Sun begins to shine on frosty Nepal-India relations
Gaurab Shumsher Thapa
The fourth summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) was successfully held at the end of August in Kathmandu, Nepal. The heads of state and governments of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand reiterated their commitment to making BIMSTEC more active and vibrant in the future.
The progress of another regional organization, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), has been impeded due to the frosty relationship between India and Pakistan. It has often been claimed that the biggest economy of SAARC and BIMSTEC, India, is trying to project the latter as an alternative to the former. However, Nepali Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli stated in his address at the summit that BIMSTEC was complimentary to SAARC and not its alternative.
After a string of political and diplomatic altercations leading to the 2015 economic blockade episode, Nepal’s relations with India have gradually improved in recent months. The bilateral visits of the prime ministers and their personal chemistry have helped bring the relationship to higher levels. However, when everything was looking rosy, a couple of events occurred in quick succession that could again create misunderstandings in the bilateral relationship.
The first event was the finalization of the protocol on transit and transport between Nepal and China in Kathmandu last week. The deal gives Nepal access to four seaports and three dry ports in various places in China. This was in line with the transit and transport agreement signed during the visit of Oli to China in March 2016. The signing of the protocol carries historic significance in the sense that it has ended Nepal’s dependence on India for third-country trade, which otherwise had only taken place via ports in India. Although the move is symbolic at present due to the precarious state of land connectivity between Nepal and China, it has broken the psychological barrier that only India can be the option for Nepal to trade with rest of the world.
The nearest Chinese seaport, Tianjin, is situated more than 3,000 kilometers away from the Nepali border. It might take a few years for China to extend its railway link from Shigatse to Kyirong near the Nepali border. A recent technical report prepared by the Chinese side has indicated that it will take around nine years to construct a railway link from Kyirong to Kathmandu at an estimated cost of nearly $2.5 billion in view of the rugged mountainous terrain. Although Nepal is part of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is up to the Himalayan country to do the cost-benefit analyses necessary to choose projects under the BRI that do not compromise its national interests.
India has always considered South Asia to be its sphere of influence and is not comfortable with Chinese overtures in the region. Nepal’s case is unique. Considering its sensitive location between the two giant neighbors, it has always tried to strike a fine balance between the two, although its historical, geographical, cultural and socio-economic proximity has dictated that it be more dependent on India.
Many Indian scholars, analysts and journalists were quick to point out that the difficult landscape, as well as the time and cost to build the connectivity, would ultimately make the protocol not so relevant. Nevertheless, it can be fairly deduced that it was an implicit wish of India that Nepal would not sign the protocol in the first place itself. Now that it has been signed, Nepal should not let this event have an impact in its relations with India. As with any state, Nepal’s decisions are guided by its sovereign national interests and not directed against any country.
The second event was Nepal’s decision to cancel the participation of its 30-member team and only send three observers to the BIMSTEC joint military exercise being held in Pune, India. Thailand has also opted for the same. Out of 14 areas of cooperation under BIMSTEC, India heads the counter-terrorism and transnational crime sector. Therefore, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared in his address at the summit that such a military exercise was going to be held shortly followed by a conclave of heads of the armed forces of the member states. None of them seem to have been opposed to the idea then. Once the summit was over, there was a hue and cry from several quarters in Nepal including the main opposition party as well as some members of the ruling party which ultimately led the government to scale down its participation.
Nepal conducts bilateral military exercises with India, China and the United States at specified intervals. There has never been a joint military exercise between SAARC members. BIMSTEC was created with the fundamental objective of enhancing cooperation for economic development among its member states rather than having political or strategic objectives. While Nepal’s commitment to fighting terrorism and other forms of transnational crime is unwavering, its preference not to take part in the joint military exercise should not be taken as a snub to India’s initiative, as reported widely in Indian media, but rather as a rational decision of a sovereign nation not wishing to deviate from the principal objective of the organization. At the same time, the portrayal of the exercise by certain leaders and media in Nepal as a move to build a military alliance at the initiation of India is also an extreme observation.
Although India did not convey its displeasure officially, it can be inferred that it must surely have expressed dissatisfaction at the decision unofficially through its concerned channels. In any case, Nepal will never be a part of any military alliance as it is contrary to the principles of non-alignment, which is one of the fundamental features of its foreign policy. The controversy should be addressed before there are diplomatic tensions between the two nations.
The third event was related to the intra-party political dynamics of Nepal and its relationship with the external political environment. The ruling Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) chairman, Prachanda, visited India while the BIMSTEC joint military exercise was underway and must have learned of Nepal’s non-participation while he was in India. It has always been speculated that Prachanda and Oli had some sort of undisclosed understanding for party unification and power-sharing prior to the parliamentary elections held at the end of 2017.
While Prachanda claimed his visit was aimed at further strengthening Nepal-India relations, Oli seems to have been not too pleased with the visit as he felt it was not necessary at the moment considering the prime ministerial level reciprocal visits that had already taken place earlier in 2018. Prachanda, who met a wide range of high-ranking leaders and officials including Modi during his visit, seems to have used this opportunity of being received in New Delhi as a tool to bargain with Oli in the quest to control the internal political dynamics of their party.
Nepal has attained political stability after decades of problems and a strong government with a broad mandate has been formed. Moves to destabilize the government to serve personal interests cannot be accepted by the people. If the government starts acting against the wishes of the people, then it will surely meet its deserved fate in the next elections.
A stable Nepal will work out well for India’s own security interests. India has often been accused of interfering in the internal affairs of Nepal, but that is less of a problem now that Modi is trying to rebuild India’s image in Nepal. It would be in the best interests of both nations if India works in close coordination with the incumbent prime minister and government of Nepal rather than putting out feelers for someone else.
Although the above-mentioned events appear minor, they could very well lead to a gradual decline in mutual trust. Therefore, diplomatic irritants should be nipped in the bud so that the bilateral relationship between Nepal and India, which has been flourishing recently, can reach its full potential.
First published on The Asia Times on 13 September 2018
Published on Lokantar on 14 September 2018