India’s Army Chief General M.M. Naravane remarked on Friday, that the recent diplomatic objection made by Nepal to India’s newly christened link road via the Lipulekh Pass near its trijunction with China and Nepal, was likely at the behest of “someone else”. His inference most likely echoes the strategic thinking in New Delhi that China is fomenting friction between India and Nepal, over the access road in the disputed Kalapani territory.
While, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali was quick to retort that, the decision to send a diplomatic note to India regarding the inauguration of the link road was ‘based on internal decision-making’ and not the ‘China factor’, General Naravane’s assertion merits a closer investigation.
- Army chief’s recent comments imply that China is fomenting friction between India and Nepal.
- The situation over Lipulekh pass could possibly be Beijing’s comeback after the Doka La pass dispute in 2017.
- China and Nepal’s bilateral relationship has been on an upward trajectory in recent times.
- Prime Minister Oli may be exploiting this situation as an opportunity to burnish his nationalistic credentials in the eyes of the Nepalese people.
- The Kalapani dispute demonstrates, that New Delhi cannot continue to remain complacent vis-à-vis Kathmandu’s demand for resolution of the dispute.
China’s Recent Diplomatic and Territorial Offensives
Beijing has markedly stepped up its efforts to reiterate its position as a global power ever since its standing in the international community was dented by its careless handling of the COVID-19 disease. The public relations blitzkrieg initiated by Chinese diplomats across the world, coupled with actions in strategic theatres such as the South China Sea, reaffirms the notion that when totalitarian states face criticism, they respond aggressively.
The Himalayan region is no different. On 10 May, reports emerged of border skirmishes between Indian and Chinese forces in northern Sikkim and eastern Ladakh. The added angle of Beijing sabotaging Indo-Nepalese bilateral relations might be overextrapolation for some, but when the events are tied together, it paints a disconcerting strategic picture of measured Chinese belligerence.
Lipulekh Pass Could Be China’s Comeback
In 2017, a comparable episode emerged in the trijunction area between India, Bhutan, and China, when China attempted to build a link road through the Doka La pass, in a territory disputed between Beijing and Thimphu. India successfully negated Chinese construction activities at that time.
The situation over Lipulekh pass could possibly be Beijing’s comeback as Chinese officials have expressed similar intentions in the past. It is important to note that the link road is the result of an agreement signed between India and China in 2015. The agreement was to develop the border post on Lipulekh Pass, into a trading outpost between the two nations, so any instigation on Beijing’s part needs to be carefully calculated. This maneuver would be straight out of China’s playbook of passively seeking rapprochement with India, while actively working to destabilize India’s strategic position in the Himalayas.
Domestic Politics of Nepal
China and Nepal’s bilateral relationship has been on an upward trajectory in recent times, marked by the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Himalayan nation in October 2019, the first by a Chinese head of state in 23 years. China is strategically invested in making Nepal a vital link in its Belt and Road Initiative and competes for influence with India in the country. Ever since, a unity government formed by a merger between the various communist factions of Nepal claimed power in May 2018, China has been particularly interested in ensuring its stability.
In May this year, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, held a sequence of consultative meetings with senior members of the different factions of the Nepal Communist Party to mediate in the ongoing power tussle within the ruling party. Comparatively, India – Nepal relations have been cold since 2015, owing to an economic blockade imposed by the Madheshi people along border crossings with India. The Indian government sympathized with the Madheshi community at that time, irking the political elite in Kathmandu.
The present government in Kathmandu headed by Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli has pleaded ignorance when questioned about India’s construction activity in the Kalapani region, even though it has openly acknowledged otherwise in parliament. Prime Minister Oli may be exploiting this situation as an opportunity to burnish his nationalistic credentials in the eyes of the Nepalese people, while also silencing detractors inside his government. In a series of moves, his administration has outlined plans to step-up armed presence on its borders with India and has deployed a contingent of special forces in the region adjoining Lipulekh Pass.
Historical Background of the Kalapani Dispute
The long running territorial dispute over the Kalapani territory in western Uttarakhand in Pithoragarh district (claimed by Nepal as a part of its Darchula district, Sudurpashchim Pradesh), owes its origins to the colonial history of the Indian sub-continent. After achieving victory in the Anglo-Nepalese War, the British East India Company received territorial concessions from the then Kingdom of Nepal via the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816. The Kalapani territorial dispute is the result of this treaty, wherein, the border between India and Nepal was delineated based on the River Kali, with Nepalese territory falling on the eastern side of the river and Indian territory on the western side.
However, there remains multiple disagreements regarding the course of the River Kali, and this forms the crux of the territorial dispute. At present, India claims the territory and maintains actual control over the region through troops it has positioned there since the 1960s. Multiple border management mechanisms between India and Nepal have been established to resolve territorial disputes concerning the two countries, but in spite of success in other areas, this tract of roughly 35 square kms remains unresolved.
Back in November 2019, the dispute came into attention, when Nepal voiced concern over the inclusion of the Kalapani territory in new maps circulated by the Indian government in the aftermath of the bifurcation of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Yesterday, Nepal also announced its intention to publish its own map showing the Kalapani region as its own territory.
Lessons for India
Prime Minister Modi began his tenure prioritizing India’s relations with its neighboring nations by outlining the ‘Neighborhood First’ initiative. Yet, the progress on the initiative has been plagued by a dogmatic bureaucracy. The political tension surrounding the Kalapani dispute demonstrates, that New Delhi cannot continue to remain complacent vis-à-vis Kathmandu’s demand for resolution of the dispute. India and Nepal have a long-standing special relationship, and New Delhi needs to step-up its diplomatic outreach before this escalates further in the international arena.
In future, the Indian strategic establishment needs to be pro-active in its dealings with neighboring countries to avoid giving any quarter to China in the region.
The author currently works on maritime security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, applications of artificial intelligence in naval operations and trade regimes in the Indian Ocean. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)