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Amid stand-off with China, India faces new low in bilateral ties with Nepal

A Nepali activist burns an image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a May protest against India’s unilateral construction of a link road that passes through some territories also claimed by Nepal. Photo: EPA

Nepal’s decision on Thursday to approve a controversial new territorial map contested by India-as New Delhi is in the throes of a bitter bilateral crisis with Beijing-reveals just how frayed ties between the traditional allies are as China attempts to increase its influence in the region.

Since news emerged that Indian and Chinese troops brawled with rocks and rods in the Galwan Valley along their disputed border on Monday, leaving at least 20 Indian soldiers dead and an unconfirmed number of injured men from both sides, Kathmandu has not expressed any condolences.

Instead, three days later, its president and upper house of parliament approved a map that marked 62 square kilometres of land in the Kalapani region, currently administered by India, as Nepal’s territory.

India had previously rejected the map, calling it an “unjustified cartographic assertion” and “an artificial enlargement of claims” not based on historical facts or evidence. But Nepal’s law minister Shiva Maya Tumbahamphe told parliament on Thursday: “We have enough facts and evidence and we’ll sit (with India) to resolve the dispute through diplomatic negotiations.”

Adding to the tensions, Nepal’s army chief General Purna Chandra Thapa on Wednesday visited the westernmost border post along the India-Nepal border near the Kalapani area.

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While India’s Ministry of External Affairs did not officially respond to Nepal’s approval of the map, the move is likely to cause worry in New Delhi as sources indicate backchannel talks between the two nations to avert the escalation of tensions may have fallen short.

Monday’s violent face-off between Chinese and Indian troops is also likely to trigger fresh policy moves in India to counter China. A defensive India is therefore even less likely to give in to Nepalese demands in the disputed Kalapani region, as it lies at a tri-junction between Nepal, India and China.

Nepal and India share an open border as well as a two-century-old dispute over boundaries. The 1816 Treaty of Sugauli between Nepal and British India marked the Mahakali River as the former’s western boundary with India, but neither country can agree on the river’s location. Though this has long been an inconvenient aspect of bilateral ties, neither side has previously shown an inclination to upset the apple cart.

“The issue would find a token mention in diplomatic settings but was not actively pursued by either side,” says retired ambassador Ranjit Rae, India’s former envoy to Nepal, who served there between 2013 and 2017.

What put a strain on ties was India’s decision to place an unofficial two-month economic blockade on Nepal in 2015, disrupting its supplies of food and fuel. At the time, New Delhi said internal unrest in Nepal had made supply drivers afraid to cross the border.

The two countries have an asymmetrical relationship. Nepal, which has a GDP of US$29 billion, remains heavily dependent on India, its largest trading partner, which has a US$2.7 trillion economy. In 2017-18, Nepal imported US$7.39 billion worth of goods from India, exporting to it goods worth US$420 million. Hence, the blockade hurt Nepal immensely.

Then, last November, India published new territorial maps after revoking the autonomy of Jammu & Kashmir, turning the region into two federally administered states and showing Kalapani within Indian borders.


“That is the genesis of the current showdown. Till then, Kathmandu had never wanted to put its claims on its maps. But when it saw that India was doing it, pressure started building upon the government to do the same here,” said Dr Pramod Jaiswal, research director of the Nepal Institute For International Cooperation and Engagement, a Kathmandu-based think tank.

In early May, as tensions between Indian and Chinese border troops simmered, Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated an 80km road that passes through some territories also claimed by Nepal, saying it would cut travel times for pilgrims.

Indian diplomats privately admit that New Delhi’s efforts at reaching out to Kathmandu had been insufficient, and the road’s inauguration unnecessary.

Rakesh Sood, India’s ambassador to Nepal from 2008 to 2011, said Nepal’s communist Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli had seized the chance to target India and boost his own popularity, in a bid to detract from domestic opposition.

Oli repeatedly targeted India, taking digs at its national emblem and blaming it for the spread of the coronavirus in his country, calling it the “Indian virus”.

“The inauguration was used as a political lifeline by a beleaguered Prime Minister Oli. After all, the road had been in the making for over 10 years and at no point had Nepal raised any objection to its construction,” Sood said.

New Delhi fears Nepal’s assertiveness has been bolstered by China’s influence in the landlocked Himalayan country. Hou Yanqi, China’s ambassador to Nepal, last month held a series of meetings with the top leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, including Oli, reportedly in a bid to keep the party’s warring factions united.

Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first visit to Nepal last year after an informal bilateral summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, signing a slew of deals including one for a trans-Himalayan highway. Analysts commenting on the visit said Xi had demonstrated China could get close to a country that for long had seen its fortunes closely intertwined with India’s.

On the eve of Xi’s visit, the first by a Chinese president in two decades, Nepal said it disapproved of the United States-led Indo-Pacific strategy.

Nepal watchers like former ambassador Rae believe Beijing might also be actively involved in the country’s domestic politics.

 “The Chinese are deeply engaged in Nepal now– from uniting warring factions to saving the Oli government. It has become a key interest for the Communist Party of China to ensure that Nepal’s communists stay united and rule over Nepal for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Jaiswal from the Nepal Institute For International Cooperation and Engagement agrees, but lays the blame on New Delhi’s doorstep. “India has not done enough to settle outstanding issues with Nepal. If India can negotiate with China despite the latter occupying its territory, why can it not do the same with Nepal?” he said.

Former ambassador Sood believes Nepal’s actions might not go down too well with New Delhi, adding that it “shrinks the space for dialogue”. “It has expanded what was a difference in terms of territorial perceptions into a territorial dispute. It will, therefore, remain an obstacle for the foreseeable future.”

Nepal’s assertiveness, the border disorder with China and ongoing tensions with Pakistan seem to have laid waste to Modi’s goal of prioritising good relations with India’s neighbours. China’s increasing influence had earlier seen India having to rethink its strategies in countries like the Maldives and Sri Lanka, while the Modi administration’s Hindu nationalist agenda has alienated Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Now, experts like Rae feel India will need to reassess its approach with Nepal. “India will have to factor in the growing influence of China in Nepal, the rising anti-India sentiment and the fact that friends of India, in Nepal, are not playing their part any more.”