India-Nepal ties and the China factor

Author: 
Barun Das Gupta

Certain changes are taking place in Nepal, both in its internal politics and in its external relations with China. For one thing, ever since the monarchy ended a decade ago in December 2007, Nepal has failed repeatedly to pass and implement a constitution. The latest constitution, adopted in September 2015, is still to be formally promulgated. Minister for Information and Communication Mohan Bahadur Basnet has gone on record saying the constitution will come into force only after the provincial and parliamentary elections to be held this November.
The reason why Nepal is still without a constitution is that the three major political parties, the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), are more or less evenly matched in strength and each party wants to dominate the other two. Each wants to hold the provincial and parliamentary elections under its dominance.
However, the two Communist Parties – the CPN(UML), led by former prime minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, and the CPN(MC), led by Pushpa Kumar Dahal, better known as Prachanda, are try.ing to merge into one party after the November elections. They have been bitterly fighting each other for more than a decade. The fight often led to clashes and bloodshed.
If the expected merger takes place (with former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai’s Nava Shakti Party also joining the new party) then there would be a major change in the political balance of power in Nepal. The Nepali Congress, which has all along been friendly to India, may lose its bargaining power vis-à-vis the two Communist parties. Such a change is likely to impact Nepal-India relations though it is too early to anticipate the nature of the impact and what its long term effect will be on Indo-Nepal relations.
In terms of external relations, Nepal is coming closer to China and becoming less dependent on India. Nepal has all along been depending on India for its Internet connection. This June the dependence ended as China provided Nepal Internet connection through optical fibre. The Nepal Telecom (NT) entered into an agreement with China Telecom Global (CTG). In June, Nepal was connected to Hong Kong. Nepal will be able to access Internet at rates lower than those offered by India. Nepal will also have the advantage of buying different bandwidth from different Chinese companies.
There have been several irritants in Indo-Nepal relations. Nepal is a land-locked country, which gets all its imports through India. Whenever there is tension in the India-Nepal border, as happened in 2015 during the Madhesi agitation, all supplies, including oil via India, came to a dead stop. Nepal’s economy was on the verge of a collapse due to the prolonged blockade. In that critical situation China came to Nepal’s rescue. It supplied 1.3 million litres of petrol to Nepal to keep the wheels of traffic moving. The perception in Nepal is that the blockade by the Madhesi people had more than tacit support from India. It was perceived to be a political ploy employed by India to put pressure on Nepal to amend the Nepali constitution to give more representation and power to the Madhesis living in the southern part of the country contiguous to India.
There was another irritant. When the Nepali constitution was being adopted, New Delhi is believed to have put pressure on Kathmandu to declare the predominantly Hindu country as a Hindu Rashtra. Nepal refused to give in and opted for a secular constitution. Earlier, when the people were fighting the monarchy, India was perceived to be giving its support to the King rather than to those who wanted to abolish monarchy and introduce democracy. India was believed to be siding with the King because the struggle for democracy was being fought under the leadership of pro-Peking communists. All these are on the mind of the average Nepali when he thinks of relations with India
Now, Nepal’s sole dependence on India for its imports is also going to end, though it will take some time. Nepal and China have entered into an agreement to implement an $8 billion project, which will connect Kathmandu with Tibetan capital Lhasa by railway. The track will be 550 kms long – 400 kms in China (Tibet) and 150 kms in Nepal, from the Sino-Nepal border to Kathmandu. The project is scheduled to be completed. In about eight years. Once commissioned, the railway will enable China to transport goods and passengers – civil as well as non-civil – to Kathmandu.
The strategic implication of this project for India is obvious. According to reports emanating from Nepal, trains on this route will have an operating speed of 120 to 160 kmph, which will be a remarkable engineering feat if it is taken into consideration that the entire stretch of the track will traverse the high Himalayas. The altitude of Lhasa is 12,000 feet while that of Kathmandu is 4,600 feet. The Sino-Nepal railway project will be part of China’s efforts at building the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project.
China is aggressively expanding its influence in all neighbouring countries of India by offering huge loans to build infrastructural facilities and ambitious projects. The recipient countries, in their eagerness to accelerate economic growth, are falling for the Chinese, oblivious of the long-term consequences of Chinese ‘help’. In most cases Chinese help will mean a debt trap for the countries and force them to agree to various concessions to China to repay the debt. They are also most likely to see a sizeable growth of permanent Chinese settlers on their soil as well.
India has to give a credible and convincing message to Nepal that it is an all-weather friend and does not want to interfere either in Nepal’s internal politics or in its external relations with other countries. (IPA)

Thursday, 26 October, 2017