On August 23, Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba arrived in Delhi for a four-day-long official visit in the shadow of the Doklam standoff between India and China over a territorial dispute between China and Bhutan.
Prior to this visit, high-level delegations from both Asian giants tried to put diplomatic pressure on Nepal to convince the Himalayan nation to support them on Doklam.
Deuba’s visit to Delhi is viewed with scepticism and nervousness among the public in Nepal, especially young people, who have been harbouring increasing anti-India sentiments since the southern neighbour imposed an unofficial blockade starting September 2015, which cut off essential supplies to Kathmandu, bringing it to a halt. The blockade was lifted in February 2016.
It started after Nepal promulgated a new Constitution in 2015 without addressing the concerns of the Madhesi people who live in the southern plains of the country and who believe that some provisions of the Constitution – like the demarcation of federal boundaries, rules for electoral representation and denial of top government posts to naturalised citizens – are unfair to them. India had wanted these issues to be resolved and had asked for the adoption of the Constitution to be delayed.
The case of China and Mongolia
Before suggesting what Nepal’s position should be on the Doklam stand-off, I would like to draw some comparasions between the fluctuating relationship between two sets of large and smaller countries – China and Mongolia and India and Nepal.
In 2016, China imposed an economic blockade on its northern neighbour, Mongolia, in retaliation against its decision to allow the Dalai Lama his ninth visit to the country despite Chinese opposition. Mongolia’s defiance of China was similar to Nepal’s defiance of India the previous year, when the Himalayan nation promulgated a new Constitution without addressing the concerns of the Madhesis despite an Indian request to do so. Mongolia and Nepal defied their bigger neighbour’s concerns and both faced the consequences: an economic blockade.
While the blockade in Nepal sparked a verbal war between Kathmandu and Delhi, China took the opportunity and responded to the Nepal government’s appeals for help. Nepal was led by the anti-India KP Oli government at that time. Responding to the SOS, Beijing rushed fuel supplies to Kathmandu and agreed to open trade routes closed since the Nepal earthquake in early 2015.
In 2016, when China closed a key border crossing into Mongolia from the Chinese autonomous province of Inner Mongolia, charged a punitive tariff from Mongolian trucks passing through its territory, and cancelled all official interactions between officials of both countries, Mongolia sought India’s help. Delhi said it was “ready to work with Mongolian people in this time of their difficulty’ and said that it would help the country use the $1 billion financial assistance offered by India during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit there the previous year.
Both sets of nations are neighbours who share similar cultures, languages and an economic relationship, however imbalanced. They are bound to have their ups and downs. However, matters get complicated when India takes advantage of the down phase of the relationship between China and Mongolia, and China takes advantage of a deterioration in ties between India and Nepal.
Needless to say, both China and India are foolish to impose economic sanctions on their smaller neighbours. However, it is also fact that young people from both Nepal and Mongolia sometimes overreact to such treatment by their bigger neighbours. In both smaller countries there are also groups and political parties who take advantage of the tendency of the bigger nations to indulge in chequebook diplomacy. These groups fuel anti-India sentiments in Nepal and anti-China sentiments in Mongolia.
All four countries will greatly benefit if they accept that China and Mongolia will always remain closer to each other than India and Mongolia. Similarly, India and Nepal will always remains closer than Nepal and China. This is because India cannot replace the cultural, economic, geographic and people-to-people ties that Mongolia shares with China. Similarly, China cannot replace the cultural, economic, religious, social, geographic and people-to-people links that Nepal has with India.
This does not mean that is it not possible for Nepal to have a good relationship with China, or Mongolia with India. However, I believe that the key to good relations here is that that the bigger nations should act responsibly, while the smaller nations should not attempt to involve third parties when they are unhappy with their bigger neighbours.
Keeping this in mind, here are a few suggestions that Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could consider during their bilateral talks.
- Being the bigger country with several economic advantages, India must be generous and consider how to reduce the trade deficit with Nepal.
- India must not get paranoid too see that Nepal has a good relationship with China. It should know that in Nepal, China cannot replace India.
- Nepal has a lot to gain by winning India’s trust. That does not mean that Nepal should sacrifice its good relationship with China to gain it. Neither does it mean that Kathmandu has to give up everything, including its conscience, while taking decisions on Nepal’s interests.
- India must not expect Nepal to take a position against China to assure itself that Nepal is indeed close to Delhi
I believe Prime Minister Deuba not only understands this reality but will be able to articulate it to his Indian counterparts. If that happens, and I hope it does, there is no reason for China get paranoid. China must understand that Nepal being closer to India is normal and does not necessarily mean that Kathmandu is against Beijing.
Regarding the Doklam stand-off, Nepal’s position is clear: it has asked both India and China to resolve this issue through dialogue, diplomatically. If the situation escalates and a war-like situation is created, Nepal cannot take China’s side simply because political parties may forget everything when faced with chequebook diplomacy but the people of Nepal cannot fight against their own brothers serving in the Gorkha regiments of the Indian Army.
Finally, in Nepal, many politicians and academics say: “we must keep equal relationship between India and China”. This is a romantic idea, and a most foolish notion, as no country in the world has an equal relationship with different countries. Every relationship is different based on several factors, including geography, culture, political system, economy, trade, security and, most importantly, trust. While China does not have an equal relationship between India and Pakistan; India does not have an equal relationship between China and the US. Similarly, the US does not have an equal relationship between Mexico and Canada. Thus, let’s accept that Nepal also does not have an equal relationship between India and China.
I hope India, Nepal, China and Mongolia display the wisdom that allows them to be examples of good bilateral, trilateral and multilateral relations to the world.
Sunil Babu Pant is a former member of the Nepalese Parliament.