Nepal spurns ‘big brother’ India for China’s embrace, but dragon’s smother will suffocate Kathmandu

Bikram Vohra


Few Indians will recall with clarity how swiftly and easily the Chinese annexed Tibet and set up a puppet government under the Dalai Lama. It was 1950. India was still a weak new born kitten, unused to the weight of sovereignty, so China just decided Tibet was theirs: And thus it was. There was not even a whimper of protest.

Nine years later, when Tibet rose up in rage, the conflict cost the lives of 87,000 Tibetans as Peking (Beijing) quelled the uprising with a grim bloodletting. Tibet and Nepal have often been compared: in terms of being landlocked and having a distinct culture. Even 70 years later, Tibetans are reluctant to refer to themselves as Chinese and fervently believe that the exiled Dalai Lama would one day produce a miracle in liberty. It never happened.

The same scrawl is on the wall again: this time for Nepal. Blinded or perhaps bullied by huge investments and easy loans from Beijing, Kathmandu is playing with fire. It can’t decipher the script that China is putting down in big, bold letters.

With India and Nepal sharing tradition, culture, language, religion and even blood, one would imagine that would slow down the Nepalese embrace of China’s mandarins. If Nepal is tired of India’s ‘big brother’ mindset, it has no idea how suffocating the Chinese smother can be.

The recent snub by the Nepal army chief General Purna Chandra Thapa declining India’s invitation to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) military exercise and its decision to stay away from the conclave of army chiefs, which is designed to collectively tackle terrorism, could have been explained away as pressure from the exigencies of a new appointment.

But the enthusiasm with which the incumbent has okayed the ongoing second edition of the Nepal-China military manoeuvres called the Sagarmatha-Friendship exercise on 17 September (just a day after (BIMSTEC) in Chengdu is suspect.

The change in priorities is tangible and deliberate and New Delhi must pump the brakes on Prime Minister KP Oli’s little two-step with China before it turns into a whirling dervish and Nepal goes the way of Tibet.

It’s all about the money. This year alone, China invested $29.8 billion into 108 projects in Nepal. Meanwhile, India has—in the same time frame—invested only Rs 8.22 billion in 18 projects. The plan to create a rail link from Kathmandu to Gyirong in Tibet and then use the transmodal option to mainland China is not seen as commercially viable for goods, but it certainly adds a major stitch to the buying up of Nepal: pretty much like what happened in Sri Lanka.

What can India do about the cold shoulder from Kathmandu? Precious little at this juncture, but it cannot afford to pretend the stink will go away on its own.

First published on on 12 September 2018

Published on Lokantar on 13 September 2018