Even though Nepal hasn’t been a country with a remarkable record of political stability over the years, its leadership has nonetheless done quite well when it came to tackling its geographical limitation. Be it under the once strong but now defunct monarchy or the fragile democratic forces, the small Himalayan nation has always handled both its huge neighbours – India and China – with a decent touch of realpolitik, understanding fully well that a tightrope walk is essential for its own sake.
Experts in India have always viewed that Nepal plays the China card whenever it tries to assert its strength outside India’s shadow and there have been instances in the past when New Delhi felt rattled by Kathmandu’s display of affection for Beijing. The crippling blockade that India had imposed on Nepal in 1989had among its major reasons, Kathmandu’s decisionto buy anti-aircraft guns from China the previous year. Therefore, despite the historical closeness between India and Nepal, the China factor has always been an uncomfortable one, especially for the former.
But when experts from Nepal and China met at a joint symposium in Kathmandu in January this year discussing various aspects of Nepal’s relation with China, a trilateral relationship between Nepal, India and China and also Beijing’s much talked about Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it certainly created concerns in Indian ranks. Nepal, in fact, has been a proponent of a trilateral corridor featuring its two neighbours besides itself for long and after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s BRI gained momentum, Nepal’s aspirations also received a boost. Nepal went ahead to sign a framework agreement with China on the BRI in May besides attending the BRI Forum which was held in the same month, something India avoided. The question now is: Will India be ready to join a trilateral economic corridor, especially when the shadow of the BRI has been looming large on its borders?
Going by the repercussion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project of the BRI which it accuses of violating its sovereignty in Kashmir region and also the recent Doklam standoff in the Sikkim sector which also involved Bhutan, it is very much unlikely that New Delhi will find the required confidence to forge partnership with Beijing for the trilateral corridor.
The policy goals of Nepal and India do not find themselves aligned over the trilateral project. For Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, expanding trade relations with two of the fastest emerging economies of the world is always a positive ploy. It is akin to a game-changing strategy that can earn massive political mileage for the country’s leadership and it is no surprise that the fledgling democracy’s left and right wing camps have backed it.
For India, however, there are serious security and strategic concerns attached to the project. For, New Delhi has always been an ally of Kathmandu, helping it in various ways. India and Nepal have shared a very close relation over the years with open borders and the former would not really like China to become a part of its equations with Nepal. Presence of Chinese personnel close to its territory and prospects of Chinese goods flooding its own market more, especially when a nationalist government is in control in New Delhi, would be too serious a concern for the latter.
Trilateral project a good opportunity for China & Nepal but India needs to act wisely
For the Chinese, the trilateral project would be a golden opportunity to increase its influence in South Asia, something it has been doing of late to challenge India in its own backyard. Nepal’s political leadershipsees this as a means to minimise its dependence on India and turn more independent in its foreign policy exercise. It is well known to the media and political circles that Nepal was not particularly happy with India’s excesses in the wake of the devastating earthquakes of April 2015 and also the latter’s objection to its constitution-making later that year. Kathmandu’s quest to become a part of the BRI and also aspiring for a trilateral project with both its neighbours are signs of its growing political maturity. But will just ignoring this project do India much good?This is where diplomacy plays a crucial part.
One of New Delhi’s biggest failures has been its inability to sustain its neighbours’ affection for itself. Indian governments over the years have claimed that they want to prioritise the neighbours, even if it meant one-sided commitment from New Delhi. The current NarendraModi government has also given hints time and again that India cares for its neighbours, more than ever. But in effect, it seemed the Modi government is more interested to better the disappointing neighbourhood policy of the previous Manmohan Singh government than making real breakthroughs. China has shown no signs of letting up its quest to make more inroads in South Asia by wooing smaller countries, something which India has found difficult to tackle, even under a rejuvenated foreign policy exercise under PM Modi.
South Asia needs to speak more in the language of trade
India cannot really compete with the Chinesein terms of economy and its best bet will remain to adopt a more cooperative stance vis-à-vis Beijing. It is extremely important that the countries of South Asia speak in the language of trade and not power with each other to achieve that ‘unachievable’ regional integration and India, being the largest of the states in these parts, needs to play a pivotal role. New Delhi can have its own equations to address when it comes with China but to treat Beijing as an enemy to defeat in every second issue could see it loosening grip on the own backyard. Despite lagging behind China, India can still try to win more hearts in South Asia through a more serious neighbourhood policy.
For nationalists, the India-Nepal-China corridor might have different meanings but integration of states in a region even if they have the most lopsided trading between them (like for example, Sino-Nepal and Sino-Indian trade) is always a positive thing to happen. Trade can minimise the angry voice of power and clash of nationalisms. South Asia has miserably failed so far to integrate itself on political and economic lines. If a project like India-Nepal-China economic corridor becomes a reality, it can go a long way in securing New Delhi’s open borders with Nepal by bringing in development in that country and also improving terms with the Chinese – politically, strategically and diplomatically. Will New Delhi be ready to give regional integration a chance to overcome the fears concerned over security and strategy?