conference was jointly organised by the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) and German Political Foundation Heinrich Boll Stiftung.

Kumar, who has done stints in North-East, Sri Lanka and J&K, noted that the left-wing Maoist insurgency in India could only be fed through three routes – North-East, the Andhra coast and Nepal, where the Naxalite cause is known to have sympathisers in the Maoist parties. “It is not feasible to get weapons and means to the Maoists through the first two routes, which leaves only the option of Nepal.”

“Such an arrangement can’t be ruled out and it is not entirely out of question. Nepal is vital for our security,” Kumar added.

The military veteran further noted that the 32,000-odd Gurkha soldiers in the Indian Army had close emotive connect with Nepal.

The insightful remarks by Kumar came at a conference that majorly dwelled on the increasing prominence of China in Nepal’s domestic politics.

There is an overarching consensus of late that Beijing has been stepping up its cooperation with Nepal in the wake of the 71-day military standoff in Doklam, which ended earlier this month after both sides agreed to withdraw troops by 150 metres.

Specifying the reason behind the geostrategic shift taking place in South Asia, former Indian Ambassador to China Ashok Kantha said that China offered itself as a countervailing force vis-à-vis India to the neighbourhood countries.

“The countries would like to use the China factor to get a better deal vis-à-vis India,” Kantha said at an event organised The Indian Express on Wednesday.

Noted academic and former diplomat Professor SD Muni, speaking at the ISS- Heinrich Boll Stiftung joint conference, highlighted that China’s presence in Nepal had much to do with Asian giant looking for alternative routes to market its products in the face of the Malacca dilemma and increasing India-US bonhomie on the subcontinent.

“The original Chinese plan was to build a railway link to Nepal, as part of One Belt One Road (OBOR), and then connect it to the Indian Railways. But that didn’t work out as Indian refused to participate in the Chinese initiative,” Muni said.

Professor Surjit Dutta, the Chair at Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Jamia Milia Islamia, said that Nepal and China had much to offer each other, and New Delhi shouldn’t be taking umbrage at Nepal’s growing proximity to Beijing.

“Nepal is looking for an alternative route to grow itself and that is where China comes into the picture. The interest of China in Nepal is mainly geopolitical, as the Himalayan country lies on the periphery of the Tibet, which is known have a deep-seated secessionist sentiment against Beijing,” Dutta said.

“There is a 20,000-strong Tibetan refugee community in Nepal, which most recently erupted in protests at the time of Beijing Olympics in 2008. China had then forced Nepal to crackdown on refugees to avoid international embarrassment,” the academic recalled.

The Jamia professor further pointed out instances when People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops had entered Nepalese territory to take back with them Tibetan refugees who had fled persecution in their homeland.

Daman Dhungana, the former speaker of the Nepal’s House of Representatives, stated that China had been evincing increased interest in Nepal since the Monarchy was abolished in 2008.

“China saw the Monarchy as protector of its interests and a symbol of stability. After its abolition, it started to support the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) as guarantor of its political interests,” he said.

Former Ambassador of India to Nepal, Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, earlier said during his keynote address that the Madhesi agitation demanding more political space for people of the Terai Plains was responsible for the recent surge in anti-India sentiment.

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