Evidence shows Indian fear of China in Nepal is not a recent phenomenon.Tweet
On 16 May 2020, Indian Army Chief Manoj Mukund Naravane blamed that Nepal raised the “issue at the behest of [China]”. Speaking at a webinar in New Delhi, Naravane said: “There is reason to believe that they [Nepal] might have raised this issue at the behest of someone else [China] and that is very much a possibility.” (Read this in the context of Nepal issuing an updated map including Kalapani.)
[On 2 June 2020, in response to a question from a populist news channel (“…could there be China’s hand behind Nepal’s sudden posturing?”), India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said: “I do not want to blame anyone but there must be something somewhere.” Answering a follow-up question, Singh quickly corrected himself and said, “I do not want to doubt anyone at this time.”]
On 23 May, two days after Nepal published its map, a former Indian diplomat appeared on a populist Indian TV channel, Times Now, to discuss China’s presence in Nepal. Krishan Chander Singh said:
“…How to deal with China? …we counter them…. But when it is your core district, your core area [of influence] which is Nepal, [do not] invoke their name [but] get rid of [Prime Minister] Oli… We have enough assets there. There is Nepal [i] Congress, there are divisions [within the ruling Nepal Communist Party], we know all the actors…Get rid of [Chinese] puppet in the neighbourhood and get a [pro-India] government in Kathmandu…[Such a] snub to China [will] signal …all through your neighborhood that if you seek the protection of China, it can’t save you [and] it does not understand how democracies work. Your ambassador can run around from pillar to post, but if the Prime Minister becomes unpopular and his party cracks, that is the signal you send out. But we don’t blame China, why should we give them extra importance by saying ‘no no no please leave China’, make them leave China.”
Posting the television clip on his Twitter account, Singh who is India’s former ambassador to Iran and the United Arab Emirates asserted that Prime Minister “Oli is unpopular, faces corruption charges, tried subverting constitution by aborted ordinances. He’s baiting India by jingoism over border dispute to distract. Can Modi Gov encourage his opponents to oust him? Counter China by eliminating their asset.”
Let us discount General Naravane and ambassador Singh as two ignorant men with little or no understanding of Indo-Nepal relationship. Let us also ignore Singh who not only claims, perhaps correctly, that China “does not understand how democracies work” but also advocates toppling a democratically elected government in a ‘friendly’ country employing the language of a ruthless assassin (“eliminating [China’s] asset” with “[our] assets”).
But the views of Indians who have worked on and have a long relationship with Nepal are seemingly no different. Ranjit Rae is an example. In an interview on 29 May 2020 with Jyoti Malhotra asks the former Indian ambassador to Nepal: “Are you saying that Prime Minister KP Oli is playing the China card?” “Absolutely,” Rae fires back. “There is no doubt about it. It is so evident. Look at the role that the Chinese have played in saving his government. There is absolutely no doubt about it.”
(Rae is referring to a series of meetings that the Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu, Hou Yanqi, held with senior leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) on 30 April and 1 May. The meetings, which were strikingly similar to numerous interactions between various Nepali leaders and the Indian ambassadors in Kathmandu in the past, occurred when NCP’s anti-Oli factions were seeking to oust the Prime Minister. On 3 May, the party found a ‘win-win solution’ to the NCP crisis.)
On 18 May, a well-known Bollywood actress and granddaughter of Nepal’s first elected prime minister BP Koirala, Manisha Koirala, retweeted the Nepali Foreign Minister’s tweet (read the minister’s tweet in context here) along with her thoughts. Koirala wrote, “Thank you for keeping the dignity of our small nation..we all are looking forward for a peaceful and respectful dialogue between all three great nations now 🙏”
One Indian TV channel, ABP, incredibly enough, berated Koirala for “earning her livelihood in India [but] parroting on behalf of China“, a reference to her call for a “dialogue between all three great nations”.
ABP was not alone. Many Indians, including those who claim to have a long-term relationship with Nepal, were unbelievably bitter, if not abusive, with the star for “bringing” China in. A series of tweets from Swaraj Kaushal, a prominent Indian lawyer, a former Member of Parliament, and the husband of late Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, offer a glimpse of that anger. As Kaushal outlines in detail his personal relationship with Koirala and her illustrious family, he not only patronises the star but also exposes his own naive, narrow and absolutely dated Nehruvian understanding of Nepal. “China is using [the ruling Nepali] Communists against India”, he said. “The result is that traditionally China’s border with India was up to the Himalayas. Now China’s border with India is at Birgunj.” [For the record, the shortest road that connects Nepal’s border with India near Birgunj with Rasuwagadhi, Nepal’s border with China, is 268 kilometers long.]
A 50-year-old article in an Indian magazine shows that Indian fear of China is not a recent phenomenon. An Economic and Political Weekly piece on Nepal-China relationship in May 1970 contained an amusing paragraph that reflected not just the writer’s vivid imagination but also the deep-seated Indian fear of China. The paragraph reads: “Kathmandu has recently been thick with rumour that the Chinese have succeeded in persuading the Nepalese Government to allow them to construct a ring road, connecting Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. This project has been under discussion between the two governments for several years. When the ring road is completed, in a crisis situation Chinese troops will be able to swoop down on the valley through the Kodari road and then encircle Kathmandu in no time.”
The reporter could be forgiven for this creative analysis considering that this was published eight years after India’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict. But what about in the 2010s? A Nepali journalist who lived in India in 2010 to report for a newspaper in Kathmandu details an almost comical Indian obsession with China in a 2017 article.
“Some years ago, while living in Delhi [to report] for Kantipur I met several well-known Indians who started a conversation with a series of questions- “Arre yaar, I heard the Chinese have built another hotel in [Kathmandu’s tourist district of] Thamel? What’s going on? Nepal is completely tilting towards China. This is a huge security challenge to India. Are Chinese trying to encircle India?” I would end the conversation after describing to them how close the Nepal-Indian relationship was [not comparable to Nepal-China ties] and telling them to get out of the “fear of 1962”. But Indians have continued to produce exaggerated commentaries- right from the 1950s to [this day].”
Why do Indians see a Chinese Hand in seemingly everything Nepal does? There are three possible reasons for it.
1. Psychological wound of 1962: Blaming the invisible Chinese hand for any Nepali (or, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Maldivian) action that the Indian establishment does not like is symptomatic of the deep psychological trauma inflicted upon generations of Indians by the humiliating defeat of India in 1962. Combine that with the continued feeling of inferiority vis-à-vis China. (It probably goes further back to being subjugated under the British Raj, and before that, the Mughals.)
Here’s a quick glance at the Indo-China relationship that helps understand the psychological trauma. India and China are two large and the most populous countries that represent their own respective civilisations. They are neighbours and share the longest unresolved boundary. They are governed by two contrasting political systems, parliamentary democracy and communist dictatorship. India and China both emerged out of foreign dominance around the same time in the mid-20th century to achieve independent nation-state status but the 1962 war, along with their disagreement over border issues, casts shadows in their relationship. Today, both countries are in a relationship that is competitive as well as cooperative.
There remains, however, a substantial difference in economic size and military might between China and India. As a result of this asymmetry, China occupies more space in the Indian national debates than India does in the Chinese discourse. Given its superiority in military strength and economic size, China is perceived as a major threat in India while China sees “little threat” to it from India.
India is a hegemony in South Asia but China has not conceded the region including the Indian Ocean “as an Indian sphere of influence” given its strategic importance. China has been trying to persuade Delhi to not see the Chinese presence in South Asia as a threat. Thus, “in the face of a deeply suspicious India”, China is coming to the South Asian region “slowly and carefully.” China is doing so mainly through bilateralism but also using multilateral platforms if needed, backed up by strong statements of assurances to India that it need not worry. China wants to “persuade” India to get used to with a robust Chinese presence in South Asia with China establishing and maintaining strong “multi-dimensional [and] unlimited relations” with India’s smaller South Asian neighbours such as Nepal.
2. Buffers, not neighbours: Connected to the previous point is India’s core security policy which is a British-era concept that includes a mixture of buffer regions, sea denial and an “inner ring of defense” with its neighbours, barring Pakistan, as periphery. India sees the whole of the South Asian “region as part of [its] national security” umbrella with neighbouring countries like Nepal being under it. In other words, India’s “policy” and relationship with its Himalayan neighbours such as Nepal has been influenced by its relations with China and “it has always aimed to reduce China’s influence on its northern border.” This is because India continues to carry a dated Nehru-era notion that the Himalayas are its “northern strategic defence barrier, which China must not breach.
China’s growing relationship with India’s South Asian neighbours such as Nepal and Sri Lanka is portrayed by Indians as a “problem” in not just Sino-Indian relations but in India’s relationship with those countries. But India’s smaller neighbours welcome China’s presence as that could “balance” or even “block” Indian domination and that, for India, is the China card. (Beijing, on the other hand, claims that China and its South Asian neighbours have the “just, legitimate right to establish such relations as they see fit.”)
3. An inexperienced nation-state: While Bharatbarsh is a fanciful concept that once might have expanded from the parts of present day Afghanistan to the Himalayas and beyond, India as a nation-state is fairly a new idea. Likewise, Indians as sovereign citizens under one political entity not ruled by outsiders is a novel thing too. This lack of experience as a nation-state and citizenry hugely impacts the way Indians perceive and react to the world. The way they deal with countries and societies that they think are mightier than India is markedly different from the way they behave with countries and societies that they think are weaker than India. India today remains comparatively reverent to former colonisers and the West even though it is fearful of China. But when it comes to its neighborhood, India comes across as a regional bully baring its lack of confidence to maintain a reliable relationship with other South Asian countries.
India’s treatment of Bhutan is a telling example of how unconfident and petty India can be. In 2013, India punished the government of Bhutan because it bought 20 buses from China and Prime Minister Jigme Thinley in June 2012 met Premier Wen Jiabao of China with whom Bhutan shares border. Inability to trust Bhutan, a country whose unconditional subordination to India is often cited by India as a model, and accuse it of playing a China card, as the Indian government covertly and some former Indian bureaucrats overtly did, exposed India’s exaggerated sense of insecurity and inexperience as a nation-state.
Nepal’s China card
Blaming the Chinese hand is thus a convenient way to overlook multiple layers of India’s ties with China as well as its relationship with its immediate neighbours such as Nepal. India needs to revise its dated colonial-era understanding of its neighborhood and treat countries such as Nepal as 21st century sovereign entities, not buffer regions and pawns used for its security. More than anything else, India need to realise that as long as there is China on the other side of Nepal, a geographic reality, there will always be some sort of China factor in Nepal-India ties.
Consider this: never before in the history of Nepal has the country been so widely connected with China through air and many roads that are rapidly being built, expanded, and upgraded. This connectivity will only expand as China and Sino-Nepal relationship continues to grow. India has to learn to live with it. It has to adjust its role in Nepal to this new reality.
India should internalise the fact that the Nepali nation has centuries-long experience of dealing with and thus surviving alongside its two big neighbours. It would be an insult to the Nepali consciousness for an unconfident, inexperienced and paranoid India to think that Nepal will replace its India relationship with China ties. Of course, if India continues to believe that Nepal’s decision to buy a litre of petrol from China because India refuses to sell the same undermines India-Nepal relationship, then yes, Nepalis will continue to not just undermine but reject that relationship. In the past seventy years, Nepali people have fought for democracy and freedom for at least three times, some of those struggles being decades-long. This fact alone should convince anyone that Nepalis would not compromise their sovereignty and national dignity for a communist dictatorship. A recent spat between Nepalis and the Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu is just an example.
For a country that is sandwiched between two giants, the only strategy for survival is to maintain a good relationship with both through clever diplomacy. It is in Nepal’s national interest to get support from one if the other is unable or unwilling to provide (and India calls it Nepal’s China card). Nepal has generally reached out to China as a last resort, only when India has pushed it to the hilt. For example, Nepal signed a series of trade and transit deals with China in 2015 only when India strangled it by imposing a blockade in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. Nepal bought a limited volume of petroleum products from China in 2015/6 only when India refused to sell the same (and that, for India, is Nepal playing its China card).
In Nepal’s any attempt to survive as an independent nation, a paranoid India sees a China hand. Therefore, Setopati editor Ameet Dhakal echoes the Nepali sentiment when he says, “How I wish there were a ‘China card’ or for that matter, ‘India card’ that we could use as we choose!” Stating that Indian media and intelligentsia often complain that Nepal is tilting toward China and using a ‘China card’ against India, Dhakal writes:
“Once the Indian establishment, media and intelligentsia learn not to be distracted by the imaginary ‘China hand’ on the boundary dispute with Nepal, we can sit together, look at the historical evidence, can see what is in our best interests, and resolve the issue peacefully through diplomacy. India should also do well to understand how Nepal has evolved over the years, particularly after the Indian blockade of 2015-16.”
In Nepal’s any attempt to survive as an independent nation, a paranoid India sees a China hand. Here are three reasons why.Tweet
***This is the second half of the second article of a three-part series. The first half presents a brief history of Lipulek deals between India and China. The first article in the series lists key events that led to Nepal releasing an updated political map on 20 May 2020 to confront the Indian encroachment of Kalapani area.