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China or India: Leave Nepal free to develop its international outreach

22 June 2016

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[Commentaries by Barbara Nimri Aziz and Kanak Mani Dixit]

counterpunch.org - June 17, 2016

China or India: Does Nepal Have a Realistic Choice?

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I was crossing the airstrip to a small aircraft that would take me to Nepal’s interior. We had left the disarray of the departure hall in Kathmandu airport with its melee of early morning hopefuls anxious to escape the polluted city and fly to a trailhead in search of fresh mountain streams and clean air. Planes are in short supply here and cancellations of domestic flights are common. Although those waiting foreigners seemed remarkably patient with the delays, perhaps attributing the disorder to high altitude. Politics wouldn’t figure into any charming anecdote sent from their holidays in the Himalayas. Neither was I thinking about Nepal’s political troubles at that moment. Not until my colleague directed my attention to a medium sized plane parked on the edge of the tarmac.

“That Turbo Prop M16 is Chinese-made; it was bought by Nepal. Another of the same model, a gift, is expected: two-for-the-price-of-one, you can say.” Nepal could use more aircraft, with not infrequent crashes and regular over-bookings on domestic flights. As for the undelivered Chinese turbo prop, “It’s being held up”, my companion replied. He exhibited the lighthearted cynicism that Nepalese now apply to all public announcements, especially when officials are involved.

I recalled seeing a recent front page article where a minister announced that irregularities in the registration of a Chinese aircraft would delay its arrival. “Too much aid from China is not welcome.” Was this another case of India blocking Nepal’s economic exchanges with China?

“Maybe. Or maybe Boeing, American. Or Airbus. Europeans and Americans may be unhappy with China’s overtures in Nepal. India too; Delhi influences everything that happens here.”

India and Nepal are bound together in a myriad of ways with India being the overwhelmingly dominant partner. Nepalese were painfully reminded of this when India supported a severe and sustained economic blockade on its land-locked northern neighbor. With Nepal’s dependence on India for heating fuel and petrol for transport— two of many essential commodities ranging from paper and wood to rice and fruit, also manufactured items and packaged/processed food and beverages—life across much of Nepal came to a halt. It was the heating gas and transport fuel embargo that caused unprecedented hardships in population centers, especially the capital. It left people embittered and reassessing their relation with India.

The boycott was launched by the Mahdesi people, unhappy at what they considered marginalization, when last July after years of delays, Nepal’s new constitution was signed. Mahdesi-Nepalese, inhabiting a wide belt of land along their shared border, maintain close ties with India. They decided to utilize this strategic position to express their discontent with the constitution and press for better representation; thus the blockade of goods (from India) entering Nepal through their region.

That internal Nepal crisis took on greater significance when the Indian government was seen as reinforcing Mahdesi demands. Indeed India instructed Nepal to amend its constitution in line with Mahdesi requests. Nepal’s leaders were neither able to secure India’s co-operation nor to negotiate a solution with the steadfast Mahdesi.

As the blockade wore on (lasting for seven months, including winter, although it began to ease somewhat earlier) Nepalese began to seek an alternative. Not easy, since its northern border cuts through the almost impenetrable Himalayan mountain range. Tibet to the north is vast and undeveloped but is nevertheless Nepal’s best access to China. It would be years before a viable route through there could bring essentials like fuel on the scale needed. Although during the blockade China began sending limited supplies to its stricken neighbor.

Even with end of the blockade, anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal remains high. Over my many decades observing Nepal at close hand, I’d not seen Nepalese so angry and disappointed with their neighbor, a place where many of them have studied and where they seek medical treatment, with a culture close to their own, the source of their evening television entertainment. Those millions of children who experienced hardships created by the blockade may well remember that injury for years to come.

Enter China: ties between it and Nepal have moved far beyond a few specialized items produced in Tibet. Today Chinese travelers are a common sight in the capital and on trekking trails. Chinese retailers operate shops in the tourist quarter of Thamel, selling curios and garments and managing hotels and restaurants. Chinese-made household items, electrical goods (in competition with Indian manufactured goods) are for sale across Nepal. China also provides significant development aid to Nepal. An indication of envisioned future growth is the offering of classes in Mandarin at least one major Kathmandu language institute (www.ulci.com.np).

When the earthquake struck Nepal last year, China was seen through a new and favorable prism as it competed with India to provide disaster relief. Both neighbors rushed to Nepal’s assistance and they’ve matched each other in terms of pledges for reconstruction. On the ground at that critical time, I myself witnessed the efficiency with which Chinese aid workers operated; one heard frequent complimentary remarks by recipients of that assistance. Urgent supplies arrived from China by air while Chinese bulldozers opened the blocked roads along the quake-damaged Tibet-Nepal route. Contrasting with praise of Chinese relief efforts were complaints about India. (Rumors circulated that India’s military charged into Nepal when the quake struck without Nepal’s approval, also that Indian media exaggerated India’s relief contributions. Although it is acknowledged that huge quantities of needed supplies arrived from India, and India facilitated overland shipments sent from other parts of Asia.)

The Madhesi embargo was started before earthquake relief ended and long before collapsed homes and schools could be rebuilt, also just as winter was approaching. In Nepal’s desperate search for fuel at that time, China became to the fore. It would not be a simple solution since the quantities needed could only be provided by road through Tibet and across Himalayan passes. Supplies might be insufficient but the concept of expanding routes from the north was pursued. (By October, at the height of the blockade Nepal and China signed two treaties, one on trade and a second on fuel supplies). A viable rail link or a pipeline into Nepal from the north seems implausible; in the recent crisis the China option was of limited benefit.

Yet China’s reputation in infrastructure engineering is legend; having achieved a rail route across China into Tibet, an extension through the Himalayas, however fantastic, is possible. Indeed a month ago, China dispatched what appears to be a symbolic train delivery to Nepal . The international shipment departed from Lanzhou westward covering 2,431 kilometers of rail from to Shigatse (Tibet), then 564 kilometers by road from Shigatse to Kyirong (on Nepal’s border) and the final 160 kilometers by road to Kathmandu. Accompanying this news there’s talk of a tunnel through the Himalayan range from China into Nepal. Given what Chinese engineers have accomplished elsewhere, such a route is not unattainable.

What eventually happens depends more on Nepali politics, and China and India’s determination not to jeopardize their own growing co-operation. Internally Nepal’s leadership is weak and unstable, subject to factionalism and corruption. Leaders from across the political spectrum lack negotiating power, political support, and any vision to follow through with a substantive long-term Chinese policy. On its side, it’s doubtful if China would jeopardize a stable relationship with India to change the status quo in Nepal. Meanwhile India and Nepal are reportedly finalizing plans for an oil pipeline from the south.

Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.

o o o

The Hindu, May 19, 2016

North by Northeast

by Kanak Mani Dixit

Nepal’s opening up to China should compel India to rethink its geostrategic doctrine about the Himalayan range. Leaving Nepal free to develop its international outreach would be an enlightened starting point.

The Himalaya is no longer the barrier New Delhi strategists have long regarded it as, and there is today a churning all along the mountain range that demands a reassessment of what the stretch means for India’s security, commerce and connectivity. New Delhi has been skittish about the northern ‘rimland’ of South Asia ever since the 1962 debacle at the hands of China. It is time to shed the Himalayan paranoia.

India’s self-image is that of a benign democracy, but it is somewhat less so from the Himalayan perspective, if you consider the absorption of Sikkim or the low-burn interventionism in Nepal and Bhutan. A turnaround in New Delhi’s Himalayan doctrine would lead to an easier relationship with the sovereign neighbours, helping their evolution into stable democracies. It would also contribute to making India’s own Himalayan hinterland, from the Northeast to Kashmir, more part of the national mainstream.

For all of this to transpire, the New Delhi establishment has to shake off the inertia in its strategic thinking of the Himalayan range. It must simultaneously understand the desires of the Himalayan societies and consider the new-found interdependence of the Indian and Chinese economies, and also consider ways to ensure India’s security beyond the number of boots on the ground along the mountain frontier. Out-of-the-box statecraft would bring dividends in peace of mind, savings and economic growth.

Countenancing China

Without doubt, India is challenged today in responding to a China that is coming on strong from the shores of Rakhine in northern Myanmar to Gwadar on the Balochistan coast. There is visible activism in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and now Nepal, with what is touted as a goods train service specifically meant for Nepal connecting Gansu’s Lanzhou to Tibet’s Shigatse inaugurated on May 11.

New Delhi’s Himalayan apprehension has to do with an ascendant China, and the West may see this worry as assisting its own ‘containment’ policy. The Chinese challenge is real, but the ground has shifted with advances in the transport, infrastructure and geopolitics of High Asia, enough to demand a policy departure. New Delhi will have to calibrate its position between competing with, engaging, and strategically challenging Beijing. In doing so, it should consider the advantages of the planned trans-Himalayan infrastructural connections, which will ultimately help India’s economy link to the Chinese mainland.

Connectivity is what India’s foreign policy establishment has been championing for the South Asian economies, and there is no reason why it should not be extended north by northeast, to Tibet and all the way to the Chinese mainland. Furthermore, the societal and economic transformations introduced by the trans-Himalayan opening may finally help pry open Beijing’s grip on Tibetan society, nothing else having worked over six decades of increasing control and demographic inundation.

The Nepal Himalaya

Beyond its China worries, New Delhi’s strategic interests in the Himalaya include several other elements, from hydroelectricity generation to the need for storage reservoirs in the deep valleys providing water for irrigation, flood control and urban use by the growing Gangetic middle class. All of which pushes New Delhi towards constricting the sovereign manoeuvrability of Nepal and Bhutan, besides foisting onerous policies on its own Himalayan provinces.

In the case of Nepal, New Delhi’s worries also include the unique open border and the two decades of unsettled politics continuing to this day in Kathmandu. New Delhi’s exasperation with Kathmandu often has it acting under the radar, as in its attempt to influence the writing of the new Constitution and its overt show of unhappiness with the final product.

But what has Indian analysts most exercised presently is Beijing’s serenade to Kathmandu, which took a dramatic new pitch during Prime Minister’s K.P. Oli’s state visit to China in late March. It was the five-month-long blockade following the promulgation of the Constitution that gave Mr. Oli the public backing to conclude agreements with China on matters which had earlier been India’s exclusive domain — third-country transit, high-volume trade, and cross-border highways, railways, optic cables and transmission lines.

Mr. Oli was still in Beijing when the Ministry of External Affairs spokesman in South Block felt constrained to put out a lengthy list of links that bind Nepal to India, including 26 customs points, the roti-beti ties, and so on. That rendition was surprising and superfluous, as the economies and societies of Nepal and India are indeed intertwined across the open border. But that should not prevent Kathmandu from developing associations with China’s supercharged economy — why grudge Nepal what India itself is pursuing with China on a vastly larger scale?

Many do not know that, historically, the Himalayan range was never a barrier to commerce, with local societies trading through the river valleys cutting into Tibet. Kathmandu Valley was better linked commercially to Lhasa than to the Gangetic plain, and it was the Tibet trade that contributed to the enormous wealth and cultural achievements of the Valley kingdoms.

It was only the colonial penetration of the subcontinent in the mid-nineteenth century that pivoted the economy southwards. The Newar traders in Lhasa lost out further with the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, and only now are Kathmandu’s businesses actively reaching out to the Chinese mainland — air links have expanded to Chengdu, Guangzhou, Kunming and Lhasa.

There is no need to fear that China will replace India’s pre-eminent role in Nepal’s economy, however. For one thing, the Chinese mainland and ports are 3,000 km away, as compared to 1,000 km to Kolkata. Meanwhile, the open Nepal-India border is a prize of shared history to be nurtured by both countries. In sociopolitical terms, Kathmandu’s civil society enjoys a comfort zone with India that the taciturn Chinese state cannot match.

Kathmandu’s main port of call will remain Haldia in West Bengal as of now, and Visakhapatnam and Krishnapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and Mongla and Chittagong in Bangladesh in the future. But there is no doubt that new possibilities have now opened up to the north and northeast, and with relief one can say that a blockade of Nepal, devastating the economy and impoverishing the people, is now impossible.

Game changer

The arrival of Qingzang Railway from the Chinese mainland to the Tibetan plateau in 2006 has been the game changer, and the line has already been extended to Shigatse town and is ploughing westward and closer to Nepal’s border points. The railway makes the transfer of goods from the mainland economically feasible in a way that had never before been contemplated. It is set to create new commercial dynamics, especially as the lacking southward highways are constructed through Nepal’s mid-hills.

Nepal and China have agreed to complete the Kyerung Highway starting northwest of Kathmandu, which would allow descent from the Tibetan plateau to the Gangetic plain in less than a day. There is also agreement to build the Kimathanka Highway down the Kosi river valley in eastern Nepal, which would bring the Shigatse/Lhasa railheads close to Bangladeshi and Indian ports.

What all this means is that India would do well to add economics and commerce to its strategic vision of the Himalayan region. If New Delhi loosens up on Nepal with this understanding, it may be surprised to find that it retains Kathmandu as a steadfast partner while gaining market access to Tibet and the east Asia mainland through Nepal’s all-weather routes.

The march of economy, and the metaphorical reduction of the geostrategic height of the Himalaya, requires New Delhi to update its Himalayan doctrine. The new ‘Nepali-Chiniya bhai-bhai’ atmospherics, which is largely the result of New Delhi’s own recent obduracy, can actually be turned to advantage in formulation of the new policy.

Leaving Nepal free to develop its international outreach, as a country that can never afford to go against India’s security interests, would be a great way to begin to define the new doctrine. The Himalayan region today represents a realm of opportunity more than competition, which requires New Delhi to be able to compartmentalise the commercial and the geostrategic.

(Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is founding editor of the magazine Himal Southasian.)

P.S.

The above article from Counter Punch and from The Hindu are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use