China and India: Our Neighbors

A recent headline in a Hindi newspaper about alleged Chinese incursion into India (“Chini sena ne hamare logon ko peeta” or “Chinese soldiers beat our people”) reminded me of many similar Nepali headlines (Indian BSF, Border Security Force, men thrash Nepali youth).

Sunset somewhere in Jharkhand or in Uttar Pradesh of India
Somewhere in Jharkhand or Uttar Pradesh, India

by Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal

In a train to New Delhi from Ranchi, the capital of the improvised Indian state of Jharkhand, a week ago I met a man who was working with Indian farmers to increase productivity in their fields. His job was to sell hybrid seeds to farmers. Though he appeared to have possessed sound knowledge about the plights of Indian farmers, I sensed he didn’t care much about big events at the international stage that were not exactly related to the hybridization in agriculture. I was wrong. When I told him I was from Nepal, the second question he asked in a genuinely concerned manner was this: “Eh China log udhar kya kar raha hey?” [What are these Chinese people doing there?] Then he went on in detail as to why growing Chinese presence in Nepal was terribly bad for India, his country.

Jharkhand man
Jharkhand man: grassroots activist of India

He was not the first Indian to express such sentiment. In the past several months, I have met many Indians- unsuspicious cab drivers to professionals with no relations to foreign policy whatsoever, university students of Information Technology to research experts on Chinese foreign policy- who have in one way or the other said that they were worried about China’s growing influence in their neighborhood in general and Nepal in particular. Yes there is Pakistan, another rival to India that triggers angry headlines and gets negative space in Indian popular culture. In the recent weeks, there are more headlines about the perceived Chinese “aggression” at the border than the alleged Pakistani ‘role’ in destabilizing India. But the difference between the average Indian reactions to the ‘threats’ posed by these two different countries is telling. When it comes to Pakistan, reactions from a rickshaw-puller to a government official and media in between become invariably hawkish (“tame them” to “bomb them”). To China, a typical Indian reaction is more like a concern or complain filled with suspicion, anxiety, and uncertainty (“they beat us”, “they shouldn’t be beating us”, “we will also try to beat them if they beat us twice again.”)

Who can understand better the Indian plight vis-a-vis Chinese ‘aggression’ than we Nepalis? A recent headline in a Hindi newspaper about alleged Chinese incursion into India (“Chini sena ne hamare logon ko peeta” or “Chinese soldiers beat our people”) reminded me of many similar Nepali headlines (Indian BSF, Border Security Force, men thrash Nepali youth). “Oh ho!” said a friend of mine from Kathmandu when he saw the Hindi headline. “What goes around comes around.”

Arunachal Pradesh, the north eastern Indian state China claims as its own, is the centerpiece of the current flare-up that seemed to have intensified this past week with both countries issuing strongly worded statements aiming to take on each other. The Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, sandwiched between the two giants isn’t completely out of picture. Going by the latest reports in a section of Indian media, India and China are fighting a development war in Nepal. India has responded to the requests by Nepali governments to China to extend the Beijing-Lhasa rail line to Kathmandu by announcing its desire to extend several Indian railway lines to Nepali border points. Take a look at a headline in Hindustan Times last week: “India vies with China, plans 6 Nepal rly links.”

“To counter China’s great push to build railway links in South Asia, the Indian Railways [the government-owned entity] has come up with a plan to build links with Nepal and Bhutan,” says the report dated 14 October. The report quotes an anonymous ‘senior Railways Ministry official’ as saying that Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES) had been commissioned to conduct feasibility studies on six railway links with Nepal.

“China, at Nepal Prime Minister Madhav Nepal’s invitation, has already drawn up plans to extend its 1,956-km-long railway line, connecting Qinghai province and Tibet across the Tibetan plateau, to Kathmandu,” says the report.

Nepal needs to maintain seamless transportation and communication links with both of its neighbours. What could be better than this when both of our mighty the neighbours compete with each other to create those links? It’s always nice for Nepal to have investments poured in to build much needed infrastructure as the country is going through the process of establishing peace and reconstruction. Nepal needs to make sure, diplomatically, that both countries stick to their words and start working on the projects they want to build (upon our request or in their retaliation to our requests). There have been some instances when, unfortunately, one of these neighbours try to stop the projects another wants to build in some areas within Nepali territory. That is the negative fallout of the simmering uneasiness between the two countries and Nepal should work on to stop that. While it is understandable if anyone shows concern about their security it is completely a hegemony to try to (and successfully) stop another country from running developmental projects in Nepal.

Talking about uneasiness between China and India, there are varieties of views as to how this will expand or contract. Seems like there are enough hawks on both sides to instigate the tension but the factor that will discourage the full fledged border war between the two countries is the most influential so far. It’s economy. It’s money. Both of these countries need to feed their billion-plus people and make them rich. The results of political conflict have been experienced in business dealings according to some Indian press reports that have detailed the difficulties and delays Chinese companies have faced in coming to India. But forty billion dollar is not a small amount and that’s only a year’s Sino-India trade figure which going toward only one direction: upward.

Wrapped within the Chinese protest of the October visit of Indian prime minister Man Mohan Singh to ‘disputed’ Arunachal Pradesh this week is a clear message that India shouldn’t let Dalai Lama go to the region in November. What purpose India will fulfil by letting Lama go to Tawang valley which belonged to Tibet until 1914, houses a 200-year-old monastery that is very important to Tibetans and is claimed by China? Several American news and analytical reports have suggested that China is more worried about militant Tibetans who are not hesitant to wage a 1960s type guerrilla war against its authority in Tibet. These ‘militant-monks’ are living in India.

As for the Ranchi seed seller’s concern about growing Chinese presence in Nepal, I told him what I always tell my Indian friends: China doesn’t speak Hindi that shares (Devnagari) script with Nepali, China doesn’t have Ganga on whose bank many Nepalis wish to die, China doesn’t have so many open border points in with Nepal via which hundreds of thousands of Nepalis enter India and come back, hundreds of thousands of Nepalis doesn’t do night time chowkidari duty in China and Nepalis don’t watch Chinese film like they do the Bollywood flicks. Nepalis want nothing from India but greatness, just like its geographical size, in its dealing with Nepal. No border incursions like Chinese reportedly do with India. “If that happens,” I told winking at him, “India does not need to be fearful about Chinese presence in Nepal. Nepal knows its geography very well.”

Oh toh hey,” he said. [That’s true.]

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